Theme parks are built around an idea of "fun" that aims at kids, but eludes many parents. The cost of admission, the lines, the additional cost of admission to skip the line, the cost of food, the suddenly sugar-addled kids, and the inevitable breakdowns that come when that sugar wears off are all fine reasons for adults to loathe a summer visit to an amusement park. There are adults who outright love going to theme parks and might even see kids as their ticket back to senior skip day in high school; for parents who wonder what's in these theme-park trips for them, here are a few places that offer some incentive.
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Admission: starting at $72
Originally envisioned as a salute to the surrounding state — and still containing tributes to Northern California, San Francisco, Southern California piers, and Los Angeles' movie industry — California Adventure now serves as a repository for Disney's Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar properties. While there are plenty of rides and characters for the kids, a combination of adult thrill rides, the new Avengers Campus, and readily available adult beverages (especially during the park's Food & Wine Festival) makes California Adventure less of a trudge for their parents and less awkward for childless adults. Reservations are required with tickets for entry.
Anyone familiar with the 1983 or 2015 "Vacation" films will recognize this as the Griswold family's summer destination/white whale, Wally World. The real park is filled with DC Comics and Looney Tunes characters for the kids and a wealth of all-ages rides, but big coasters restricted to folks at least 54 inches tall (and those restricted to riders under 4 feet tall) are what draw college students back for the summer, as well as high school kids on summer break and parents taking a divide-and-conquer approach to the park with children of different ages. With 19 roller coasters, 30 flat-screen televisions, dueling pianos, and booze at the Full Throttle Sports Bar, Magic Mountain strikes a balance between older and younger patrons. At least that's what the moose out front should have told you.
Admission: starting at $40
The crown jewel of the Cedar Fair empire, Cedar Point has 18 roller coasters — second only to Six Flags Magic Mountain — and a lot of amenities aimed at adults. The park has beer-and-barbecue tasting events and bars in the park itself, in its Cedar Point Shores waterpark, and in its historic Hotel Breakers. With live music, a broad array of food options, and a whole lot of rides built for thrill-seeking adults, Cedar Point makes the views of Lake Erie from atop its biggest roller coasters even more inviting for older guests.
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Admission: $79, children under 10 $69
This park in the Smoky mountains has a personality as big as its namesake founder, Dolly Parton. Yes, it has roller coasters and other thrill rides, but the Southern cooking (ham and beans, fried chicken sandwiches, full sit-down dinners), country music, musical revues, barbecue and bluegrass festivals, and more make this more than just some fair-food-and-cheap-thrills theme park. It's a park that tries to bring its visitors a bit of the world outside its borders, and it does so without making it seem childish.
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Los Angeles and Orlando, Florida
Admission: starting at $109, or $104 for children under 10 in Orlando; $129, or $123 for children under 10 in Los Angeles
How do you choose between Universal Studios and ancillary attractions such as Islands of Adventure or Volcano Bay? If you're an adult, you look for the one with Moe's Tavern from "The Simpsons" or the Hog's Head Pub from Harry Potter. It's little things such as drinking a Flaming Moe or Fire Whiskey that take the edge off of Universal slowly aging adults out of the park. Think we're kidding? "Back to the Future" and "Jaws" rides have disappeared in recent years, while a "Jurassic Park" ride is being rendered extinct by a "Jurassic World" replacement. Give the kids a Butterbeer or Buzz Cola and explain to them what life was like when "Ghostbusters," "King Kong" and "Terminator 2" warranted rides.
