Is there a more iconic summer snapshot than that moment you crest the top of a roller coaster drop? Long lines and high temps be damned: Amusement parks are the season incarnate. We’ve rounded up 10 of the nation’s most mind-blowing thrill spots. Be sure to secure your personal belongings before reading.
Best amusement parks in America
Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, VA
Fun fact: We once spent the night at Busch Gardens after a freak tropical storm trapped us weather-ignorant folks in the park for hours. Young children screamed and wept as lightning splintered the sky. And we’d still go back; that’s just how good it is. Among the notable coasters is the now classic double-looping Loch Ness Monster, which might have kick-started the country’s modern coaster craze.
Must ride: The new Tempesto derives its inspiration from the 1920s Italian daredevil; the coaster cars rev forward and backward once before ascending vertically into a series of insane corkscrew inversions while 154 feet in the air.
Carowinds, Charlotte, NC
They don’t call it the “Thrill Capital of the Southeast” for nothing. (At least, they better not.) Carowinds gives five of its most daring coasters the “Aggressive Thrill” seal of approval, which translates to coaster rides stuffed with consecutive 360-degree loops, backward inversions and uphill helixes.
Must-ride: The Fury 325, new in 2015 and billed as both the tallest and fastest giga-coaster in the world (i.e. bigger and badder than either the Millennium Force or the Intimidator 305), with speeds up to 95 miles per hour.
Cedar Point, Sandusky, OH
It well may be the country’s amusement park standard-bearer: 365 acres of both classic and cutting-edge rides located on a peninsula in Lake Erie. The second oldest amusement park in America, Cedar Point mixes its pioneering coasters with water rides and classic throwbacks (Ferris wheel, sky ride, adult carousel). Its newest offering is the Rougarou, a floorless coaster that tosses you upside down no fewer than four times. Also new this season: the renovated Hotel Breakers, with a sizeable beachfront and pimped-out pool deck.
Must-ride: At the “Roller Coaster Capital of the World” (17 thrill rides and counting), decisions don’t come easy. But we have to go with the Millennium Force, which cranks up to 93 miles per hour and includes an inaugural 80-degree drop that robs you of all appreciation of the surrounding water views.
Dollywood, Pigeon Forge, TN
Why Dollywood? Because its namesake is Dolly frickin’ Parton, for starters. And because the five-mile water ride encourages you to attack the rafters behind you with soaker guns. And because the park includes an indoor coaster called Blazing Fury that has you faux-outrunning an uncontrollable inferno. Are Northeast amusement parks even allowed to offer these sorts of near-felonious thrills?
Must-ride: The Mystery Mine steel coaster includes a 95-degree drop (how is that possible, science-wise?) that ends in a darkened tunnel.
Hersheypark, Hershey, PA
“Hersheypark as in Hershey Chocolate?” Yes, actually, which would explain the height charts broken down by candy bar. But don’t get lulled into thinking this is a kids-only attraction: Among the steel coasters is the inverted Great Bear, which eventually takes riders into a deranged loop called an Immelmann, named after a World War I aerial maneuver.
Must-ride: Laff Track is an unlikely combo of roller coaster and funhouse, complete with a hall of mirrors.
Holiday World, Santa Claus, IN
The calling card at Holiday World is surprisingly anachronistic: The Voyage, a 1.2-mile-long wooden coaster that still manages to pack a 21st century punch. Think 90-degree banking, 24 seconds of airtime, and five underground tunnels. Those who prefer water to land can scurry off to the connected Spashin’ Safari Water Park, which includes two ginormous water coasters, and routinely wins accolades as one of the best water parks in America.
Must-ride: The Thunderbird Steel is the nation’s first launched wing coaster—which means that riders sit suspended on either side of the track (i.e. nothing sits between them and the open air) and are also immediately propelled into high-speed loops and barrel rolls (i.e. no creaky use of gravity to gather speed).
Kentucky Kingdom, Louisville, KY
After a four-year closure, Kentucky Kingdom has reemerged with aplomb this year, debuting no fewer than eight new rides. The newcomers include Cyclos, a 360-degree swinging pendulum, and T3 (that’s Terror to the Third Power), which has you suspended and upside down and otherwise quaking for 2,260 feet of smooth steel track.
Must-ride: You can’t beat Lightning Run for the sheer initial thrill: a 100-foot drop at 80 degrees.
King’s Dominion, Doswell, VA
The 40-year-old King’s Dominion began building its coaster reputation in the aughts, leading to the 2010 introduction of the Intimidator 305, a 305-foot-tall giga-coaster in the vein of Cedar Point’s Millennium Force. But the park is chock-full of adult rides whose names underscore their thrill factor: the Ricochet, the Hurler, the Berzerker. Animatronic dinosaurs and a Peanuts-themed kids area mean you can easily distract the tykes while you head back for repeat runs.
Must-ride: Sure, the Intimidator is intimidating and all, but we like the decades-old Grizzly, a massive wooden coaster buried in deep forest brush, the design of which recalls the late, lamented Coney Island Wildcat.
Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, NJ
The name doesn’t deceive: Six Flags Great Adventure is all about intrepid exploration. Start with the Green Lantern, a stand-up monstrosity that begins with a 144-foot drop before immediately segueing into a 121-foot loop. Once you’ve (somewhat) regained your balance, move on to the Nitro, a “hypercoaster” that begins with a 215-foot drop and culminates in a 540-degree helix spiral (we got sick just typing that).
Must-ride: The seven-story El Diablo coaster. The sicko ride has you pendulum-ing back and forth until you finally land upside down, then rocketing through a total of six complete loops.
Six Flags Magic Mountain, Valencia, CA
Attention, LA neophytes: The cool kids don’t go to Disneyland. Instead they head north to Six Flags Magic Mountain for rides unlike any you’ve seen: the Superman, which drops you 415 feet in seven seconds at speeds up to 100 miles per hour; the Ninja, a suspended coaster that swings you sideways a full 90 degrees; and the Slingshot, which, well, slingshots you upwards, then upside down, then straight towards the restrooms for a post-aerial hurl.
Must-ride: Twisted Colossus, the new woodie-steel hybrid that reinterprets the park’s original, 36-year-old wooden coaster for the modern age. Along with the 116-foot, 80-degree drop comes a 360-degree G roll and a throat-clogging, slo-mo inversion that leaves you dangling for what feels like about 15,000 hours.