There are some wonderful theme parks throughout the world but how might one select the best of the best? Some might argue that those generating the most attendance should get the nod. Using the number of visitors as the criteria, the Disney theme parks would dominate the list. As the most popular parks on the planet, they regularly occupy eight of the top ten slots on annual attendance charts.
To broaden the scope, we are using a different metric. Every two years, the amusement and theme park industry honors one of its own with the Liseberg Applause Award. Named after Sweden’s Liseberg park, where the award originated in 1980, a panel of international experts recognizes parks for their excellence, originality, aesthetics, success, and other standards. The award is presented at the IAAPA Expo, the world’s largest trade show and gathering of professionals in the parks and attractions industry.
A preponderance of the Liseberg Applause Award recipients are located in the U.S. Therefore, many on the following list, which represents a sampling of award winners, are U.S. parks. They are presented in no particular order.
The first park to receive the Liseberg Applause Award, the Magic Kingdom is also the most popular park in the world, generating more than 20 million visitors every year. The East Coast version of Walt Disney’s original park, Disneyland, it features classic attractions such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, and the Jungle Cruise. It also offers more thrilling rides that are part of its “mountain range,” including Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, and The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Before your visit, you will want to familiarize yourself with MyMagic+, Disney World's advance planning program that includes the ability to make ride reservations.
The huge park features 15 lands themed to European countries including Russia, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. There are sophisticated dark rides, such as Pirates in Batavia and Atlantic Adventure, along with 13 wild coasters like the launched Blue Fire Megacoaster and the indoor Eurosat-CanCan Coaster. Founded by the Mack family—which also operates the design and manufacturing company, Mack Rides—Europa-Park serves as a proving ground and a showcase for its coasters and other attractions. The destination resort also includes six hotels and a campground.
Silver Dollar City
Something of a hidden gem outside of the Midwest U.S., Silver Dollar City offers world-class coasters, Broadway-quality shows, and some of the best food served at a theme park (try the heavenly Family Feud Succotash at Buckshot's Skillet Cookery). The park is themed to 1880s America and includes period craft demonstrations. Among the standout rides are the incredible "controlled spin” coaster, Time Traveler, and the new-age wooden coaster, Outlaw Run. Consider touring Marvel Cave, the natural wonder that gave rise to Silver Dollar City.
Cedar Point is more an amusment park than a theme park and yes, there is a difference. Dating back to 1870, Cedar Point has expanded and evolved considerably and is now considered one of the world’s must-visit parks for roller coasters. Among its record-breaking, highly heralded thrill machines are the wooden-steel hybrid coaster, Steel Vengeance; the 420-foot-tall, 120-mph Top Thrill Dragster; and Magnum XL-200, the first hypercoaster to break the 200-foot threshold. The park sits on a picturesque peninsula along Lake Erie and also includes a separate-admission outdoor water park, an indoor water park resort, other accommodations, a beach, and a marina.
A near-Disney-level park, Efteling features some extraordinary and elaborate dark rides, including the royal palace-themed Symbolica; a boat ride to the far corners of the Middle East, Fata Morgana; and a journey to an enchanted forest, Droomvlucht. Among its impressive collection of thrill rides are the themed dive coaster, Baron 1898 and the twin-track, powered coaster, Max & Moritz. Nestled in the countryside, Efteling embraces a fairytale forest theme. The destination resort includes hotels, holiday homes, and an 18-hole golf course.
Dollywood, operated by the same folks that run Silver Dollar City, was also known as Silver Dollar City until 1985 when Dolly Parton got involved, and the park became an ode to the beloved icon and a celebration of her Smoky Mountain home. The park features some tremendous coasters, including the world’s first launched wooden coaster, Lightning Rod (which is one of the world’s best rides); a wonderful, separate admission water park; and delicious dining options, including sumptuous meals at full-service restaurants. But what really distinguishes Dollywood is its incredible lineup of live music. It also offers an ambitious schedule of special events, including its Smoky Mountain Christmas holiday celebration.
The younger sibling park to Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure had already established itself with groundbreaking attractions such as The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and wild coasters such as the Incredible Hulk. But in 2010, the park took it to the next level with the debut of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The jaw-dropping land conjures the popular Potter mythology with extraordinary detail, and invites visitors to experience the mind-blowing, immersive attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and the equally beguiling and thrilling, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Coaster.
One of the most unusual theme parks in the world, Puy de Fou does not have any roller coasters. Or a carousel. Or really any rides at all. Instead, it features a collection of highly elaborate and immersive stage shows and spectacles such as "Le Signe du Triomphe,” which includes ancient Roman gladiator battles, chariot races, and wild animals. There are also shows themed to Vikings, a French naval officer, and trained birds. After dark, Puy de Fou presents the epic “Cinéscénie,” which traces seven centuries of history.
Knott’s Berry Farm
It began as a roadside berry stand, evolved into a hugely popular Chicken Dinner Restaurant (which remains popular today), and eventually morphed into one of the world’s first theme parks. Its Old West Ghost Town, with its gunslingers and saloon, remains the heart of the park. Its classic attractions, the Calico Mine Ride and the Timber Mountain Log Ride, still delight, but the park also offers incredible coasters such as GhostRider and HangTime. Harking back to its boysenberry farm and chicken dinner restaurant roots, Knott’s is highly regarded for its dining.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg
Offering lands based on Italy, Germany, and other European countries, Busch Gardens Williamsburg is often considered one of the most beautiful theme parks. It offers some world-class coasters, including the glass-smooth hypercoaster, Apollo’s Chariot, and the launched ride, Verbolten. Influenced by the cuisines of the cultures it represents, Busch Gardens Williamsburg also has some inspired dining choices.