If your kid’s idea of a good time includes hurtling toward concrete at 81 miles per hour, slurping frozen lemonade, and the occasional long line, skip the local playground and schlep the family out to one of these seven nearby theme parks. Whether they have a soft spot for Big Bird, a sweet tooth, or a need for speed, we’ve rounded up a list of amusement wonderlands that will kick start summer with screams of delight (plus insider tips to help you plan your next adventure).
Editor’s Note: To learn more about the accessibility programs at each of these parks, check out this guide.
More than “just” chocolate, the city of Hershey, PA also draws visitors for its famed amusement park with more than 70 rides and attractions, including roller coasters, the largest water-play structure in the world, live entertainment, games, food, shops, and even a simulated tropical rainforest where visitors learn how cocoa beans grow and are harvested. Ticket purchases include admission to ZooAmerica North American Wildlife Park, an 11-acre walk-through zoo that includes more than 200 animals from five regions of North America. New this year is the Jolly Rancher Remix, an illuminated coaster that randomizes its rides so each experience is unique. Hop onboard and loop through this track six times going forward and backward to different tunes and light shows. You never know which direction it will take! Located about two hours north of the Washington, DC area, the park has three resorts to choose from if you want to make a weekend of it!
Insider Tip: Take a break from park food and make a reservation at The Chocolatier, a family-style restaurant that offers hints of Hershey in lots of its dishes. You’ll find everything from chocolate drizzled potato chips to flatbreads with Hershey’s chocolate balsamic glaze and epic entrees like a Heath Bar crusted salmon and a burger topped with a Reece’s cup!
Six Flags America
Boasting more than 100 rides, shows, and the largest water park in the DMV (included in the main park ticket price, no less!), Six Flags America does not disappoint. If you want to hop on one of the park’s epic coasters, like Wild One, Joker’s Jinx, Superman Ride of Steel, Batwing Coaster or Firebird, head there first (lines tend to grow as the day wears on). For a low-key thrills, younger kids will enjoy the classic Looney Tunes Prop Warehouse, a totally enclosed soft play space where they can climb, slide, and meet Bugs Bunny.
Insider Tip: Score 50% off the price of admission by purchasing your tickets online. Use promo code: COKE. Speaking of the classic soft drink, there is a Coca-Cola pavilion for those that want to cool off for free. Grab a sample of soda while your little ones rock out to the onsite DJ.
With 400 acres jam-packed with more than 60 rides, 15 roller coasters, live family entertainment—including fun performances by the Peanuts gang and a host of live music shows—AND a 20-acre water park, it just might be worth looking into one of the season pass options at King’s Dominion. The 43 life-size animatronic dinosaurs (including several you can control yourself) at the Dinosaurs Alive! Exhibit is alone worth the visit.
Insider’s Tip: Stay at one of the park’s hotels and you can enjoy a free shuttle to the parks. It will save you $!5 in parking!
Adventure Park USA
Saddle up, pardner, for this Western-themed park near Frederick, Maryland—about 40 miles outside of DC. Open year-round, rain or shine, you don’t have to pay admission to enter the park itself. Instead, you purchase a Fun Pass with credits that works like a debit card (you can even add credits to your account online for return visits). With roller coasters, midway games, miniature golf, a classic tilt-a-whirl, go-karts, and a hands-on “mining” experience, you’ll be lucky if your kiddos have enough energy for all of the indoor fun. Yes, there’s more: a virtual reality game, soft playroom, ropes course, laser tag, arcade, bumper cars, and rock wall. We’re tired just typing that.
Insider Tip: If your crew has a wide gap in age, this is the park to hit. With the largest entertainment park in Maryland, the indoor games and arcades will keep the teens entertained for hours letting you help the youngest visitors board low-thrill rides like the carousel.
If you’re on the hunt for the perfect first amusement park for young children, look no further. The park is tailored for children age 7 and younger, and at least seven of the rides are specifically geared toward 1-3 year-olds. Though the park is mostly flat and accommodating to strollers, it is relatively small—which means tiny legs (and short attention spans) can handle it. The Duke’s Lagoon splash area is just enough water excitement for the preschool set, and even the live entertainment strikes the not-too-loud and not-too-scary balance well. Rent a cabana for the day so your tribe has its own private spot in the shade to take a breather!
Insider Tip: Get three extra hours for free! All admission park tickets come with “preview” hours the day before your full-day admission. Between the hours of 3-6 p.m. get to know the park, map out your next day and hop on a few rides before the full day of fun begins!
We’re not gonna lie: nostalgia is half the draw for parents at Sesame Place. Enjoy a buffet meal with Elmo and friends, watch a show or parade, or take a spin on one of the 16 kid-friendly rides (or nine water rides) for a full day of fun with all your favorite neighborhood characters. There’s a soft play room for wee ones, a kid-powered railroad, a carousel, and the all-new Oscar’s Wacky Taxi Roller Coaster. We love and appreciate that Sesame Place has become the first theme park in the world designated as a Certified Autism Center—and, since it’ll require a trek to Philly, you can plan to enjoy the weekend there, too!
Insider Tip: Wake up early and have breakfast with the cast of Sesame Street! Early-bird reservations mean you have access to the park before it officially opens. Bonus: kids under 2 eat free.
Photo: Busch Gardens
The beautiful landscaping and music playing throughout the park set the tone: this amusement park checks all the boxes. Roller coasters, a virtual reality adventure, bumper cars, kid-friendly rides (plus the Sesame Street Forest of Fun), a skyride, a train, and a huge range of music, animal, and theatrical live shows are just the beginning. Visit Wolf Valley, Lorikeet Glen, Highland Stables, or Eagle Ridge for some up close and personal animal encounters. And bring your appetite—there are restaurants throughout the park and 15 snack locations. You had us at churros!
Insider Tip: Sign up for a VIP Tour of the Verbolten and get early access to the park. Other tours include close encounters with the Clydesdales, a tour of a railroad steam engine, a meet and greet with the Busch Gardens animal specialist and more.
1 Busch Gardens Blvd.
—Meghan Yudes Meyers and Katie Brown