Florida has some serious theme park bragging rights. Our eccentric state continues to be number one when it comes to these playgrounds on steroids, as proven by the most recent TEA/AECOM theme index report. Seven of the top ten theme parks with the highest attendance in the nation can be found in the Sunshine State. Take that, California and, uh, Ohio.
With so many enticing theme parks within driving distance, we ranked the very best Florida has to offer. Here are the fun-filled places where the attractions and shows are worth the long lines and overpriced nachos.
1. Disney's Magic Kingdom. Not even the new stench coming from the Hall of Presidents could spoil the most magical place on Earth. Disney’s Magic Kingdom continues to offer unparalleled nostalgia with classic rides such as the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean and the iconic Cinderella Castle. But Mickey Mouse isn’t resting on his laurels. The Happily Ever After fireworks show — a higher-tech version of its predecessor — and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster are just two of the recent additions that help give the park a modern feel. Be sure to plan ahead with the FastPass+ reservation system, because the Magic Kingdom has more attractions than you can shake a jumbo turkey leg at. 1180 Seven Seas Dr., Lake Buena Vista; 407-824-4321; disneyworld.com.
2. Universal’s Islands of Adventure. We’re just going to come out and say it: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is the best theme park ride in the nation, if not the world. You don’t have to be a Potterhead to enjoy the state-of-the-art dark ride’s high-speed turns and projection screens, which make you feel like you’re flying around Hogwarts castle. Hell, even the pre-ride queue through the meticulous castle is a blast. The same goes for the new Skull Island: Reign of Kong ride, where you line up in a creepy temple full of even creepier surprises. Really, it’s just nice to have something to take your mind off your sore feet and the annoying family behind you. 6000 Universal Blvd., Orlando; 407-363-8000; universalorlando.com.
3. Epcot. The Magic Kingdom’s geeky sibling is a park many of us didn’t truly appreciate until we got older. That’s not to say we didn’t have fun spiraling up Spaceship Earth or soaking in the Mexican culture in the Mesoamerican pyramid. They just didn’t hold our attention the way they do now. The best part about adulting at Epcot is the World Showcase’s food and booze options, which are tops among Disney theme parks. Each of the 11 pavilions have their own country-appropriate offerings, such as Warsteiner Dunkel beer in Germany and sake in Japan, and seem like a fun setting for a pub crawl. "Drink around the world" at your own peril. 200 Epcot Center Dr., Lake Buena Vista; 407-824-4321; disneyworld.com.
4. Disney's Animal Kingdom. This Disney-fied zoo had a reputation as a half-day park until Pandora: The World of Avatar opened in 2017. Now a half-day seems unlikely, especially because the 3D simulator ride Flight of Passage alone commands waits two to four hours long. FastPass the hot ride of the moment if you can, and make time for the Expedition Everest coaster and the African wildlife in Kilimanjaro Safaris. And because The Lion King musical isn’t coming to the Adrienne Arsht Center until 2019, check out the half-hour Festival of the Lion King show to hold you over. 2901 Osceola Pkwy., Lake Buena Vista; 407-939-5277; disneyworld.com.
5. Universal Studios. Where else can you order a butterbeer to chase down your Krusty Burger? Universal Studios is a hodgepodge of TV- and film-themed attractions such as the Simpsons area, featuring a comical VR roller coaster through Krusty’s crappy theme park, and Diagon Alley, the second Harry Potter territory and home to the Escape From Gringotts roller coaster. No need to add to your Fitbit steps total when traveling between Diagon Alley and Islands of Adventure’s Hogsmeade. The Hogwarts Express train picks you up and drops you off in both if you have tickets to both parks. 6000 Universal Blvd., Orlando; 407-363-8000; universalorlando.com.
6. Busch Gardens. Before there was Disney World, there was this Tampa theme park originally owned by Anheuser-Busch. The African-themed Busch Gardens, which opened in 1959, has since been taken over by SeaWorld and, sadly, no longer offers free beer samples. But what it does have is a zoo including 300-plus species of animals and the meanest collection of thrill rides in Florida. The most intimidating of the bunch is the pants-wetting Falcon’s Fury, a freestanding tower that drops you a shuddering 335 feet — face-down. Other rides sure to test your fortitude are the steel roller coasters Cheetah Hunt and the floorless Sheikra. 3605 E. Bougainvillea Ave., Tampa; 813-987-5280; buschgardens.com/tampa.
7. Volcano Bay. The bar has been raised on water parks. Universal Orlando’s shiny new toy reportedly cost nearly $600 million, making it the nation's priciest water park. What did that money go toward? For starters, the 200-foot Krakatau volcano is the centerpiece. And don’t forget about the slides running from the volcano, including the unnerving kind that drop the door below your feet and a water coaster that shoots your canoe up hills using magnet technology. The park has been drawing big crowds since opening in 2017. Fortunately, Volcano Bay’s digital wristband reservation system allows you to relax in the winding river or at the bar while waiting for slides rather than in line. 6000 Universal Blvd., Orlando; 407-224-4233; universalorlando.com/volcanobay.
8. SeaWorld. Wait, hear us out. Following the Blackfish backlash, SeaWorld has been phasing out its orca shows and breeding and replaced its dolphin show, Blue Horizons, with the educational Dolphin Days. For some visitors, that’s enough. Others believe more changes are necessary. One thing is certain: SeaWorld is in transition mode. There’s been a welcome shift in focus with the additions of the Mako hypercoaster, upcoming Infinity Falls rapids ride, Electric Ocean night show, and Seven Seas Food Festival. And did we mention SeaWorld is less crowded these days? 7007 SeaWorld Dr., Orlando; 407-370-1239; seaworld.com/orlando.
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9. Disney's Hollywood Studios. This classic Hollywood-themed park formerly known as Disney-MGM Studios continues to pack 'em in, finishing fifth in attendance among U.S. theme parks. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror — Disney World’s second-tallest ride after Expedition Everest, for you trivia buffs — is Hollywood Studios' unofficial signature attraction, and the 4D shooting ride Toy Story Mania is its most popular. Those stats will likely change when the somewhat outdated park, by Disney standards, completes its much-talked-about face-lift. Toy Story Land is scheduled to open this June, followed by the 14-acre Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in 2019, which is sure to be a theme park game-changer. 351 South Studio Dr., Lake Buena Vista; 407-824-4321; disneyworld.com.
10. Legoland. Warning: Visiting this toy-inspired theme park without children can lead to awkward stares and feelings of self-consciousness. Legoland is billed as a park "specifically for families with children aged 2 to 12 years old." Now that we got that out of the way, you’ll want to ride the Great Lego Race, a tame roller coaster livened up by VR headsets. Also head to Miniland USA’s nine themed areas, including Star Wars, for the impressive displays made of — what else? — Lego bricks. Oh, and try the famous warm Granny’s Apple Fries. That’s kind of the thing there. 1 Legoland Way, Winter Haven; 888-690-5346; legoland.com/florida.