10 “Small-Town” Theme Parks To Visit When Disney and Universal Just Aren’t Cutting It Anymore

in Theme Parks

family pointing at candymonium (roller coaster) at Hersheypark (theme park) in Hershey, Pennsylvania

Credit: Hersheypark

With major theme parks like Disney and Universal seeing an increase in prices and crowds, it has started to beg the question: how much longer will it last and how much higher can they climb?

Universal seems to be reaching for the top of the game when it comes to the competition between them and Disney, as they look to expand beyond their California and Florida theme parks with announcements earlier this year stating they were planning to open a family park in Texas and a year-round Halloween Horror Nights experience in Las Vegas. The park is also expanding its Florida location with a third gate, Universal Epic Universe, expected to open in the summer of 2025.

In comparison, Disney seems to have done a little more than offer speculations and maybes on possible upcoming attractions and changes to the parks, without promising fans any significant additions or changes in the next few years. Guest feedback across social media also seems to indicate a declining experience when it comes to a Disney vacation, citing increased prices, increased wait times and larger crowds, and increased attraction downtimes, as well as a decline in cast member attitude, guest interactions, and so much more. Even Walt Disney World Annual Passholders and Disneyland Magic Key Holders have shared debates online about whether they plan to renew or not, saying that they can tell a difference in the parks over the last several years.

Despite the increasing popularity of Universal, it appears that many people are turning to smaller, more local theme parks in an attempt to regain some of the nostalgia from their childhood that major parks like Universal and Disney no longer seem to bring.

Universal Orlando Resort entrance
Credit: marcsfc / Flickr

The Rise of the “Small-Town” Theme Park

For the purposes of this article, “small town” really just means a theme park that isn’t Universal or Disney. Some of the parks on this list, like Dollywood and Knott’s Berry Farm, are still major theme parks in their own way, but they can have a more “local” feel to them.

For decades Disneyland and Walt Disney World have reigned supreme in America at the ultimate vacation destination. However, since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Disney has started to slip behind the Universal parks, as three of the four parks at Disney World had less attendance in the last three years than either of the Universal Orlando parks did. And with SUPER NINTENDO WORLD opening at Universal Studios Hollywood earlier this year and Epic Universe coming to Orlando in 2025, the Universal Resorts are expanding at a rate that Disney seemingly can’t keep up with.

Piglet hugs a guest next to their father at Disney World's Crystal Palace
Credit: Disney

However, both major companies have seen a rise in complaints in the last few years due to the increasing cost of attendance as tickets, food, merchandise, and hotels at these parks have all increased drastically. In addition, guests have started to claim that the increased prices have actually brought a decline to the parks, citing issues with other guests, cast members, maintenance, cleanliness, and overall guest experience.

In turn, this has led many families to seek out smaller and more local theme parks as the cost of traveling has also risen. Even if these parks aren’t exactly “local” to a potential guest, they may be overall cheaper and easier to travel to. The list provided here is in no way a cohesive list of theme parks around the country, or even the top 10 theme parks. However, it covers a range of areas and price expectations, as well as popularity, so hopefully it’ll help you discover your next vacation destination.

Ten “Small-Town” American Theme Parks

Dollywood Sign
Credit: Dollywood

Dollywood

Starting this list off with the most iconic park in America, Dollywood is located in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, nestled snugly within the Great Smoky Mountains. Built and inspired by none other than the also iconic Dolly Parton, the park is the biggest tourist attraction in Tennessee. The park offers dozens of attractions and thrill rides as well as traditional crafts, food, and music inspired by the American south and the Smokey Mountain area.

The park offers a perfect blend of traditional Americana heritage, Dolly Parton exhibits, and live shows and attractions for the whole family. Rather than carving out flat land for the park to be built on, the park is practically built into the mountain side, making guests feel like one with nature even visiting an amusement park. Dollywood also features a variety of themed areas, including Jukebox Junction, Country Fair, and Timber Canyon. Its location in Pigeon Forge also has its own draw, with hundreds of other tourist attractions located within minutes of the park, ensuring a Tennessee trip like no other.

Kennywood attraction
Credit: Kennywood

Kennywood

Located near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and opened in 1898, Kennywood is one of the oldest amusement parks in the United States. It is one of two theme parks in the U.S. designated as a National Historic Landmark. Known for its classic charm, historic rides, and unique atmosphere, Kennywood has been captivating generations of visitors with its timeless appeal. The park boasts several attractions and structures that date back to the early 1900s and prides itself on its history and family-friendly atmosphere.