Disney really doesn't mind having adults around and hasn't hidden its desire to have more adult-specific entertainment throughout its parks. From 1989 to 2008, it had an adults-only branch of Walt Disney World, Pleasure Island, that hosted nightclubs, comedy clubs, and a nightly New Year's Eve celebration complete with fireworks. A demand for more "family friendly" experiences got Pleasure Island scrapped, becoming "The Landing" entertainment district in the newly dubbed Disney Springs — but while children are invited to take hot air balloon flights, bowl, ride the carousel, and take a train through the shopping district, The Landing is still primarily an adult playground. Get a vintage cocktail at Indiana Jones' pal Jock Lindsey's Hangar Bar, enjoy a beer and sushi at Morimoto Asia, grab a Belgian lambic at The Edison, enjoy prosecco with dinner at Maria & Enzo's, or have a nightcap at Enzo's Hideaway. Disney wants you to know it's okay to have fun here without the kids.
Admission: $60, or $53 for kids under 9
This company-based amusement park in a company town makes things easy with height requirements for rides that measure from "Miniatures" (under 3 feet) to the "Jolly Rancher" (6 feet and over). There are 15 coasters and 16 water rides to choose from, as well as other rides, but there's also an 11-acre zoo, an arcade, a 23-acre garden, a Hershey museum, and related hotel properties including the Hershey Lodge or the Hotel Hershey. Adults get to enjoy a Yuengling beer garden all by themselves.
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Opened in 2001 when Disney decided to make Disneyland a world of its own, Downtown Disney is a smaller, less humid version of Disney Springs. The restaurants, shops, and bowling are all there, but the addition of a Ballast Point brewery and Black Craft beer-and-burger joint suggest that this serves the same purpose as Disney Springs: To wring one last bit of money out of parents while they decompress after a long day at the parks.
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Admission: starting at $109
If you're paying this much for admission to the Walt Disney World theme parks, you may as well hit the most adult-friendly stop of all: the global pavilion Epcot, which means it has food and beverages from at least 11 spots around the globe. This had led to suggestions for parents attempting to drink their way around the world, and Epcot has its own Food & Wine Festival in late summer and fall that gives adults the opportunity to try even more booze and treats. Between all this and pavilions sponsored by multinational corporations, maybe we should be asking what's so great about Epcot for kids? Currently, reservations are required at all Disney parks.
Los Angeles and Orlando, Florida
The Hollywood and Orlando City Walks are less a part of Universal Studios theme parks than they are big, carnival-barker entrances to those parks. Home to restaurants such as Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, Johnny Rocket's, and Dongpo Kitchen, as well as fast-food options including Pink's Hot Dogs and KFC, City Walk is built to make theme-park visitors stick around awhile and attract folks who would never pay admission or ride the rides. For adults who'd like to end their park day at a nightclub, a piano bar, or a movie — or even for adults who'd like to skip the rides and go right to the food, booze, movies, and shops, City Walk is the self-contained entertainment district they've been looking for.
The Great Wolf Lodge hotel/indoor water park chain has 18 facilities across the country, plus one in Canada. The center of the attention is the thicket of pools, waterslides, and water forts, but the lodge also plies kids with mini golf, shows, costumed characters, arcade games, and stuffed-animal workshops. What's in it for the adults? A fitness center, nightly food-and-wine pairings and, for a fee, hotel rooms with separate tent or cabin sleeping areas for the kids.
Admission: Starting at $164
Discovery Cove is costly, but it offers something adults and kids prize: Hands-on time with animals. Instead of just looking at fish and marine mammals in tanks, Discovery Cove allows guests to swim with them in lagoons and even feed fish near its reef. Guests get to walk through an aviary, snorkel through coral, float along a lazy river, or bask in the 85-degree water of the bay. All food, drink, towels, snorkels, and other amenities are included; swimming with dolphins and sharks costs extra.
Charlotte, North Carolina
Admission: $40 and up
Straddling the Carolinas' state line, Carowinds is a theme park that fits the grand theme park template: Thrill rides, kiddie rides, fair and fast food (think Auntie Anne's Pretzels, Chick-fil-A, Cinnabon, and Rita's Italian Ice), live acts, and a Halloween event. Unlike several other theme parks, Carowinds includes admission to its waterpark attraction in its regular ticket price. It doesn't cater to adults so much as it proves how smart it is about parenting with its "parents' survival guide" that includes height wristbands that determine what a kid can and can't ride, kid-tracking bracelets, expanded family rest rooms, and a service that allows parents watching a child who doesn't want to go on a ride to simply swap places when the ride is over.
