Summer is the perfect season to celebrate family and fun with a trip to one of the country's many world-class amusement parks. From the iconic Walt Disney World in Florida to the world-famous "Roller Coaster Capital of the World" Cedar Point in Ohio, there are exciting options to choose from, and some aren't as far away as one might think.
Drive time: 9.5 hours (includes toll roads)
Season: Open year-round.
Highlights: With four theme parks and two water parks, the namesake of the world's most recognized name in entertainment has something for everyone.
Guests can enjoy additional time at Disney Theme Parks during designated park times with Extra Magic Hours benefits at no extra charge by staying at select Walt Disney World hotels. Disney's complimentary FASTPASS service saves your place in line for an attraction while you enjoy the rest of the theme park.
Childhood fantasies come alive as guests explore Cinderella's Castle; fight Darth Vader in an interactive Jedi training demonstration; or get the chance to meet their favorite Disney characters in person while roaming the parks.
Dreams of travel are fulfilled as guests go on a virtual mission to Mars, dine in an authentic French restaurant, come face to face with the Animal Kingdom's more than 1,700 exotic animals from faraway places or snorkel with live sharks in the Typhoon Lagoon's Shark Reef. Thrill seekers can try their hand at the Tomorrowland Speedway as they drive their own Indy 500-style racecar on a guided track, or brave the death-defying Tower of Terror's drop.
Disney's Blizzard Beach Water Park features one of the world's tallest and fastest free-falling waterslides, Summit Plummet, with its 12-story drop that gains guests speeds of 50 to 60 mph.
An entire new park is in store this season, which once complete will double the size of Fantasyland.
The expansion will provide more Disney characters and stories in two new themed areas: Storybook Circus and Fantasyland Forest, which will begin its phased opening later this year.
Drive time: 10 hours
Season: Cedar Point is open every day from the middle of May through the end of August and then Friday-Sunday only through the end of October. Soak City is open the end of May through the beginning of September.
Highlights: This coaster capital features many record-breaking thrills. The 310-foot, 93 mph Millennium Force is so huge it created a whole new category - the giga-coaster. The first hill features an elevator cable lift system to get you to the top faster.
The Wicked Twister is one of the tallest and fastest double-twisting impulse coasters in the world, taking riders through two 450-degree spirals at each end of the tracks at speeds up to 72 mph.
Fast Lane access passes may be purchased for five or more people on the same day for $30 per person (additional $5 on Saturdays), but only a limited number are available each day.
Coaster enthusiasts come from around the world to ride the Magnum XL-200, the first coaster ever to top 200 feet. Situated right on the Lake Erie shore, you can see Canada on a clear day before racing over multiple hills and a signature pretzel turnaround at speeds of up to 72 mph.
The Corkscrew was the first coaster in history to invert riders three times over the course of its 48 mph run. It also was the first coaster to span a park midway as it corkscrews.
Despite its reputation, Cedar Point isn't just about coasters. It has a wide variety of rides for kids of all ages including old-time family favorites as well as its newest children's area, Planet Snoopy, which offers seven puppy-sized rides based on the timeless cartoon classic.
Through the park's new Dinosaurs Alive! exhibit opening this year guests can take a step back in time in this prehistoric-themed attraction featuring 50 life-size animatronic dinosaurs.
Cedar Point's secondary park, Soak City, offers families a way to cool off from all the excitement. Guests can relax in a half-million-gallon wave pool with 3- to 4-foot waves or take an inner tube down the 76-foot Zoom Flume.The multi-story interactive Splash Zone play area gives younger guests a chance to get in on the action with its more than 100 different wet and wild water gadgets that spray, squirt and drench guests.
Drive time: 2.5 hours
Season: Dollywood is open most days from the end of March through the end of December. Splash Country is open most days from the end of May through the beginning of September.
Highlights: Nestled in the Smoky Mountains, Dollywood is a family-focused vacation to the days of yore. Master craftsmen and artisans proudly continue the area's centuries-old traditions through daily demonstrations.
Dollywood season pass holders receive a variety of benefits including in-park discounts on food, merchandise, retreats and canopies, free parking and discounts at Dixie Stampede, Dollywood Cabins and many other area attractions. Children 3 and under are admitted free.Q2Q reserves guests a place in line and grants them seats at participating shows for $15 per person. The sixth guest is free with five paying guests.
Each fall countless unique artisans share their crafts with hundreds of thousands of visitors during the Harvest Celebration. The month-long festival from Oct. 3-Nov. 3 also features Southern gospel music concerts, all included with Dollywood admission. Other one-of-a-kind special events include Kids Fest, the South's largest children's festival, June 22-July 29.
New to the park this year, America's first wing coaster, perched 21 stories above Dollywood, will give guests the experience of soaring high above the Smoky Mountains. Wild Eagle seats riders on either side so there is nothing but air above and below them. Those who want to take more of a hand in their adventure can choose from three different on-site obstacle courses featuring more than 100 rope features at the park's new 2-acre Adventure Mountain.
