10 Best Theme Parks for Families

Thrill the kids with a trip to one of these parks that offer plenty of pint-size rides, healthy eats, family conveniences, and high-tech features.
Courtesy of Legoland California Resort

1. Legoland California, Carlsbad

All 60 of the rides, shows, and attractions at this park about an hour north of San Diego are tailored for 2- to 12-year-olds, so your family isn't wasting money on thrill rides that your kids are too small -- or too scared -- to go on. In fact, only two rides require kids to be 42 inches or taller. While pint-size Lego fans will find plenty to feed their obsession (such as Duplo Village and The Lego Movie Experience, which re-creates the last scene of the film), little ones who aren't into building will appreciate the Volvo Driving School (where drivers age 3 and up get a paper license), kiddie Dinosaur coaster, and the Royal Joust (where you ride a wooden horse through a medieval forest). "My fiancé and I took six kids, ages 5 to 12, and they loved walking around Miniland, a gallery of Lego models including Star Wars ones," says Shannon Gosney, blogger at The Mommy-Files. Safety standards are high; for instance, the park's Duplo Train has key locks on the doors so kids aren't able to climb out while the ride is moving. And long before other theme parks began offering healthier foods, Legoland California's Fun Town Market featured locally grown produce in its salad bar.

New for Summer 2014

A water park themed around the Legends of Chima (a Lego show on Cartoon Network) opens Memorial Day weekend. Highlights include a slide through the head of a crocodile and the Lion Temple wave pool with an archway that releases 400 gallons of water every minute ($83 for ages 13 and older, $73 for ages 3 to 12, free for younger kids for Legoland; get a ticket that includes the water park for about $20 more per person).

Spend the Night

Book a themed family suite at the on-site Legoland Hotel, which has a castle play area in the lobby, character breakfasts, and a rockin' elevator with a disco ball. Hotel guests are allowed in the park an hour before the public. (Summer rates start at $269 per night; california.legoland.com.)

2. Disneyland Park, Anaheim, California

With 60 rides and attractions for visitors of any height -- the most of any park in Parents survey -- you'll get your money's worth. "Because the rides are much closer together than at other Disney theme parks, you won't waste time or wear kids out by walking long distances from attraction to attraction," says Guy Selga, a researcher for TouringPlans.com, a website with suggested itineraries for major theme parks. Baby centers (with high chairs and nursing stations), kiosks that make it easier for special-needs visitors to get the most out of their stay, and produce carts featuring innovative snacks such as mango slices with lime and tajin spice make the park more family-friendly.

New for Summer 2014

Kids can meet Captain America in the Innoventions building in Tomorrowland. And a longtime-favorite coaster, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, is back with new digital effects and refreshed track ($92 for ages 10 and up, $86 for ages 3 to 9, free for 0 to 2).

Spend the Night

Stay at the Disneyland Hotel, which features newly remodeled rooms, a pool with three slides and a toddler splash zone, and early park admission. (Summer rates start at $449 per night; disneyland.disney.go.com.) Sleep cheaper at more than a half dozen non-Disney hotels, such as Hilton Anaheim and Best Western Plus Anaheim Inn, which are a short walk to the park.

3. Magic Kingdom Park, Orlando

While Disney's first Florida theme park has more than three dozen rides, the entertainment steals the thunder. "The character parades, fireworks show, electrical water pageant, and street parties make the park even more fun for families," says Len Testa, coauthor of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. His favorite little-known attraction: A Pirate's Adventure: Treasure of the Seven Seas, a high-tech interactive quest where you unlock magic portals to take down the Disney Villains. "The effects are spectacular at night," he says.

The park has also turned to technology to help families cut down on wait times, introducing FastPass+ last year (it's free). Instead of picking up these quick-line-access passes in the park (where they'd be gone for some rides by early afternoon), Disney World now allows you to choose your three FastPass+ rides up to 60 days in advance for any of its Florida parks. "Based on my research regarding wait times -- my team tracks them in the park daily -- Peter Pan's Flight, Enchanted Tales With Belle, and Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin are the three rides it's smartest to use the FastPass+ on," says Testa.

New for Summer 2014

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train opens in Fantasyland on May 28, the final touch of a four-year makeover of this area for the youngest kids. "The train's carriages are mounted in pivots that allow them to swing back and forth during the ride," says Testa. "It'll be a mild thrill ride -- best for kids 5 to 7 and up." (One-day admission is $99 for ages 10 and up, $93 for ages 3 to 9, free for 0 to 2.)

Spend the Night

Stay at Disney's Contemporary Resort, a five-minute monorail ride or 15-minute walk away. (Summer rates start at $345 per night; disneyworld.disney.go.com.) Or book Disney's Pop Century or All-Star Music Resort for a third of the cost and take a 25-minute bus ride to the park.

