Home     Home and Family     Family Fun     PlacesTo Go Guide    

Your ULTIMATE guide to local theme parks

Tips from HVParent's resident roller coaster expert

family-friendly theme parks in new york new jersey knoebels

See that person riding a roller coaster, bundled up in layer upon layer of blue and grey up there?

That's me.

The on-going Friday question here at HVParent headquarters is “what crazy roller coaster will Brit ride this weekend?” I think it’s safe to say I’m a theme park junkie. My boyfriend (Bill) and I visit at least one theme park every weekend from spring break to New Year ’s Day!  So, naturally I think a few day-trips to local theme parks is the PERFECT way to spend your summer vacation!

Not sure where to begin in your search for local theme parks? No problem. I’ve listed some of the very best theme parks in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania along with some information and insider tips to get your family excited for the outing.


Before we begin, some general theme park tips:

1. Ask for a cup of water. The majority of American theme parks offer free cups of water, which is a great alternative to paying $5 or more for bottled water. Not to mention, soda isn’t the best thing to drink when you’re walking around all day in the sun and heat!


2. Upgrade to a season pass. Many parks offer a variety of season pass levels, which can save you a ton of money if you decide to go more than once. For instance, Bill and I have a Six Flags membership which affords us free admission to any Six Flags park in the world with free parking all for $10 a month.


3. Don’t buy food at the park (unless you’re at Knoebels then buy one of everything). Besides being greasy, theme park food is overpriced. Stock a travel cooler with sandwiches, carrots, pretzels and the likes. When your family is ready for lunch, simply go to the front gates and get your hand stamped; this will allow you to re-enter once you’re finished chowing down. If you must buy food at the park, check out family meal deals around the park, which typically offer plenty of food for the entire family for one set price. Family meal deals are usually advertised on park maps or signs throughout the park.


4. Leave your purse at home. More and more parks are installing metal detectors at their front gate. While this is great for security, it’s torturous for kids wanting to get in the park as quickly as humanly possible. However, parks always have a “no bag” line, which is always shorter than lines where everyone has to go through a metal detector plus have their bags searched. Also, you’re not allowed to carry your purse or anything with you on rides, so leave them in the car or at home so you don’t have to worry about buying a locker or tossing them on the station floor.


5. Pass on the carnival games. Not only are the giant carnival game prizes a hassle to lug around the park, but you’ll have to purchase a locker to put said giant prize in while on rides. Save the games until the end of the day so you can just walk straight to your car with your arm load of new plushes.




New York

**Great Escape (Queensbury, NY) – Great Escape is a great family park. The park boasts four great roller coasters including The Comet, which was first built in 1927 (then known as the Cyclone). The great thing about this park is that the roller coasters are pretty tame. It’s a great place to start your kids out at and gradually work them up to more intense roller coasters. Most flat rides (non-roller coasters) have a height requirement of 42 inches. So make sure to measure up before going.  The Comet, Flashback, and Steamin’ Demon all have a height requirement of 48 inches.  Also worth noting, if you have a season pass, the park offers several “bring a friend free” days throughout the season so if you have friends without a pass, they can tag along for free on those days. Check Great Escapes’ website for more details.

Check out our contest page throughout the summer for your chance to win a family-four pack of tickets to Great Escape!

Must Ride Attractions:

1. The Comet – Minimum height: 48”
2. Alpine Bobsled
– Minimum height: 42”

3. Condor
– No minimum height requirement

4. Extreme Supernova
– Minimum height: 48”

5. The New Revolution Virtual Reality Coaster on Steamin’ Demon
  – Minimum height: 57” Strap on a Samsung Gear VR Oculus headset and hold on tight! Please note: this attraction does not open to the general public until July. Also, this ride is only available for tweens and up.


Rye Playland (Rye, NY) – One of the great things about Playland is their spectator ticket. Why should you have to pay full price if you’re not going to ride anything?  Not to mention, this year Playland is offering discounted tickets on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Non-Westchester County residents less than 48” can get in for just $20 and spectators for only $10. For smaller children, head over to Kiddyland to hop aboard the mini scrambler, the kiddy coaster, the crazy submarine and more. Most Kiddyland rides have a minimum height requirement of 42”, but some are less. Check out the Playland website for specifics. For the older kids, head over to the iconic 80 year old Dragon Coaster!

Must Ride Attractions:

1. Dragon Coaster – Minimum height: 48”
2. The Log Flume
– Minimum height: 42” with a responsible companion age 14+

3. Sky Flyer –
Minimum height: 52”

4. Derby Racer
– Minimum height: 54” – Did you know: This is one of only two known original carousel derby racers remaining in the U.S.