Admission: $74, or $64 for children under 12
Branson likes to throw a lot of things at visitors at once, which is why Silver Dollar City is a theme park, old-timey artisan community, music venue, fairgrounds, Southern food court, and roadside cave attraction all rolled into one. Adults can take cooking classes, use various family amenities or just sit the kids down in front of the summer concert series. At this sprawling facility, families have options.
Glenwood Springs, Colorado
Admission: $61, or $56 for children up to age 13
This mountaintop park wasn't built with a specific age group in mind and doesn't use cartoon characters, fried food, or kiddie rides as primary selling points. Its Rocky Mountain setting 7,000 feet above sea level is the main attraction, and only enhances the experience of a roller coaster perched on a cliff's edge, swings that soar over the Colorado River, a zip line over the valley below, a mountain tram, and an attraction called the Haunted Mine Drop that plunges riders 110 feet into Iron Mountain. Kids can always simply tour the caverns or take the tram if they aren't feeling brave, but this park was built with bold adults in mind.
First opened in 1926, this central Pennsylvania amusement park has stayed around this long by offering adults one very big incentive: a break. It costs nothing to park here, to get through the gates, or to watch the live entertainment. There are day passes ($30 to $43 for adults, or $20 to $30 for kids under 4 feet tall, or books of tickets for rides, the swimming pool and slides, or the park's 18-hole golf course. While stocked with independent snack food and restaurant options, Knoebels also serves adults beers, cocktails, and happy hour specials at its year-round Nickle Plate Bar & Grill.
Williamsburg, Virginia and Tampa, Florida
Admission: $45 in Williamsburg, or $90 in Tampa
It's been a decade since either of these facilities were owned by brewer Anheuser-Busch, which sold them in 2009 after a merger with brewing company InBev, but beer remains a staple, with Tampa hosting a Brew Club that gives members their own beer stein and discounts on refills. Meanwhile, the Williamsburg park is a miniature tour of Europe where visitors can get German beers in a designated Oktoberfest section, draft beers in France and Italy, and a pint at a pub in Ireland. For nearly 10 years, the new owners have been trying to make the places more family friendly with "Sesame Street" characters and shows, but thrill rides, restaurants, and beer selection keep Busch Gardens fun for those over 21.
Admission: On weekends, $50 for adults and $40 for kids 52 inches or shorter; $2 less on weekdays
Lake Compounce originally opened in 1846 and is the nation's oldest continually operated amusement park, with a carousel dating back to 1898 and one wooden coaster (the Wildcat) to 1927. Filter for height and "thrill level" and there's at least a half-dozen rides best left to the adults. Families can stay the night at the park's campsite, while adults can sample local craft beers at the Lake Compounce Watering Hole. With admission covering the amusement park and its Crocodile Cove water park, adults also get a rare discount on a day in the water that's typically an a la carte extra.
Salem, New Hampshire
Admission: $43 (Wednesdays and Thursdays) or $32 for kids under 4 feet tall any day
Built in 1902 to promote the Massachusetts Northeast Street Railway Co., Canobie Lake Park is a "trolley park" that outlived the trolley and worked its way into the memories of generations of New England kids. Even kids who've grown and are taking kids of their own can still enjoy the rides and games, but can now order a Samuel Adams or a boozy slush at the Sons of Liberty Tavern. There are lots of kiddie rides and shows for younger guests — including a water park — but rides their parents remember like the Yankee Cannonball and Ice Jet (the spinning dance party formerly known as the Matterhorn) are still around. Advanced reservations are required.
