8 quirky US theme parks you have to see to believe

If we were playing a word association game and I said “theme park,” you’d probably respond with “Disney World” or “Universal Orlando.” That’s not surprising considering both parks see millions of visitors each year — but they are far from the only theme parks out there.

In fact, there are parks all across the country that have something the heavy-hitters don’t — a quirkiness that makes them possibly even better suited to the term “theme park” than their more widely-known counterparts.

What do Santa, SpongeBob and steer loaders have in common? You can find them all at these eight quirky U.S. theme parks.

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In This Post

Carousel Gardens Amusement Park

Exterior of fun house
Carousel Gardens Amusement Park. (Photo courtesy of New Orleans City Park)

Location: New Orleans, Lousiana.

Cost: $25 for guest 36 inches and up, free for kids under 36 inches, $15 for chaperones accompanying a child and $13 for seniors.

HighlightsCarousel Gardens Amusement Park is located within New Orleans City Park, a 170-year old, 1,300-acre public park in The Big Easy. The park also houses a botanical garden, miniature golf course, paddle boats, an art museum and a Storyland walkthrough park with larger-than-life storybook sculptures.

The 18 family-friendly rides at Carousel Gardens include traditional carnival rides like bumper cars and a tilt-a-whirl and even a small roller coaster. The park’s namesake carousel is more than 100 years old and the moss-covered oak trees that surround the park are much, much older, creating the same enchantment and nostalgia that characterizes New Orleans itself.

Enchanted Forest

Replica European village at Enchanted Forest theme park
The Enchanted Forest. (Photo courtesy of Enchanted Forest)

Location: Salem, Oregon.

Cost: Adult tickets start at $18.25, children ages 3-12 at $16.25, seniors age 62 and up at $16.75 and kids under 2 are free. Save by pre-purchasing online.

HighlightsIf you’ve ever dreamed of going through the looking glass with “Alice in Wonderland” or seeing how the “Little Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe” decorated her humble dwelling, you can do both at Enchanted Forest.

The park lets you enter real-life versions of favorite fairytale lands, including an Old West town, an idyllic European village and an interactive storybook-themed play area. Within the lands are a variety of kid-friendly rides like a carousel, train and pint-sized Ferris wheel.

Ride tickets must be purchased separately for $1 each; each ride requires between three and five tickets.

The North Pole — Santa’s Workshop

Santa riding on a train
The North Pole — Santa’s Workshop. (Photo courtesy of The North Pole – Santa’s Workshop)

Location: Cascade, Colorado.

Cost: During summer and fall, entry is free and you only need to pay for ride tickets. Unlimited ride packages are also available. During the holiday season, admission is $25 per person and reservations are required.

Highlights: Luckily, you don’t have to travel all the way to the real North Pole to visit this holiday-themed park. This North Pole is located near the base of Pikes Peak in Colorado — a fitting location for Santa’s workshop.

Related: Searching for Santa: A once-in-a-lifetime trip in Finland’s snowy Arctic

The park has more than two dozen rides, mostly geared toward families with young children, with some designed for children to ride by themselves. The Peppermint Slide and Santa’s Sleigh Ride tie directly into the park’s Christmas theme, but all the attractions have a festive feel thanks to the snow-capped mountain setting.

During your visit, you can also meet Santa, sip hot chocolate or apple cider, and send a letter or postcard back home with a special North Pole postmark.

Nickelodeon Universe

Aerial view of Nickelodeon Universe theme park
Nickelodeon Universe. (Photo courtesy of American Dream)

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota, at the Mall of America and East Rutherford, New Jersey, at American Dream.

Cost: Ticket prices start at $45 at the Mall of America location and $49 at the American Dream location. Discount tickets are available for children ages 3-9, active duty and veteran military members and seniors age 65 and up. Children 2 years and younger are free.

HighlightsBoth Nickelodeon Universe locations are unique in their own right, but there are a number of slime-covered similarities. Both are decked out in Nickelodeon’s signature green and orange color scheme and have rides and meet-and-greets themed to Nickelodeon franchises new and old, including “Blue’s Clues,” “SpongeBob Square Pants,” “Fairly Odd Parents” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

They’re also easier to get to and less expensive than the all-inclusive Nickelodeon Resorts in Punta Cana and Riviera Maya.

The American Dream location boasts the distinction of being the largest indoor theme park in the Western Hemisphere, while the Mall of America Nickelodeon Universe is located in the largest mall in the U.S.

Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park

Children playing at water park
Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park. (Photo courtesy of Steve Forman Photography/Visit Gilroy)

Location: Gilroy, California.

Cost: $45 per person when you pre-purchase online; children under 3 are free.

HighlightsGilroy Gardens is a horticulture-themed amusement park known for its nature-defying “circus trees.” The circus trees are real trees whose branches and trunks were shaped and bent as they grew. You can still see them throughout the park and there’s even a replica circus tree play structure in the water park.

There’s more than just trees at Gilroy Gardens, though. The park has more than 40 family-friendly rides and attractions — some, like the Artichoke Dip and the Garlic Twirl, incorporate the park’s garden theme.

Knoebels Amusement Resort

Sky bucket ride
Knoebels Amusement Resort. (Photo courtesy of Knoebels Amusement Resort)

Location: Elysburg, Pennsylvania.

Cost: Admission is free, but you can pay $48 for a “ride all day” ticket for guests 48 inches and up, $32 for guests under 48 inches. Save by purchasing online ahead of time.

HighlightsWhat’s not to love about a park with a beaver mascot named Kozmo? Knoebels Amusement Resort has been in operation since 1926 and still retains its old-fashioned charm. In fact, you can visit one of the park’s original attractions to this day.

The Crystal Pool spring-fed swimming hole was once accompanied by just a merry-go-round and a collection of food stalls. Today, it is surrounded by a mix of child-friendly and thrill rides, a haunted mansion, carousel museum, mining museum and Knoebels history museum.

Dutch Wonderland

Roller coaster
Dutch Wonderland. (Photo courtesy of Robby Capps Photography/Dutch Wonderland)

Location: Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Cost: $49.99 for guests ages 3 and up, with discounts for military members and first responders. Children under 3 are free.

HighlightsDutch Wonderland bills itself as a Kingdom for Kids, emphasis on the “kingdom.” You enter the park through a large stone castle facade and, once inside, you’ll encounter characters like Duke the Dragon and Merlin the magician.

The park is geared toward families with younger children. There’s a prehistoric path full of life-size dinosaurs plus a dig area, kid-friendly rides and coasters and a large water play area.

Dig World

People operating heavy machinery
Dig World. (Photo courtesy of Dig World TX/Facebook)

Location: Katy, Texas.

Cost: $24.99 for a two-hour pass. Children under 32 inches tall are free.

Highlights: The creative geniuses behind Dig World realized so many of us have driven past a construction site and fought the urge to hop in a bulldozer and start bulldozing. So they built a park where kids and adults and can do just that, but in a safe, supervised environment.

Dig World has a selection of excavators and steer loaders that you can use to drive, dig, fish objects out of the water and pick up cones. If your kids aren’t quite ready to operate heavy machinery, there’s also gem mining, a playground and lawn games to keep them occupied.

Bottom line

Much like a can’t-miss roadside attraction, the U.S. is full of quirky, one-of-a-kind theme parks that can make a vacation (or staycation) memorable and fun.

Featured photo courtesy of American Dream.

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