Best water and theme parks in the USA

When it comes to theme parks and water parks, America rocks.

And many of them have all the restaurants, accommodation and shopping required for a one-stop-holiday.

Whether you're a hard-out thrill-seeker or simply enjoy fun in the sun, the best amusement parks in the United States offer experiences that will light up your life. Theme parks are generally open year-round, while water parks are open during the warmer months - except for Florida, where they almost never close. After you've picked a park, check its opening dates before you book your airfares.

If you can afford the extra, jump-the-queue tickets will let you experience more attractions in less time. Or save your fun for the less-crowded weekdays instead of the weekend. To help you choose a venue for your most gleeful family holiday ever, we've highlighted some of the top theme parks and best water parks in the United States today.

Best theme parks and water parks in the Midwest and East Coast

To visit these parks, you can fly Air New Zealand non-stop from Auckland to either Houston or Chicago, with onward connections available with our alliance partner United Airlines. All your USA flights - both international and domestic - can be booked through our website. From October 2020, we'll also be flying direct to New York*.

* Subject to final regulatory approvals and crewing agreements.

Noah's Ark Waterpark: Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

Claiming the title of America's largest outdoor water park, Noah's Ark covers an impressive 70 acres. With 49 waterslides, a couple of large wave pools, four water areas for kids, 18-holes of mini golf and more, there really is something for everyone. Picnic areas with BBQs make all-day visits easy (you can even book your own cabana) and there are thousands of loungers for adults to relax in while keeping an eye on the kids. Noah's Ark Waterpark is open seven days a week throughout June, July and August.

Highlights:

  • One of the park's top attractions is Raja™, a six-storey high King Cobra themed side-by-side waterslide that's more than 100m long. Expect a top speed of around 55 km/h and yes, your ride ends with a massive swoop into the cobra's mouth
  • For groups and families there are several four-person and two-person raft rides with a range of thrill levels, so you can enjoy the fun together

Timber Ridge Lodge & Waterpark: Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

Timber Ridge Lodge and Moose Mountain Falls WaterPark are part of the 1,300-acre Grand Geneva Resort, which has numerous onsite activities in a beautiful natural setting. Together, they make it easy to have a magnificent stay-and-play family holiday - rustic wood cabin accommodation and lashings of fun in one destination.

Highlights:

  • Two 10.5m high, 90m long twisting and turning slides that utilise water heated to around 30°C
  • A lazy river ride that lets you drift along for 150m of blissful relaxation
  • For younger water babies, the Tiny Timbers area has slides, swings and water spouts around an ankle-deep pool
  • Seven-to-ten year-olds will love the deeper activity pool, complete with rope climb and water basketball court
  • There are also hot tubs and a couple of outdoor pools for summer
  • Geneva Resort activities include horse riding, mini-golf, arcade games, an outdoor adventure centre, and winter skiing and ice skating

Cedar Point Themepark & Shores Waterpark: Sandusky, Ohio

Often referred to as America's 'Roller Coast', Cedar Point Themepark on the shores of Lake Erie covers 364 acres. It has 72 rides, including 18 rollercoasters that range from vintage-style and kids' coasters to ultramodern thrillers.

Adjacent to the Cedar Point theme park is the 18-acre Cedar Point Shores Waterpark, a refreshing watery wonderland with waterslides, twisting tubes, wave pools, river rapids, kids' splash zones and more. Both parks have a great range of food outlets. If you stay at one of the neighbouring hotels or campgrounds, you can get into the theme park an hour before the public.

Highlights:

  • Thrill seekers will love Valravn, the tallest, fastest and longest dive (vertical drop) coaster in the USA. It's a fast, floorless, looping rollercoaster. You start from a height of 68m and reach 120km/h during a monster of a ride
  • Maverick is a twisting, turning, bucking bronco of a coaster with tunnels and launches
  • Top Thrill Dragster rockets you to 193km/h in 3.8 seconds
  • Millennium is one of the first giga-coasters reaching 91m and 150km/h
  • Steel Vengeance is a wood and steel (hybrid) coaster with a 61m vertical drop, four head-over-heels loops and close to 30 seconds airtime (zero gravity) - a world record

Find out about our Flights to Chicago.

Six Flags Hurricane Harbour: Jackson, New Jersey

Part of the Six Flags amusement park group, the New Jersey Six Flags Great Adventure water park area, known as Hurricane Harbour, covers 45 acres and features 12 thrill rides, seven family rides and two attractions or zones for kids.