This trolley park was built in 1905 as an attraction for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. There are no cartoon characters and are no large rides, but there is mini golf, carnival games, kiddie rides, a smattering of rides for grown-ups (bracelets are $20 and $40), and the main attraction: The original 1905 skating rink with a live pipe organist. The rink floats on barrels when the nearby Willamette River floods, and its annex rink is used by the Rose City Rollers roller derby team for certain matches. Skate sessions are $10 with skate rental included, and the rink is open even during events such as the park's beer-focused Oktoberfest or its fresh-hop beer festival.
West Mifflin, Pennsylvania
Admission: On weekdays, $50 for adults and $40 for kids under 46 inches tall ($5 more on weekends)
One of the only amusement parks considered a National Historic Landmark, Kennywood opened in 1899 and has been running ever since. Pittsburgh's Mellon family used it to promote its trolley, but Kennywood's greatest contributions to rail history may be its two roller coasters — the Jack Rabbit and Racer — that date back to the 1920s. Victorian windmills and fountains make the place gorgeous enough to just enjoy a leisurely stroll through after the kids get tired of the Thomas the Tank engine area of the park. It's so pretty, in fact, that the production crew of the 2009 film "Adventureland" had to ugly it up just to make it look like it could be a ratty Long Island amusement park.
Rye, New York
Admission: $20, or $15 for kids under 4 feet tall $10 if you don't want to ride the rides
About 30 years ago, the movie "Big" put Tom Hanks on Playland's boardwalk and had him begging a fortune-telling machine to undo the spell that transformed him from a young boy into a tall, hairy comedic actor. Meanwhile, Playland has been around for 91 years after being built as a late entry among the nation's trolley amusement parks. With its own stretch of beach along the Long Island Sound, a swimming pool, live bands, roller coasters, and more, Playland is basically Coney Island by Interstate 95.
Admission: $70, or $52 for kids under 4 feet tall
Opened in 1886 as a railroad resort, Lagoon is now home to nine roller coasters, dozens of rides, live shows, a pioneer village, a waterpark with landlocked beach, and adjacent campground, and most of it — including the live shows of magic and song — is crafted to entertain adults as much as the kids. There's a lot included with the price of admission and, as is the case with many of the parks on this list, a lot of deals for savvy parents who shop for the cheapest dates.
Brooklyn, New York
Admission: $65, or $40 for kids under 4 feet tall ($55 and $35 Monday-Thursday)
This is the home of the Cyclone, the B&B "Carousell," and the rebuilt Thunderbolt roller coaster. (The Wonder Wheel is owned separately and will cost you extra. Nope, the freak show doesn't come with it either, though it's well worth supporting.) While kids will love the rides and a day at the beach, adults have come here for generations just to get a Nathan's hot dog (or Totonno's pizza), have a beer (there is a brewery here, after all) and enjoy some summer fun just a subway ride away. Of all of Coney Island's rides, the underfunded D, F, N, and Q trains might be the most frightening. Because of the pandemic, admission is now limited to timed entry reservations, so be sure to visit the website for current info.
Admission: $40, or $20 for kids under 4 feet tall
The '90s push for family-friendly Vegas fun is long over. The Treasure Island casino ditched its pirate boat battle for boozy waterfront bars. The Boardwalk resort with its Coney Island Roller Coaster and Ferris wheel was imploded more than a decade ago. Speed: The Ride disappeared with the Sahara. The New York, New York's coaster so bored visitors that the resort now straps virtual-reality gear to its riders' heads. Excalibur literally directs kids to a "fun dungeon," Unless parents want to suspend their kids off the roof of the Stratosphere, there's one option for parents seeking family fun in Vegas: Adventuredome. Under 5 acres of tinted glass canopy behind the Circus Circus casino, this collection of carnival games, arcade games, roller coasters, go karts, kiddie rides and themed "premium rides" (think Spongebob, "Ice Age," and "Pacific Rim") represents the last kid-friendly holdout on a rapidly changing stretch of the Vegas strip. What's in it for parents? Well, staying at an affiliated MGM resort gives them access to babysitting services that might offer them a little time on the town to themselves.