10 Best Theme-Park Rides for Families
Best Car Ride: Radiator Springs Racers
Disney California Adventure Park, Anaheim
Your family piles into a six-person convertible inspired by Lightning McQueen for a spin down Route 66, zooming past landscapes from the movie Cars.
“Seeing the bridge over the waterfall transports us into the movie every time,” says dad Robb Alvey, founder of ThemeParkReview.com. The middle of the four-minute ride takes you inside either Luigi’s Casa Della Tires or Ramone’s House of Body Art as your vehicle gets spiffed up for the finale: a 40-mile-per-hour race against another car. “Hills and turns will thrill kids and parents,” says Alvey. For 40 inches and up
Best Carousel: Caro-Seuss-el
Universal Orlando Resort’s Islands of Adventure, Orlando
Oh, the fun your little one will have on this whimsical ride! Your kid can climb onto a zany creature like an elephant bird, a cowfish, a Mulligatawny (shown) from If I Ran The Zoo, or twin camels from One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, says Banks Lee, reporter for Attractions Magazine and dad of two. Show your child how to use the levers and reins to make the animals blink, wiggle their ears, and turn their heads—a feature that Universal pioneered.
Best Train Ride: Hogwarts Express
Universal Orlando Resort Florida, Orlando
Even mini Muggles who haven’t yet discovered Harry Potter will love riding the full-size steam locomotive for a four-minute journey between Universal’s two Orlando theme parks. “Little kids feel like they’re finally allowed to go on a big-kid ride,” says Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com and dad of two.
Harry Potter fans, you’ll have your mind blown. “The Hogwarts Express is a spot-on replica from the films,” says Niles. “Thanks to windows that are actually video screens, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are projected in your train compartment during your ride.”
Best Boat Ride: LegoCity Deep Sea Adventure
Legoland California, Carlsbad
Families board a 12-person sub and plunge into a giant aquarium filled with sea creatures, from sharks to stingrays! “Even little kids have a great view,” says Niles. (Hint: Keep an eye out for the 5-foot nurse shark that swims laps around the tank.) The ride, which debuted last July, also incorporates the first-of-its-kind talking Lego MiniFigure and a treasure-hunt game. If the wait is long, your kid can build Legos at nearby tables and jump back in line when it’s close to your family’s turn.
Best Water Ride: Splash Mountain
Disney’s Magic Kingdom Park, Orlando, and Disney California Adventure Park, Anaheim
This classic nudged out newer rides for two reasons: “You get cooled off by the big drop at the end, but you don’t usually get drenched,” says Alvey. And the ten-minute journey is pure sweetness. More than 100 Audio-Animatronics in 26 scenes tell stories as your family drifts along, listening to songs like “Zip-a-Dee-DooDah.” The ride is similar at both parks, but Disney World offers side-by-side seating rather than single-file. For 40 inches and up
Best 4-D Ride: Justice League: Battle for Metropolis
Six Flags, multiple locations
Your squad starts out in a massive Hall of Justice, which has major wow factor for superhero fans of all ages. Then you climb into a six-passenger vehicle with real-time gaming elements to compete with other riders. Your family will power through 4-D scenes of fire and fog to help save Superman and Batman from villains Lex Luthor and the Joker.
Niles advises your fam to pay attention to three memorable spots: the security panel that Cyborg is breaking into outside the LexCorp building; the computer monitors in front of LexCorp’s containment units; and the Joker’s Henchman in the subway tunnel. Also keep a close eye on your squad’s scores. When a rider hits the Super Bonus Target, he earns 6,666 points—in honor of Six Flags!
A half dozen Six Flags theme parks offer the ride, but Niles thinks the coolest version is at Magic Mountain, in Valencia, California, near Los Angeles. New digital effects and a battle with Harley Quinn take it to the next level. For 42 inches and up
Best Swings: Mushroom Swing
Gilroy Gardens, Gilroy, California
A 39-foot mushroom is an adorable base for big-kid swings at this theme park two hours north of San Francisco. In fact, most rides there have a cute farming or gardening theme. We’re also partial to the artichoke twirl and the garlic dip, which is surrounded by 100-year-old olive trees. For 48 inches and up
Best for Beginners: Slinky Dog Dash
Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Orlando
This new coaster in Toy Story Land hits the family-friendly sweet spot. “It’s active but not inverted, and speedy but not to the level of nausea,” says Dewayne Bevil, who covers theme parks for the Orlando Sentinel. The coaster’s two takeoffs—it stops in the middle of the track and launches again—also earn raves from families, says Len Testa, founder of TouringPlans.com, a site that helps you plan a Disney or Universal trip. “We asked hundreds of kids to rate the rides at the park, and this one averages a 5 out of 5,” he reports. For 38 inches and up
Best First Loop: The IncrediCoaster
Disney California Adventure Park, Anaheim
If anyone can entice kids to try a coaster that goes upside down, it’s Jack-Jack. The superbaby is the star of an Incredibles-themed steel coaster that tells a story. You chase Jack-Jack, who escaped by using his superpowers (laser eyes! Multiplying! Moving through dimensions!).
“You don’t get to the loop until more than two minutes into the ride, and by that time, the kids are so invested in the story that they’re not feeling nervous,” says Testa. As the coaster pulls into the station, kids will chuckle at the announcement to “gather your belongings and your little brother.” For 48 inches and up
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Best Big Drop: Time Traveler
Silver Dollar City, Branson, Missouri
Although it looks terrifying, this steampunk-themed steel coaster with spinning cars is family-friendly. “We researched the concept with moms, who told us that they didn’t want a wild tea-cup spin,” says spokesperson Lisa Rau. The result? “The cars twist a little to give an extra thrill during the turns and drops, but it’s not overwhelming,” says Niles. Another parent win: Kids pass the time in line looking at gizmos from a clockmaker who developed a time machine. For 51 inches and up