Family rides at Six Flags include two super-fast curving slides you ride together in a giant raft, four ultra-fast tube slides and an enormous pirate-themed wave pool. For the little-ones, there's a shallow water playground with fun slides and climbing frames, plus a gentle raft ride. To keep you fuelled up, there are plenty of food outlets serving everything from quick bites to sit-down meals. You can also book a private cabana as a base for your family or group.

Highlights:

  • For adrenalin lovers, the straight and almost-vertical Jurahnimo will drop you 23m in a matter of seconds
  • Cannonball Falls and Wahini Falls prolong the terror with super-long completely dark twisting tunnels that drop 20m and rocket you to speeds of 65 km/h
  • And then there's Tornado. Riding a four-person raft you begin six storeys up, shoot down a 40m tunnel and into a massive angled funnel that swooshes you into a pool. Competitive groups will also love the head-first, 550m long, six-lane water toboggan racer

Coney Island: Brooklyn, New York

Whether you're seven or 77, a big day out at Coney Island is both retro and riotous good fun. There are two theme parks here, Luna Park and Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park; both of them ooze New York history in the most entertaining kind of way. It takes about an hour to get to Coney Island from Manhattan by subway.

Highlights:

  • Rattle, roll and scream your way around the Coney Island Cyclone, the mother of all USA rollercoasters
  • Eat a Nathan's Famous hotdog on the Coney Island boardwalk
  • Ride the original Deno's Wonder Wheel (red and blue cars swing, white cars don't) and have a frighteningly good time at Spook-A-Rama
  • Eat clams at Gargiulo's and follow up with a William's candy apple

Busch Gardens: Williamsburg, Virginia

Busch Gardens Williamsburg VA is a Europe-themed park on a 383-acre site with 29 rides, including some of the USA's best rollercoasters. The other rides at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg include a log flume, an aerial cable car, river rapids ride and a kid-friendly coaster.

Highlights:

  • One of the most popular coasters is Griffon with its 90 degree, 63m drop and speeds of up to 120km/h
  • Apollo's Chariot drops 64m and reaches 118km/h in raised seats that make you feel like you're flying
  • Wooden rollercoaster enthusiasts will love the high speed INVADR with its nine airtime hills, short tunnels and traditional high-banked corners
  • The award-winning classic coaster, Loch Ness Monster, has the world's only twin interlocking loops, as well as a long pitch-black cave
  • Finnegan's Flyer, which has twin pendulum swings seating 32 riders swinging back and forth, to reach a height of 25m a speed of 73km/h

Find out about our Flights to New York.

Best theme parks and water parks on the West Coast

To visit these parks, you can fly Air New Zealand non-stop from Auckland to either San Francisco or Los Angeles, with onward connections available with our alliance partner United Airlines. All your USA flights - both international and domestic - can be booked through our website.

Water World: Denver, Colorado

With 50 attractions on a 70-acre site, Water World Colorado is America's largest water world theme park and it's all about getting immersed in the serious task of having fun.  

For surfers and boogie-boarders, The Wave is a must-try attraction. There's also a tamer wave pool for families that want the feeling of being at the beach. Several river rides vary from exciting rapids to relaxing drifters, and little ones have their own areas with pools, slides and water jets. If you'd like a relaxing base camp with shade for your family or group, you can book a cabana or a two-person bungalow. Water World park is located in Federal Heights, 17km north of downtown Denver. Some local accommodation providers offer Water World packages that can include admission tickets and shuttle transport to and from the park.

Highlights:

  • High on the thrill rating is Mile High Flyer, a rollercoaster-style water ride with ups, downs, curves and tunnels
  • The six-storey high Skyline Speed Slides are another favourite with thrill-seekers
  • Screamin' Mimi - a straight plunging water toboggan ride that reaches 48km/h before skimming you out across a pool
  • Competitive types will love the eight-lane head-first turbo racer with its time recorded finishes

Six Flags Magic Mountain: Los Angeles, California

Located in Santa Clarita, just 56km northwest of downtown Los Angeles, Six Flags Magic Mountain California has been called the thrill capital of the world. It's a big claim that's definitely worth verifying in person. This massive 260-acre park has more than 100 attractions, including 19 world-class rollercoasters.

Six Flags California also has plenty of attractions for families to enjoy together, like bumper cars, pirate ship swing, river rapids ride and many more. Even the little-ones have four junior coasters and 11 other rides to choose from, including swings, classic carousels, spinning tea cups, aeroplanes and fun-filled journeys through fantasy lands.