5. Kiddy Coaster
– Minimum height: 36”


Darien Lake (Darien Center, NY) Besides having some fun rides and roller coasters, Darien Lake hosts tons of in-park concerts throughout the summer. Not to mention, they host even bigger acts at their Darien Lake Performing Arts Center (not included in park admission).  The Zac Brown Band, 5 Seconds of Summer, Journey,  the Doobie Brothers, the Goo Goo Dolls, and more will all grace the stage at Darien this summer. Check their website for discounted tickets and to see the entire lineup.  For a short weekend trip, check out Darien Lake’s Glamping and Camping options!

Must Ride Attractions:

1. Motocoaster – Minimum height: 48”
2. Predator
– Minimum height: 48” – Did you know: This ride has the tallest wooden roller coaster drop in the state!

3. Moose on the Loose
– Minimum height: 36” with a responsible companion age 16+

4. Haymaker –
Minimum height: 36” with a responsible companion age 16+

5. Hoot ‘N Holler
– Minimum height: 36”; Maximum height: 54”

Back to the top

New Jersey

**Six Flags Great Adventure (Jackson, NJ) – SFGA is a great park for tween or even taller school age children. Their roller coaster lineup is so impressive, that roller coaster enthusiasts from all over the country make special trips just to visit the park. However, my favorite part of SFGA is Safari Off Road Adventure! You’ll see 1,200 animals from six different continents. You’ll see a dazzle of zebras, a sleuth of bears, a tower of giraffes, a mob of emus, a crash of rhinos, and a parade of elephants lead by their matriarch, Lucy… plus a whole lot more! Make sure you jump off the humvee at Camp Aventura to see all kinds of reptiles, a baby bear, an anteater, several exotic birds, goats, silkie chickens, and more! There are even opportunities throughout the day to feed the giraffes at Camp Aventura and don’t forget to ride the zipline over the safari! However, this is an extremely popular park, especially on the weekends, so be prepared to stand in line. Better yet, visit during the week or winter months for holiday in the park! Click here to learn more about Holiday in the Park.

Must Ride Attractions:

1. Safari Off Road Adventure – Minimum height: None with an adult
2. El Toro
– Minimum height: 48” Just a heads up: If you have a child that’s afraid of roller coasters or isn’t a total daredevil, don’t force them to go on this ride. It’s very intense (and very awesome), but not everyone can handle its greatness.

3. Nitro
– Minimum height: 54”

4. The Joker
– Minimum height: 48”

5. Kingda Ka
– Minimum height: 54” Did you know: Kingda Ka is the tallest roller coaster in the world and the fastest roller coaster in America!


Diggerland USA (West Berlin, NJ) – If your child is obsessed with excavators, bulldozers and other heavy duty construction trucks, Diggerland USA is the place to be! Your kids are sure to have a ball at North America’s only construction themed adventure park. Kids can drive, ride, and even operate real machinery! Perhaps the best part about Diggerland USA is all their attractions have only a minimum height requirement of 36”.

Must Ride Attractions:

1. Shake ‘N Roll – Minimum height: 36” to ride; 48” to operate
2. Argo Off Road
– Minimum height: 36” to ride; 48” to operate

3. Big Diggers
– Minimum height: 36” to ride; 48” to operate

4. Backhoe Adventure
– Minimum height: 36” to ride; 48” to operate

5. Spin Dizzy
– Minimum height: 42” must be accompanied by an adult

Bowcraft Amusement Park (Scotch Plains, NJ) – Bowcraft is a great little park for kids. The park boasts an impressive amount of kiddie rides and family rides, so even your smallest family member will have a blast. The park offers free admission and free parking; you simply pay for tickets to get on the rides. You can also buy arm bands that allow you unlimited rides for the day. From June 26 to September 1, all unlimited ride arm bands are just $13.95 on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursdays from 4-8pm.

Must Ride Attractions:

1. Paratrooper – Minimum height: 42” must be accompanied by an adult
2. Dragon Coaster
– Minimum height: 36” must be accompanied by an adult

3. Crossbow Roller Coaster
– Minimum height: 42” must be accompanied by an adult

4. Super Slide–
Minimum height: 42” must be accompanied by an adult

5. Motorcycle Jump
– All children under 42”

 Back to the top


**Lake Compounce (Bristol, CT)Here’s a cool little factoid about this park; it’s the oldest, continuously operating amusement park in North America! The park first opened its doors to the public in 1846, but don’t worry… they’ve updated and upgraded their rides since then. Lake Compounce is home to the amazing wooden roller coaster, Boulder Dash. Boulder Dash is a great roller coaster to start kids out on. While it’s got a great first drop, the coaster stays close to the terrain (it was built into the side of a mountain), so it doesn’t feel like you’re dropping 115 feet. The park also houses a nice collection of classic rides and kiddie rides the entire family will enjoy. For those of you with kids too small to ride, check out Dino Expedition where you’ll encounter giant moving dinosaurs as you walk down prehistoric pathways. Kids can also dig for fossils at Dino Expedition. For me, the can’t-miss attraction at Lake Compounce is the Sky Ride. It’s a scenic, half-hour trip up the top of a mountain on a ski lift. It’s a beautiful sight during the summer and fall.

