Going off the beaten path doesn’t just make for great Instagram posts. You also get the twin benefits of seeing some amazingly campy, quirky, and fascinating attractions while spending a fraction of the price. The US is dotted with wacky theme parks that give Six Flags a run for its money. Buckle your seatbelts – it’s about to get weird.
1. San Francisco Dungeon (California)
While some amusement parks try to dazzle you with glittery attractions and swaths of pastel colors, the San Francisco Dungeon revels in its bawdiness. It pays homage to the Barbary Coast and some of the most unsavory (and historically accurate) characters who lived there. They strive for authenticity, down to the smell, which they vigorously market as being evocative of the “bad old days.” The San Francisco Dungeon is full of thrilling rides like “The Descent,” a heart-stopping drop in an old elevator. It’s a one-of-a-kind, refreshing alternative to your standard theme park fare and it’s open every day with live shows and rides.
2. The Dairy Adventure at Fair Oaks Farms (Indiana)
The Dairy Adventure at Fair Oaks Farms is a bit of a diversion from the norm, spanning the spectrum of part theme park, part farm, part agricultural museum. The Indiana theme park part is full of activities to “strengthen your bones,” like rock climbing. Mooville, the central area for theme park-related fun, is full of activities for both kids and adults. Additionally, the Dairy Adventure at Fair Oaks Farms boasts live births of up to 100 calves per day. Visitors are encouraged to watch and experience the miracle of life for themselves.
3. Paul Bunyan Land (Minnesota)
Paul Bunyan Land is dedicated to the big man and his blue ox, Babe, boasting a gigantic talking lumberjack that will wow kids and adults alike. With a theme park and adjacent pioneer village located in Brainerd, Minnesota, Paul Bunyan Land allows visitors to dig into the past and have a great day out at the same time. Make sure you check out the Magnetic Mine Shack.
4. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park (Florida)
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is famous for bringing the legend of mermaids to life. Mermaids perform daily in a 400-seat submerged auditorium, where visitors can watch them eat, drink, and swim underwater. Along with their daily performances of The Little Mermaid, visitors can also take part in wildlife shows and fun river boat cruises.
5. Diggerland USA (New Jersey)
Diggerland USA has got to be one of the most unique additions to this list. Its name implies exactly what kind of theme park it is: a place where children and families can operate real machinery like excavators and backhoes. Child-sized rides as well as modified machines made safe for children to operate are perfect for the construction site-obsessed kid (while an adult version of the park lets grownups get a chance to operate machinery, too).
6. The Holy Land Experience (Florida)
Mouse House a little too pedestrian for you? Give the Holy Land Experience in Orlando a try. It’s billed as a “living, biblical museum and park” and strives to live up to that reputation with a full calendar of shows and live action renditions of life in the biblical era. There are plenty of rides, concessions, and the usual theme park fare, all with a religious twist. Even if you’re not interested in Christianity in particular, the Holy Land Experience is a nice alternative to the perpetually packed and expensive Disney World.
7. Hersheypark (Pennsylvania)
Hersheypark is your standard amusement park with a sweet twist: it’s chocolate-theme. You can count on getting to snack on some delectable candies while you’re making your way through the sprawling park. Hersheypark features dozens of rides, as well as a zoo and a wave pool for the kids. They can also learn about the process of making chocolate and the history of Hershey in free attractions connected to the park.
8. Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari (Indiana)
Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari is located in a town called Santa Claus, which just makes it that much more magical. It’s a holiday-themed amusement park, with quadrants designated to Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, and more. You can even get holiday-themed food at Goblin Burgers or Mrs. Klaus’ Kitchen. Offering free soft drinks, parking, Wi-Fi, and sunscreen, Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari is a uniquely family-friendly destination.
9. Dutch Wonderland (Pennsylvania)
Dutch Wonderland is a Pennsylvania gem: A medieval-themed amusement park that is just small enough to be quaint — but large enough that you can enjoy a full day of family fun. There is a water park for the kids, plenty of rides and shows, and accommodation nearby. Visitors can stay at Old Mill Stream Campground, a rustic site with modern amenities.
10. Carousel Gardens Amusement Park (Louisiana)
Carousel Gardens Amusement Park pays tribute to Louisiana’s past with a huge collection of antique carousels that are sure to delight. See their signature piece, the famous flying horses, and stroll through the lovely botanical gardens that are on site. Carousel Gardens Amusement Park is truly a slice of southern charm.
11. Knott’s Berry Farm (California)
This former berry farm that began offering attractions to keep visitors coming year-round has grown into one of California’s best-kept secrets. When you want a break from Disneyland, head over to Knott’s Berry Farm, where you’ll find an enchanting, refurbished ghost town, home-cooked food, and world-class rides. Now you can stay right at the facility at Knott’s Berry Farm Hotel.