Kennywood’s draw is rooted in its nostalgic ambiance and a collection of classic rides; such as the wooden roller coasters Jack Rabbit, and fan favorite, Phantom’s Revenge. Families from all around the world are drawn to the park for its mix of traditional attractions and modern rides, providing a well-rounded experience for visitors of all ages. It also serves as an important landmark in the history of American theme parks and offers something for everyone, from an area themed after Thomas the Tank Engine to the all-new Steelers Country area, inspired by the beloved Pittsburgh football team.

Silver Dollar City
Credit: Silver Dollar City

Silver Dollar City

Nestled in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, Silver Dollar City is a theme park that transports visitors to the 19th century. The park was started as a way to bring tourists to another nearby attraction, Marvel Cave. Since then, Silver Dollar City has become a premiere attraction spot with 40 thrilling rides & attractions, live shows & concerts, 100 resident craftsmen demonstrating America’s heritage crafts, 18 award-winning restaurants and 60 unique shops taken from the website. The park is renowned for its dedication to preserving American craftsmanship and offers a blend of thrilling rides, live shows, and artisan demonstrations.

Silver Dollar City’s unique theme and location, focusing on the American frontier while being located in the picturesque Ozark Mountains, sets it apart. The park’s commitment to preserving traditional craftsmanship and offering a range of attractions, from roller coasters to live entertainment, creates an immersive experience that appeals to history enthusiasts and thrill-seekers alike. It’s a great way to keep American heritage and traditions alive while keeping younger guests entertained. It’s a unique experience for both the average American guest as well as the international tourist.

family with Hersheypark character in front of Candymonium rolller coaster
Credit: Hersheypark

Hersheypark

The most famous candy company-associated theme park in the world, Hersheypark is one-of-a-kind. It started originally as a leisure area for Hershey company employees and has since grown to be the 9th most-visited theme park in the U.S. and the most-visited park in Pennsylvania. The park hosts a large array of activities including over 40 rides, stage areas for shows, and two different wave pools as well as seasonal offerings and events throughout the year.

Hersheypark’s chocolate company theme adds a unique and delicious element to the park’s attractions. Admission to Hershey Park also includes a ticket to ZooAmerica and a visitor center called Hershey’s Chocolate. Families are drawn to the combination of exciting rides, water attractions, and the opportunity to indulge in all things chocolate, creating a sweet and memorable experience.

maverick-coaster-cedar-point
Credit: Cedar Point

Cedar Point

Situated on the shores of Lake Erie in Sandusky, Ohio, Cedar Point is the second-oldest operating theme park in America and is often hailed as the “Roller Coaster Capital of the World.” With a record-breaking number of roller coasters and a picturesque location, the park has become a mecca for thrill-seekers. Cedar Point boasts that it “has a little bit of something for every thrill-seeker” and is constantly adding new attractions and coasters.

Cedar Point’s unparalleled collection of world-class roller coasters, including Millennium Force and Top Thrill Dragster, is a major draw for adrenaline junkies. Cedar Point also features both an indoor and outdoor waterpark as well as marinas, sport center, and multiple holiday events. The park’s lakeside setting and a wide range of attractions make it a destination that caters to both thrill-seekers and families seeking a day of fun. It’s the perfect vacation destination for those in the Midwest while drawing in people from all around the world.

King's Island roller coaster
Credit: King’s Island

King’s Island

Three hours south of Cedar Point, located near Cincinnati, Ohio, is King’s Island. Initially built as an effort to move and expand Ohio’s version of Coney Island, the park opened in 1972 and has since grown to feature over a hundred attractions, including 14 roller coasters, a water park, and several themed areas. The park draws in families and children of all ages with its iconic Snoopy mascot. Although its ownership has changed hands throughout the years, King’s Island has continued to draw in millions of people each year.

The park is perfectly located in the middle of America, making it fairly easily accessible from each coast. It’s record-breaking list of attractions means there’s plenty for everyone to enjoy throughout the operating year. Although it doesn’t offer any particular theme or immersive environment, it’s perfect for those looking for a day full of thrills.