Must Ride Attractions:

1. The Sky Ride – Minimum height: 48”
2. Boulder Dash
– Minimum height: 48” – Did you know: Boulder Dash was voted Top Wood Roller Coaster by the Golden Ticket Awards in 2015!

3. American Flyers
– Minimum height: 36” with an adult

4. Saw Mill Plunge
– Minimum height: 36” with an adult

5. Ghost Hunt
– Minimum height: 42” or smaller accompanied by an adult


Quassy (Middlebury, CT)Quassy is another great little family park and NOTHING can top their 50 cent Fridays where rides, hot dogs, and drinks are just 50 cents each! This park was definitely built with families of all ages and stages in mind and is set on Lake Quassapaug. The park has several kiddie rides that your younger kids will enjoy as well as a great coaster (Wooden Warrior) that your older kids will want to ride over and over again! Don’t let the size of Wooden Warrior fool you… this ride is filled with air-time hills and tons of thrills. Insider tip: The park tends to flood, so if rain is a possibility wear water-resistant shoes!

Must Ride Attractions:

1. Wooden Warrior – Minimum height: 48”
2. Quassy Express Train
– No height requirement

3. Frog Hopper
– No height requirement

4. Kiddie Bumper Cars
– No height requirement

5. Grand Carousel
– No height requirement

 Back to the top


***Knoebels (Elysburg, PA) – If you do nothing else this summer, take your family to Knoebels. Not only is Knoebels America’s largest free admission (and free parking) amusement park, it’s the Best Family Park in America (dubbed so by me just now). So what makes Knoebels the Best Family Park in America? Well, besides free admission and free parking the park has very low minimum height requirements and is home to two of the best wooden roller coasters on the face of the earth (The Phoenix and Twister)! Don’t miss Flying Turns, it’s a great ride for families and is the only ride of its kind in the world. Knoebels also houses several classic rides that parents will remember from their childhood. Most of their classic rides are all but extinct from other parks, but thanks to Knoebels, parents can share their childhood experiences with the newer generation. The park is also pet-friendly, so you can bring Fido in to the park with you! Visit during the week to take advantage of shorter lines and pay-one-price wristbands. Insider Tip: Eat at the park. Knoebels wins awards every year for their delicious food. Plus everything is reasonably price (i.e. it’s cheap and delicious). Every time I visit, I make sure to eat Pierogis from the stand next to the Oasis Food court. I also make sure to grab a waffle ice cream sandwich before I leave!

Must Ride Attractions:

1. Phoenix – Minimum height: 42”
2. Flyers
– Minimum height to ride alone: 48” Those below 48” can ride with a parent.

3. Grand Carousel –
No minimum height – Did you know: The Grand Carousel at Knoebels is one of the few carousels still around that let you catch brass rings!

4. Flying Turns
– Minimum height: 42”

5. Scooter Bumper Cars
– Minimum height to ride alone: 54” Those below 54” can ride with a parent. – Did you know: These aren’t your average bumper cars! The scooter bumper cars opened in 1947 and are still voted best in the world to this day!


Hersheypark (Hershey, PA)Okay before I begin with Hersheypark, let’s talk about Chocolate World which is free with admission to the park. If you love chocolate like I do (I mean, who doesn’t love chocolate?!?!), visit Chocolate World before leaving Hersheypark’s parking lot. You MUST ride Hershey’s Chocolate Tour, where you get to learn all about how Hershey makes their chocolate and why it tastes so good. Here’s a hint: singing cows tell me it’s the milk chocolate, Hershey’s milk chocolate… don’t worry the song will be stuck in your head for a month too. PLUS: each rider gets a free piece of chocolate at the end of the ride. You can also create your own candy bar, go on a 4D chocolate mystery adventure, or even put your face the wrapper of your very own chocolate bar.
   Now on to Hersheypark:  I love this park. It’s incredibly clean and beautifully landscaped. Make sure to get your kids measured as soon as you get to the park. The park separates their rides into height categories all themed to Hershey candies. Knowing what height category your child is will eliminate those “but I want to ride that one now while I’m still 5 inches too short” meltdowns. Hersheypark also hosts what seems like thousands of kiddie rides that your little ones will be begging to re-ride.  They also house some incredible roller coasters like Sooperdooper Looper, Skyrush, and Great Bear. Perhaps the best thing about this park is they even have a multitude of rides for kids under 36 inches, which is rare for larger parks. Don’t miss the California sea lions and Harbor seals in the Aquatheatre!

Must Ride Attractions:

1. Sooperdooper Looper – Minimum height: 42”
2. Great Bear
– Minimum height: 54”

3. Coal Cracker
– No minimum height

4. Flying Falcon
– No minimum height

5. Laff Trakk
– Minimum height: 42”

Back to the top

Brittany L. Morgan is the web editor & executive assistant to the publisher at Hudson Valley Parent. She lives in Fishkill with her fiance, Bill. They both love going to theme parks, especially Knoebels!