The new hour-long SkyZip takes guests on an adventure as they explore the first multiple station zip-line attraction to open in a theme park. The Eagle Mountain Sanctuary houses the country's largest presentation of non-releasable bald eagles.
Splash Country features more than 23 water adventure slides and thrill rides and two interactive children's playground areas. Waterside retreats and canopies are available for an additional fee.
Drive time: 2.5 hours
Season: Open year-round, although with limited attractions the majority of August-April.
Highlights: Home to the world's largest piece of exposed granite. Listed in Frommer's 500 Places to Visit with Your Kids Before They Grow Up and cited by Atlanta Journal Constitution as one of 35 Natural Wonders in Georgia You Must See Before You Die.
Parking fee grants access to the park's nature and hiking trails, walk-up trail, picnic areas, children's playground, Quarry Exhibit, the Confederate Hall Historical & Environmental Education Center and the Lasershow Spectacular. Bicyclists and pedestrians enter free. Save 30% when buying a Family Value Pass online. Pass also includes meal deal.
Stone Mountain features five square miles of park in which to picnic, fish and hike, plus a on-site 18-hole miniature golf course and award-winning 36-hole professional golf course. It is Georgia's largest campground with more than 400 sites for tents and RVs, plus two hotels on-site, including the 4 Diamond Evergreen Resort.
Enjoy more than a dozen family attractions, including one of the country's largest family adventure courses, along with regular live shows and craft demonstrations.
Georgia's first 4-D theater Lasershow Spectacular in Mountainvision (nightly through July 29), creates multi-dimensional effects through state-of-the-art graphics on one of the world's largest outdoor screens. Yellow Daisy Festival, featuring arts and crafts from more than 400 artists and crafters from across the country (Sept. 6-9), is a consistent award winner.
Drive time: 15 minutes
Season: Wednesday-Sunday from June through early August, then weekends only through the end of October.
Highlights: Lake Winnepesaukah has maintained its more than 86-year-history as "The South's Favorite Family Amusement Park" by staying true to its roots, offering timeless classics like one of the country's oldest and largest antique carousels. The park is recognized by Travel and Leisure Magazine as one of America's top 10 family amusement parks.
Guests ages 1-2 and 65 and older get a reduced admission price. Many days of the week there are featured discounts for ride passes. Parking is always free. Guests under age 18 must be accompanied by a guest 18 years or older to enter the park, unless the guest is a member of a chaperoned group.
That's not to say its 38 rides and attractions don't offer thrills the likes of which can't be found on the Tilt-a-Whirl or the Boat Chute, constructed in 1927, which was the inspiration for the modern log flume. The OH -ZONE!, added in 2006, offers a 14-story, 4.6G freefall.
The park's iconic Cannon Ball Roller Coaster has thrilled guests since 1967, and added in 2001 the Wild Lightnin' coaster was added. Families can enjoy the adjacent lake in one of the free paddleboats or spend the day in the Stay & Play Hideaway interactive playground. Chill Down Kidtown, one of the playground's main areas, is a first of its kind with interactive misting machines and water elements for hot summer days.
The park also offers a summer full of musical entertainment from well-known locals to national acts like the Charlie Daniels Band (July 22) and Confederate Railroad (Sept. 2). The park's Fourth of July fireworks are not to be missed.
Drive time: 2 hours
Season: Hours vary depending on date, but at least M-F: 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to at least 8 p.m. (9 p.m. on select Sundays) through second week in August, then weekends only until the end of October. White Water is open May 19-Sept. 5.
Highlights: Packed with more than 50 rides, shows and attractions, the nearby Six Flags amusement park offers fun for the whole family. In honor of its 45th anniversary this year, all-new shows are being introduced this season, including iLuminate, an incredible sensory experience that features professional performers wearing state-of-the-art light-up costumes and other stunning visual effects.
Season passes grant guests benefits including unlimited admission to all Six Flags theme parks, in-park discounts and free admission for friends on select days. FLASH Passes, which can be used for up to six guests, give visitors the chance to experience even more of the park in less time.
The new Dare Devil Dive, the park's first "euro fighter" coaster, features the country's first "pause" element before guests are dropped 10 stories at a speed of 52 mph. Riders will actually catch air in a zero-gravity hill during the ensuing combination of diving loops and inversions.
Six Flags also features one of the Southeast's tallest and fastest standup roller coasters, the Georgia Scorcher, as well as North America's original three-loop coaster, the Mindbender. Coaster fans are sure to enjoy the Goliath as well, which soars more than 20 stories high and spans 8.5 acres.
White Water is the South's largest water park and is rated one of The Travel Channel's top 10 water parks in the country. Its nearly 50 attractions include one of the tallest free-fall slides in the world, the Cliffhanger, which stands at nine stories tall. However, the Caribbean Plunge double-tube water flume boasts the fastest drop in the park, 100 feet in three seconds flat.
Activities geared especially for children include an interactive treehouse and the White Water Activity Pool. Those looking for a relaxing day can take a slow boat down the lazy Little Hooch River, drifting past waterfalls and under a canopy of forest shade or join the fun in the wave pool.