Disney's Magic Kingdom can be an awe-inspiring experience for kids of all ages. Michael Kress, executive editor of Parents.com, shares tips on how to enjoy the park without going on rides, from getting characters' autographs to watching the many parades and shows Disney World has to offer.

Courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort

4. Universal's Islands of Adventure, Orlando

Known for its immersive themed areas, this park makes two of kids' favorite book series come to life. Toddlers and preschoolers will adore the whimsical Seuss Landing featuring five rides inspired by Dr. Seuss's classic tales, including a whirling Cat in the Hat adventure and a spin in the air with One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Kids can have green eggs and ham for lunch and get an autograph from Thing One or Thing Two. School-age kids will be wowed by The Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Hogsmeade, which transports families into life at Hogwarts and immerses them into the iconic village of Hogsmeade. Wizards-in-training will want to go on the Flight of the Hippogriff family coaster and check out Ollivanders Wand Shop, where they might be chosen to participate in a magical wand show that re-creates Harry's experience when getting his first wand. "We stayed true to the Harry Potter books when developing this area," says Mark Woodbury, president of Universal Creative. "Before we opened, we even flew to England so that J. K. Rowling could taste our butterbeer recipe."

New for Summer 2014

The Hogwarts Express train will transport guests back and forth between The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hogsmeade and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- Diagon Alley, a new Harry Potter-themed area located in Universal Studios Florida, the sister park next door. The specific opening date hasn't been announced yet. Diagon Alley highlights will include a multisensory ride called Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. (One-day admission is $92 for ages 10 and up, $86 for ages 3 to 9, free for 0 to 2; add $36 to visit both parks.)

Spend the Night

Book a family suite that sleeps up to six at the new Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort, with themed rooms, a lazy river, a bowling alley, and early admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (Summer rates for family suites start at $171 per night; universalorlando.com.)

5. Sesame Place, Langhorne, PA

Ideal for kids age 7 and under, this theme park about a half hour from Philadelphia incorporates many water activities -- such as tubing past spraying geysers and crawling through water-spraying mazes -- into its lineup to keep the kids cool on hot days. "My husband and 10-year-old son, Liam, love the water rides; I couldn't get them out of the lazy river if I tried," says Chris Skopal, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. "While they're in there, I hang out with Marc, 5, in the Ernie Water Works section."

Big Bird, Elmo, and the gang have thought of many kid--friendly details, including low sinks in the majority of restrooms so you don't have to lift young kids to wash their hands. "I love that they have showers available so at the end of the day, the boys can shower, get in their pajamas, and fall asleep on the way home," adds Skopal. Before you leave, don't forget to stop for a photo op on a replica of Sesame Street.

New for Summer 2014

Cookie's Monster Land features five rides (including flying cookie jars!), a three-story net climb, and a soft play section for babies. (Two-day park admission is $63 for 2 and up, free for 0 to 23 months.)

Spend the Night

Just a half mile from Sesame Place, the Residence Inn by Marriott in Langhorne offers free shuttle service to the park, a full kitchen, a free buffet breakfast, and a separate sleeping area for the children. (Summer rates start at $179 per night and ticket packages are also available; marriott.com.)

6. Disney's Animal Kingdom, Orlando

You get a theme park and a zoo experience in the least crowded and most low-key of Disney's Orlando offerings. The highlight: Kilimanjaro Safaris, which gives families a 20-minute open-air ride through a 110-acre African wildlife preserve with giraffes, cheetahs, lions, and elephants. Also check out the Wilderness Explorers program, where kids can earn up to 30 sticker badges when they complete challenges that help them learn about the animals and nature within the park. Animals aside, the rides in the DinoLand section, such as TriceraTop Spin and Primeval World, are the best suited to little ones. "Come hungry because Animal Kingdom has the most incredible food," says AJ Wolfe, owner of DisneyFoodBlog.com. "The Tusker House, for instance, features several African options on the buffet while still having plenty of old favorites for the kids. And at quick-service carts, you can pick up healthy options such as edamame, hummus and veggie pita, pea and potato samosas, and falafel."

New for Summer 2014

Animal Kingdom is also home to two Broadway-caliber shows, Finding Nemo -- The Musical and Festival of the Lion King -- which reopens in July in a new theater. (One-day park admission is $94 for ages 10 and up, $88 for ages 3 to 9, free for younger kids.)

Spend the Night

Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge offers incredible views of African animals from your room window and a drop-off supervised clubhouse for children ages 3 to 12. (Summer rates start at $296 per night; disneyworld.disney.go.com.) Or outside the park, stay at the Hilton Orlando, which boasts a lazy river, a water slide, and two pools. (Summer rates start at $99 per night; hilton.com.)

