Planning a family road trip this spring or summer? Turn the car from Florida or California and head to one of these lesser known theme parks to save money, ditch the crowds, and get back to old-fashioned fun. You may not have heard of any or all of these off-the-beaten-path parks from the Pacific Northwest to Eastern Canada, but that's what makes them so great!
Silver Dollar City - Missouri
A small theme park with a big heart, Silver Dollar City started out as a basic cave tour in rural Missouri. Relocated to Branson, it's equal parts educational and exciting, with attractions for everyone from toddlers to grannies. Older kids and thrill seekers will want to check out the award-winning roller coasters, while youngsters and preschoolers have a section of the park all to themselves. Everyone will enjoy the slower-paced atmosphere surrounding Silver Dollar City's artisan venues, where craftsmen and women demonstrate the art of everything from candle-making to glass blowing and leather working.
Live shows are an integral part of the park, as is the food beyond your typical Carnival grub, there's homemade Southern cooking, sweet shops, and handmade candies. There's even a frontier village, should you feel the need to go back to your roots.
Knoebles - Pennsylvania
If you're used to having your budget crushed at every turn on a vacation, you'd better sit down for this: Knoebles in central Pennsylvania is America's largest free admission theme park. What's the catch? Well, you do pay a la carte for rides, but even the thrill rides, which there are many, cost only about $2-$3, and the kiddie rides are even less, setting you back just a buck or so. Older kids and teens will love the roller coasters and dizzying rides like Looper, which has visitors constantly upside-down, and everyone can enjoy the more tamer selections, such as the antique cars, carousel, and ferris wheel.
Free activities also abound, making it possible to spend the day nearly cost-free. Families can take in shows, visit the park's museums, enjoy the play area, check out the bald eagle habitat, and swim at Crystal Pool...part of the mini waterpark with 900,000 gallons of fresh mountain water -- all gratis. There's plenty of shopping and dining, and even a campground on site to save you even more money.
Enchanted Forest - Oregon
We're not sure how they do it, but Salem's Enchanted Forest seamlessly blends fairy tales, the wild west, European villages, and classic carnival rides into one charming theme park. Set in a lush forest for ambiance, Enchanted Forest's winding walkways lead families through replicas of the Seven Dwarves mine, the Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe's boot, and even a gold mine. Many opportunities present themselves for children to run, explore, and climb, with most areas interactive.
The western town sits on a hill overlooking a European village (don't ask why...), with windows kids can peer into to see old-timey saloon scenes, a 19th century dentistry practice, and a blacksmith shop. For those who like rides, Enchanted Forest does offer attractions ranging from a log flume to a bobsled roller coaster, but thrill seekers will likely find the quaint offerings fairly tame. Instead, embrace the wonder of the light and water show (included in park admission) and grab a potato sack to slide down the Old Woman's shoe.
Centreville - Ontario
Located on picturesque Centre Island just off the shores of Toronto, Centreville offers a convenient getaway with an away-from-it-all feel. For kids, half the fun is getting there, as it requires a ferry from Queens Quay West on the waterefront. Once on Centre Island, there's much for families to do, before even paying the park admission. Kids can ride bikes or walk the extensive paths with playgrounds along the way, sunbathe and wade at the Centre Island Beach, and check out Franklin Children's Garden, where kids can either observe or garden themselves.
Centerville harks from an era of old-school amusement park fun: its 30 rides on 600 acres are all young-kid friendly and have been around for decades. In addition to the carnival, Centreville has a petting zoo, green spaces, over a dozen food vendors, and entertainment. Don’t expect big theme park thrills, this is just a day in the park.
Lagoon - Utah
Lagoon has been around since the end of the 19th century, with roots as a water play area on the banks of a nine acre pond in rural Farmington. Known by locals as Salt Lake City's playground ever since, the park has been upgraded with roller coasters and thrill rides, live shows, a pioneer village, and plenty of attractions for the younger set. Getting wet and wild is still a central theme at Lagoon A Beach, where kids can run rapids, float in lazy rivers, and play in the pools.
Lagoon's Roller Coaster has been in operation since 1921, and is one of the few wooden roller coasters left in the US. The Tipsy Teacups will remind you of a another major theme park (without the price tag), while the tilt-a-whirl and giant swings will take you back to your days at the county fair. One of the best ways to enjoy Lagoon is with a season pass, but day admission is still affordable, as well.