Highlights:

  • The tallest and fastest of the Six Flags Magic Mountain rollercoasters is Superman: Escape from Krypton. On this launch-style ride you accelerate backwards horizontally to an eye-watering 167km/h in just seven seconds then fly upwards to 126m (41 storeys) above the ground before flying back down face-first
  • Wooden coaster enthusiasts have to try the Apocalypse, which is super-fast with plenty of exciting turns
  • Goliath is a hypercoaster, which means it goes a step further with a terrifying 78m first drop into an underground tunnel, a top speed of 137km/h and a total ride length of 1.4km
  • Twisted Colossus is a twin track racing coaster with steep drops, two inversions and banking curves over an almost 1.5km run, making it the longest racing coaster in the world
  • 17-storey pendulum ride called CraZanity. It's the tallest ride of this type in the world. Swinging back and forth, you soon go beyond the horizontal to a height of 52m and blast through the loading station at a peak speed of 121km/h

Raging Waters Los Angeles: San Dimas, California

Just under 50km east of downtown Los Angeles, Raging Waters in San Dimas is the largest water park in California. Covering 50 acres, it specialises in fun for every age group.

Highlights:

  • For little kids, there are four purpose-built water playgrounds. The largest is Kid's Kingdom - a huge fun zone with tubes, tunnels, slides, swing bars and waterfalls
  • Larger kids can ride the Aqua Rocket, a rollercoaster-style water ride with a four-person raft that carries you over peaks and drops at spray-flinging speeds of up to 50km/h
  • For sheer terrifying pace, nothing beats Raging Rocket and Screamer, a pair of feet-first straight drops from eight storeys up
  • If you prefer face-first racing, the eight-lane Ragin' Racer lets you compete against others in a wickedly watery downhill toboggan ride
  • When you're ready for a slower pace, go rafting on the Amazon Adventure, a 0.4km long tropical river
  • Wave Cove has one-metre high waves that appear every 12 minutes and Lily Pads is a water-based obstacle course

Knott's Soak City Water Park: Buena Park, California

Around 35km southeast of downtown LA , Knott's Soak City is located next to the separate Knott's Berry Farm theme park. Covering a 15-acre site, Soak City features all the popular styles of water park rides.

Highlights:

  • Speed lovers will enjoy the three slides that drop you from the top of the 19m-high Old Man's Falls attraction
  • At Shore Break, you begin seven storeys (18m) up and enter a vertical tube with a floor that drops away to provide maximum initial acceleration before zipping through turns and over drops
  • For high-speed turns, head to the 13m-high Laguna Storm Watch Tower, where you can ride an inflatable raft, with or without a friend, down one of three spiralling tubes
  • Knott's Soak City rides for groups or families include The Wedge, a super long waterslide that you ride in rafts designed for two to six riders
  • Or share some breakers at Tidal Wave Bay, a huge wave pool with 1.2m waves that gradually decrease as they run towards the beach-style shallows - perfect for younger ones
  • Kids also love the Beach House, a three-storey concentration of water fun, with water guns, nozzles and taps, plus a 1,900 litre water bucket that empties every five minutes onto anyone standing below

Legoland® Water Park: Carlsbad, California

If you're going to Legoland in Carlsbad, 150km south of downtown Los Angeles, you can upgrade your ticket to also access the water park area. It's a great way to beat the heat on summer days in Southern California.

As you'd expect, Legoland Water Park in California has a strong Lego theme and plenty of interactivity.

Highlights:

  • You can add foam Lego bricks to customise your inner tube before floating down Build-A-Raft River
  • Imagination Station is an interactive area where younger kids can build dams, bridges and more in an area with plenty of water flows
  • For the little-ones there's Splash Zoo, an interactive area with fountains, spray pads and giant DUPLO animals. Joker Soaker and Soak-n-Sail have water cannons and a giant bucket that empties without warning on anyone below
  • If you're looking for family and group rides at a water park, Legoland California has them too. You can race each other on head-first water toboggans at Riptide Racers, share a raft on the spinning and bucking Orange Rush, and race down a flume together at Pirate Reef
  • For feet-first excitement, there's a high-speed curving water slide and twin water tubes

Disneyland®, California

Disneyland in Anaheim still reigns supreme in the theme park world, and now you have a choice - the original Disneyland Park or Disney California Adventure Park. To find out more about these parks, plus a bunch of other Anaheim attractions, go to our article about things to do in and around Anaheim, California.

Best southern theme parks

To experience these southern theme parks, fly Air New Zealand non-stop from Auckland to Houston, then connect to San Antonio or Orlando with our alliance partner United Airlines. All your USA flights - both international and domestic - can be booked through our website.

Aquatica San Antonio: San Antonio, Texas

One of a series of Aquatica water park attractions around the USA, Aquatica San Antonio is a refreshing splash of fun under the hot Texas sun. Kiwis will feel right at home, because several of rides feature distinctly New Zealand (and Australian) names. See if you can spot the colourful kiwi spouting water from their beaks!