Indiana Beach Amusement Park
Credit: Jessica W., Inside the Magic

Indiana Beach

Nestled along Lake Shafer in Monticello, Indiana, is Indiana Beach. Since opening as Ideal Beach in 1927, the park has brought a variety of offerings to families in rural Indiana. During the park’s prime, the Ideal Beach Ballroom brought in major musical acts like The Who, The Beach Boys, Sonny & Cher, and hundreds of other big-name artists. Now, it’s a premier family destination, featuring roller coasters, thrill rides, a water park, and a kiddie area, all while offering guests a beautiful view of Lake Shafer’s sparkling waters.

The park is a testament to its literal small-town origins, keeping family and Americana ideals at the heart of its operation, almost a hundred years after first opening to guests. The resort also offers a campground and boating options, making it a well-rounded experience for guests, whether you’re looking for thrills or some relaxation in nature.

good gravy ride at holiday world
Credit: Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari

Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari

Perhaps the second most unique park on this list is Holiday World, located in the heart of Santa Claus, Indiana. Taking inspiration from its location, Holiday World initially opened in 1946 as Santa Claus Land, offering guests a no-cost, year-round Christmas getaway that featured Santa, a toy shop, various toy displays, and themed restaurants and attractions. Since then, the park has expanded to include four areas, themed after Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July, as well as a water park, called Splashin’ Safari. Over the years, the park has broken several records with its attractions, and has received 51 Golden Ticket Awards, presented by Amusement Today Magazine to the best of the best amusement parks around the world. As of 2016, Holiday World has received more Golden Ticket Awards than any other amusement park in the world.

The park’s major draw is its immersive holiday theming, with attractions, shows, and restaurants all heavily inspired by the major American holidays. It leans into its “kitschiness” rather than against it, as many believe the Disney parks are now doing. The park is fun for guests of all ages looking to enjoy everything from major roller coasters to live entertainment to good food and free soda. The town of Santa Claus is itself a minor attraction, with several shops and experiences themed after the jolly holiday.

A full car on Ghost Rider at Knott's Berry Farm
Credit: Knott’s Berry Farm

Knott’s Berry Farm

Inside the Magic is no stranger to Knott’s Berry Farm, located in Buena Park, California. Next to Universal Studios Hollywood and Disneyland, Knott’s Berry is arguably the most well-known theme park in California, averaging about 4 million guests each year. It features over 40 rides, including roller coasters, kiddie and family rides, dark rides, and a water park. The park’s humble origins saw it rise from little more than a roadside berry stand to include several shops, a restaurant, and other minor attractions by the 1940s. Knott’s Berry Farm leans into its old-fashioned vibes with a real-life western ghost town and several festivals and seasonal events throughout the year.

The park offers exclusive dining experiences based on its berry-stand roots and with its authentic western ghost town and Peanuts mascots throughout the park, Knott’s Berry Farm is a unique and unforgettable experience for the whole family. While it is technically a major theme park, its one-of-a-kind attractions and experiences really give Disney a run for its money.

The Joker coaster Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
Credit: Six Flags Discovery Kingdom

Six Flags

The Six Flags Entertainment Corporation is perhaps the most “local” amusement park on this list, because it has the most locations. With parks in Canada, Mexico, and the United States, Six Flags operates 27 properties throughout North America and has recently bought the Cedar Fair Company, bringing parks like King’s Island and Cedar Point into its expanding repertoire. The parks often use characters from DC Comics and Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes as their mascots and inspiration for their attractions, with several roller coasters being named after popular characters like Superman, Batman, and the Joker.

Six Flags is perhaps the most easily accessible set of parks because of its sheer amount of locations across the country. Typically, the parks do focus a little more on thrill attractions, making it a great destination for older kids or guests while still being a fun destination for everyone. Readers may recall the iconic marketing attempts of the parks in the mid-2000s with Mr. Six and the dance-worthy theme song that has become a parody for generations of theme park fans.

This is just a small list of “small-town” amusement parks and attractions that can be found throughout America. While these parks certainly aren’t exempt from the ever-increasing rise of inflation, they do offer a variety of locations, additional plans, and various price points when compared to the Disney or Universal theme parks. So next time you’re wondering if a 7 a.m. wake up call to fight for a Lightning Lane reservation is worth it, take a look into one of these amusement parks instead. You might just find that a “small-town” park can be magical too.

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