Jessica Hartshorn, Parents entertainment editor, explains why she and her family love to explore Animal Kingdom in Walt Disney World. Part zoo and part theme park, this exciting vacation spot offers parades, rides, shows, and more.

7. Hersheypark, Hershey, PA

This sweet oasis is one of the few theme parks that has an abundance of both kids' rides and roller coasters. Thirty-three rides are available for kids under 3 feet tall, and a dozen coasters woo thrill-seeking tweens and parents. Fortunately, like most parks Hershey has a "swap" program, where one parent can ride while the other waits with a child, and then the parents trade places. Families can escape the summertime heat by exploring the shaded walk-through zoo, heading to the 12 water rides at The Boardwalk, or slipping into the air-conditioned Chocolate World, where kids can hop on a ride to learn how their favorite candy is made and get a free taste at the end. All three are included in park admission.

New for Summer 2014

The whole family can ride side by side on the Sweet Swing, which seats up to two adults and four children in what resembles two back-to-back park benches. Other additions: a steel coaster, the Cocoa Cruiser, for kids 36 inches and up, and a classic teacup ride. (One-day admission is $60 for ages 9 to 54, $38 for ages 3 to 8 and 55 to 69, $24 for ages 70 and older, and free for kids 2 and younger.)

Spend the Night

Stay at the Hershey Lodge, which offers a free shuttle to the park, family activities such as chocolate bingo and crafts, indoor and outdoor pools, and a playground. (Summer rates start at $229 per night; hersheylodge.com.) Or, for more space, book a two-bedroom deluxe log cabin at Hersheypark Camping Resort, which also offers two pools, a playground, and outdoor movies. (Two-bedroom deluxe log cabins start at $175 per night.)

Courtesy of Christina McMenemy

8. Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio

Steps from the shore of Lake Erie, Cedar Point offers three sections of young kids' rides, a collection of animatronic dinosaurs, and unique family rides including a carousel with racing horses, one of only two in the country. "My 7-year-old daughter likes more thrilling rides than my 9-year-old," says Christina McMenemy, a blogger at AMommyStory.com. "At Cedar Point, we find plenty to keep them both happy all day -- and then some." In recent years, the park installed two air-conditioned Family Care Centers, with private nursing rooms and a kitchenette.

New for Summer 2014

Woodstock's Airmail, a ride that lifts kids up and down, debuts at Camp Snoopy, one of the park's children's areas. (One-day admission is $50 for adults, $35 for children under 48 inches, and free for kids up to age 3.)

Spend the Night

The Hotel Breakers is a two-minute walk from the park and offers three pools, Peanuts-themed rooms and suites, and early entry into the park. (Summer rates start at $169 per night; cedarpoint.com.)

9. Story Land, Glen, NH

Ideal for kids ages 7 and under, Story Land models many of its 22 rides, numerous shows, and attractions after fairy tales. Unique rides include Cinderella's Pumpkin Coach (families hop inside a giant pumpkin attached to motorized horses) and the Crazy Barn (which gets raised and spun around). "The rides are made so that parents and kids can go on together, but they're not too boring for the grown-ups," says Heidi McIndoo, a blogger at BostonLiving OnTheCheap.com.

New for Summer 2014

To celebrate its 60th anniversary, the park is adding a dinosaur-themed area. Roar-O-Saurus, a colorful wooden coaster that drops a mild 39 feet, will be the centerpiece.

Spend the Night

Stay about 6 miles away in North Conway, New Hampshire, at Red Jacket Mountain View Resort. It features an indoor water park, family storytime, and a scavenger hunt. (Summer rates start at $189 per night. Ticket packages may be available; redjacketresorts.com.)

10. Six Flags Fiesta Texas, San Antonio

In addition to cool coasters, the park offers more than two dozen rides for children who are 36 inches or taller, many of them in the Kidzopolis section. One of the top picks: Yosemite Sam's Wagons, an adorable spin on a kid-size Ferris wheel. "The distance from ride to ride is really short, so our three kids, ages 4, 6, and 7, were able to get on every ride at least once before they tired out," says Shauna Torres, who blogs at Adventuresof8.com.

New for Summer 2014

For kids under 48 inches, two new slides and a mini pool are debuting in the water-park area. (One-day admission is $65 for adults, $52 for kids under 48 inches, free for kids up to age 3.)

Spend the Night

Book the Six Flags Package at the Omni San Antonio Hotel at the Colonnade; you get four tickets, a welcome gift for each child, free shuttle to the park, and free breakfast. (Summer rates start at $297 per night; omnihotels.com.)

Katie, age 11, gives us a look at what she did on her Disney cruise, which included exploring the ship's themed areas and playing on Disney's private island.

Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Parents magazine.

This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.

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