Highlights:

  • To get your pulse racing, head to Ihu's Breakaway Falls, where the floor of your near vertical launch tube drops away to send you freefalling into a ring of high-speed tubes. It's the tallest drop-slide in Texas
  • Kiwi Curl and Woo Hoo Falls both have pairs of high-speed body slides around 137m long and one of them is completely dark
  • Tassie's Twisters and Hooroo Run have multiple, twisting, open and enclosed slides with the choice of riding a single or double raft
  • Taumata Racer has six lanes that start with a 180-degree turn, then plummet straight down in a head-first foam toboggan race from a height of 16m
  • Groups and families visiting Aquatica park will love Walhalla Wave, a large two-to-four person raft ride that twists down a tube before hurling you up an open slope. There's a feeling of weightlessness before you accelerate into the final tube section
  • Aquatica theme park also has relaxing river raft rides, a huge wave pool with up to 1.5m swells that run towards a sandy beach and several pools, water-play areas and mini-slides for kids

Disney's Typhoon Lagoon water park: Orlando, Florida

With 11 major water attractions, Typhoon Lagoon Orlando has plenty to keep you cool and entertained under the sun. Located in the middle of Florida, it's only 30km southwest of downtown Orlando.

Highlights:

  • North America's largest wave pool with breaking swells that start at 1.8m and gradually fan out as they run towards the calm shallow beach
  • Crush 'n Gusher, a 120m-long rollercoaster-style raft ride for two with plenty of drops, turns, climbs, tunnels and watery surprises
  • Humunga Kowabunga has three enclosed body slides that launch you downhill at 60 degrees for a thrilling 65m ride in complete darkness
  • A favourite with pre-schoolers visiting the Typhoon water park is Ketchakiddee Creek - an animal-themed water-play area with shallow pools, fountains, mini waterslides, a waterfall cave and a tug boat with an aimable water cannon

Universal Studios: Orlando, Florida

Universal Studios Florida™ is part of the vast Universal Florida Resort, along with Universal's Islands of Adventure™, a movie-themed ride park and Universal's tropical water park Volcano Bay™. There's enough fun here to fill an entire holiday, but for this article we'll stick to the Universal Studios park.

Hosting more than 10 million visitors a year, Universal Studios Florida is a truly stupendous theme park, as well as a working production studio. It has eight themed areas around a huge lagoon. Each of the themed areas has rides, shows, food outlets, character encounters and more.

Highlights:

  • The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley area features a hugely popular indoor rollercoaster experience called Harry Potter and the Escape from Gingotts™
  • Hogwarts Express, a train ride through scenes from the Harry Potter movies, links with a Harry Potter-themed ride at Universal's Islands of Adventure™
  • Despicable Me Minion Mayhem™ 3D ride - you'll become an actual minion!
  • Springfield: Home of the Simpsons - a themed area that brings the world of the Simpsons to life
  • Top attractions such as the Revenge of the Mummy™ ride, Transformers: The Ride 3D, Shrek 4D, Men in Black™ Alien Attack™ and E.T. Adventure™

Walt Disney World Resort: Orlando, Florida

Sitting on a 101 square kilometre site, only half of which is being used so far, Walt Disney World Orlando, Florida includes four major theme parks, two water parks, 33 hotels, golf courses a camping resort and more. That's way too much fun to cover here, so here's a taste of the Walt Disney World Florida theme parks.

The Magic Kingdom

In terms of visitor numbers, The Magic Kingdom is the biggest theme park in the USA. It's home to Frontierland, Adventureland, Main Street USA, Liberty Square, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. There are more than 40 attractions to choose from including Cinderella's castle, It's a Small world, the Seven Dwarf's Mine Train and Space Mountain, a rocketing rollercoaster ride through the galaxy. This has to be one of the top 10 theme parks in the US.

Epcot

Epcot theme park has a world-expo flavour, celebrating technological innovation and international cultures. It features two main sections - Future World and World Showcase. For visitors this means more than 30 innovative and interactive attractions designed to be highly entertaining and educational. Highlights include Spaceship Earth, a ride inside Epcot's iconic geodesic sphere; Frozen Ever After, a slow music boat tour through the world of the movie Frozen; and Advanced Training Lab, a high-tech area featuring space-themed games and activities for all ages.

Disney's Hollywood Studios

Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park is a celebration of show business covering 135 acres. Here you'll discover around 17 rides and other attractions based on the Star Wars movies, Toy Story, The Twilight Zone, The Muppets, the CGI-animated Cars movies and more.