Theme parks are well known for their crazy coasters and thrill rides that spin guests until they question their lunch decisions. But many of them have worked tirelessly to transform their image from one of just boardwalk rides to entertainment meccas for visitors of all ages. From California to Florida, there are several great parks that offer group travelers live music performances, stage productions, VIP tours and catered meals.
Universal’s Islands of Adventure
Like many Orlando theme parks, Universal’s Islands of Adventure puts a different spin on the typical amusements. Instead of just thrill rides — and it has plenty — the park offers themed adventures throughout. Visitors become wizards in training in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Hogsmeade or take a thrilling raft ride through Jurassic Park. Cast a spell using your interactive magic wand to make magical displays throughout Hogsmeade come to life or cheer on the wizarding students participating in the Triwizard Tournament at a spirit rally. At night, Hogwarts Castle is lit up with lights and music celebrating the four Hogwarts houses.
Groups can take advantage of the Universal Orlando VIP experience, a guided tour through Universal Studios Florida or Universal’s Islands of Adventure, or both. They get an exclusive backstage pass, where they learn the backstories and jump the line at the park’s most popular rides and attractions. They also get reserved seating at permanent shows and a complimentary continental breakfast and lunch.
The one-day, one-park experience gives guests a five-hour tour with priority entrance into a minimum of eight major rides and attractions at the park of their choice. The one-day, two-park experience gives visitors a seven-hour tour with priority entrance into a minimum of 10 rides and attractions.
Cedar Point, which sits on the shores of Lake Erie, is famous for its 18 record-breaking roller coasters, but it also capitalizes on its waterfront location.
“We like to call it shore joy,” said Lydia Mihalik, director of the Ohio Development Services Agency, which oversees TourismOhio.
The park, which opened in 1870, is more like a resort with hotels, campgrounds and lakeside cottages. It also has a water park and access to the beach with swimming and parasailing.
Inside the park, “live entertainment is king with traditional music-style shows and roaming entertainers,” said Tony Clark, director of communications for Cedar Point. The Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad is a favorite for guests “who like their thrills a little more tame and closer to the ground,” he said.
Groups love to plan their visits around the park’s many festivals, like the Frontier Festival in June, which fills the streets of FrontierTown with music, square dancing and tasty barbecue; Cedar Point Nights, a mile-long beach festival that lights up the lake with music, games and food during the summer months; and the Great Pumpkin Fest and Haunt at HalloWeekends in the fall. Large groups can plan a catered all-you-can-eat buffet in one of the park’s private picnic pavilions and enjoy tickets to Cedar Point and Cedar Point Shores Waterpark.
Cedar Point offers three VIP tours of the park. One, its Sunrise VIP Tour, takes guests on a behind-the-scenes look at Cedar Point’s roller coasters and even on a ride in Valravn’s lift elevator to watch the sun rise from 223 feet above the park.
Knott’s Berry Farm
Buena Park, California
California’s first theme park, Knott’s Berry Farm, got its start 100 years ago as a roadside berry stand. The owners of the Buena Park farm eventually branched out by starting a restaurant famous for its chicken dinners. The popular destination attracted so many people that the owners built a Western-themed town to keep guests entertained while they were waiting. The Western town is still a big draw at the center of Knott’s Berry Farm; gunfights, can-can dancers, stagecoach rides, a steam train and panning for gold are featured. Guests can visit the historic Ghost Town or watch the resident blacksmith do his thing.
Other themed areas in the park include Boardwalk, Fiesta Village and Camp Snoopy.
The park is known for its thrill rides and roller coasters, but it also presents elaborate stage shows and other interactive entertainment. Knott’s Berry Farm hosts several festivals throughout the year, including the Knott’s Peanuts Celebration, a multiweekend event honoring Snoopy, Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang. The Knott’s Boysenberry Festival happens every spring in the park’s Ghost Town. The 30-day festival offers boysenberry delicacies, entertainment, a wine and craft brew tasting garden, dueling country fiddlers, line dancing, Snoopy’s Boysenberry Jamboree, an ’80s nighttime dance party and other entertainment.
The park’s 100th anniversary celebration was supposed to take place in 2020. It has been rescheduled for mid-June through Labor Day in 2021.
Knott’s Merry Farm takes place mid-November through early January and includes an ice skating spectacular called “Merry Christmas, Snoopy!” In Santa’s Christmas Cabin, guests can talk to Santa and give him their toy wish lists. The Knott’s Christmas Crafts Village is a great place to shop for unique crafts and wares made by local artisans, and even the residents of Ghost Town get into the holiday spirit.
Charlotte, North Carolina
Carowinds has been a fixture in North Carolina since it opened in 1973. It is known for having the tallest and fastest giga coaster in the world, Fury 325, which takes passengers up to 325 feet before dropping them into barrel turns and S-curves. But it also features live performances and the Carolina Harbor waterpark.
“There’s something for everyone,” said Lisa Stryker, communications director for Carowinds. “We have over the past few years turned our focus to events and experiences that would appeal to the entire family.”
Carowinds doubled the size of its water park in 2016. Guests to the park can cross the state line between North Carolina and South Carolina via Coastal Currents, the park’s lazy river. It added more family thrill rides for teens and tweens and upgraded Camp Snoopy for its youngest visitors. It also has a hefty lineup of stage shows, from acrobatics and live music performances to large song and dance productions.
“We have put a great focus on more events and activities for our guests,” said Stryker. “Any time of the year, we will have a different event, environment, decor and different performances.”
Scarowinds is one of the park’s most popular seasonal events. For 20 years, the park’s Halloween celebration has drawn visitors from across the country who want to be scared. The Great Pumpkin Festival is a daytime event that isn’t as scary and features many fun activities like a corn maze, a hay bale maze, games, an obstacle course and trick-or-treating. Winterfest is Carowinds’ hallmark holiday experience. Food features prominently in all of the amusement park’s themed events. Guests will enjoy goodies such as cinnamon pull-apart bread and hot cocoa during Winterfest and food trucks during Carolina Summer Nights, an event that features lifesize board games.
In the summer, the park hosts Grand Carnivale, a tribute to that epic Brazilian party with parades, dancing and outlandish costumes.
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Dollywood is a multigenerational experience, a place where every member of the family can find something to enjoy. The theme park, which was founded by country music legend Dolly Parton, is known for its shows and live entertainment that changes with the season.
The Dollywood Harvest Festival features Southern Gospel performances and evening light displays throughout the park, and Smoky Mountain Christmas celebrates the true meaning of Christmas through live shows, a massive Christmas tree and holiday light displays.
Along with the variety of entertainment available throughout the park, groups that visit Dollywood can take advantage of great shopping, from Mountain Laurel Home to artisanal shops that demonstrate old-time skills like glassblowing, pottery, blacksmithing, candle-making and candymaking. They also can arrange VIP tours of the park and hands-on lessons in glassblowing or candle-making.
Dollywood works with group tour companies to create different experiences based on what each group wants to see or do. Groups can schedule a dinner show in the park, watching either Dolly Parton’s Stampede, a live show that features 32 horses and riders, or Pirates Voyage, a dinner show that follows the deeds of Blackbeard and his quarter master, Calico Jack. The park’s coal-fired steam train, the Dollywood Express, takes guests on a five-mile trip through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Dollywood Splash Country Water Park is 56 acres of water-centered fun set in the natural atmosphere of the Great Smoky Mountains. Slides are built into the hillside for a more natural look and feel.
“You can spend the entire day here, even if you are not a ride person,” said public relations direction Wes Ramey. “You can spend the entire day here with everything else we have to offer. Great food and rides. There’s really an experience that everyone can enjoy.”