Every student travel planner is aware of Disney World, Disneyland, Busch Gardens and Six Flags, but the U.S. abounds with other major theme parks worth a look. Though they offer a full day’s worth of fun and educational programs as well, these less heralded spots often get overshadowed by the biggies and drop off our radar.

Some of these second-tier parks are located in metropolitan areas, others in tourist towns far from city lights. One even lies smack dab in the heart of a big-city downtown.

Here are 10 great theme parks that will make a sterling addition to any student group itinerary:

Silver Dollar City

Branson, Missouri

Styled after an 1880s Ozarks village, Silver Dollar City combines snapshots of pioneer mountain culture with 21st century rides and rousing stage shows. In addition to riding the Powderkeg roller coaster and Tom & Huck’s RiverBlast water raft, student groups can watch demonstrating craftsmen, including wood carvers, leather crafters, glassblowers and candle makers. Another special feature: tours of Marvel Cave, the nucleus of Silver Dollar City when it opened in 1960. School programs include educational scavenger hunts, plus lesson plans on subjects like the physics of roller coasters and ecology of Marvel Cave. The park offers open-air venues for student performance groups, and there are opportunities to be part of a parade or participate in opening ceremonies on the Gazebo Stage.

Elitch Gardens Theme Park

Denver, Colorado

East of the scenic Colorado Rocky Mountains near Invesco Field (home to NFL’s Denver Broncos), Elitch Gardens Theme Park is the only amusement park in America located in the downtown area of a big city. The 63-acre park offers 37 amusement rides such as Mind Eraser, Disaster Canyon and the Big Wheel, which affords view of the Denver skyline. The park offers special events and concerts in the theater. Student groups can perform in the Trocadero Ballroom or take part in a learning experience during Elitch Gardens Education Days. Cheerleading groups can compete in the annual Spirit Fest Championship. (elitchgardens.com)

Magic Springs and Crystal Falls

Hot Springs, Arkansas

Located near the Ouachita Mountains, about 50 miles from Little Rock, the Magic Springs and Crystal Falls theme and water features thrilling rides, a world-class wave pool, games and attractions for student groups to enjoy. After riding on heart-racing roller coasters like the X-coaster, Arkansas Twister and Hawk, groups can dive into Crystal Falls water park and enjoy attractions like the Crystal Cove Wave Pool and Kodiak Canyon Adventure River. The park also features the state-of-the-art Timberwood Amphitheatre, where concerts and comedy shows take place. Student groups can partake in the annual Education in Motion program and explore the park as a learning environment. (magicsprings.com)

Alabama Adventure Water and Theme Park

Bessemer, Alabama

Located near Birmingham, Alabama Adventure Water Park is a 200-acre amusement park comprised of Magic City USA Theme Park and Splash Beach Water Park, including the children’s area, Marvel City, and a shopping area named Celebration Street. Student groups can enjoy rides like the Hurricane and Marvel Mania, and water attractions such as the UpSurge and Warrior River.  Super Cool School Days packages include activities in Alabama Adventure’s Educational Program, which comes with full-day admission to the theme park and lunch. (visionland.com)


Near Charlotte, North Carolina

Situated on the border of North and South Carolina, Carowinds is an amusementpark name after the Carolina wind.Thepark features eight themed areas: Carowinds Plaza, Planet Snoopy, Carolina RFD, County Fair, Carolina Boardwalk, Carolina Showplace, Thrill Zone and Boomerang Bay. Student groups can ride roller coasters like the Carolina Cyclone, Afterburn, Ricochet and Nighthawk. Boomerang Bay water park offers thrilling rides and activities such as the Crocodile Run river ride and Jackaroo Landing jungle gym. Groups can enjoy live shows and play games to win an ipad. Student performers are granted the opportunity to participate in the annual Festival of Music. Education Days programs focus on subjects like engineering, communications and marketing. (carowinds.com)

Frontier City

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Frontier City is a Western-themed amusement park in Oklahoma City’s Adventure District. Student groups can experience thrilling adventure rides like the Wildcat, Silver Bullet, and Wild Kitty, and catch a view of Oklahoma City from the Ferris wheel. There are water rides like the Mystery River Log Flume and Renegade Rapids. Entertainment consists of live shows that portray scenes from the Wild West, including shootouts, saloon shows and musicals, as well as modern shows in a summer concert series. Student groups can explore the park for a learning experience during Outdoor Classroom Days or on regular operating days. (frontiercity.com)


Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

Dollywood, an amusement park owned by country singer, Dolly Parton, is filled with rides, attractions and entertainment that reflect the mountain culture of Eastern Tennessee. The park comprises themed areas such as Showtstreet, Rivertown Junction, Craftsmen’s Valley, The Village, The Country Fair, Timber Canyon, Jukebox Attraction, Owen’s Farm, Adventures in Imagination and Wilderness Pass. Along with thrilling rides like the Blazing Fury, Daredevil Falls and Mountain Slidewinder, student groups can enjoy entertaining musical festivals. Special festivals include Kidsfest, National Gospel and Harvest Celebration, and Smoky Mountain Christmas. Student groups can also explore Dollywood during its Adventures in Education days to study subjects such as history, physics and zoology, and geography. (dollywood.com)

Worlds of Fun,

Kansas City, Missouri

Themed after Jules Verne’s book Around the World in Eighty Days, Worlds of Fun is a world-class amusement park that features 43 rides, a 4,000-seat, state-of-the art amphitheater, and an on-site resort. Themed lands include Scandinavia, Africa, Eruopa, the Orient, and Americana, offering thrilling rides such as the Bamboozler, Cyclone Sam’s and Detonator. Adjacent to the park lies Worlds of Fun Village, a resort filled with 22 cabins 20 cottages, and 82 sites for recreational vehicles. Student performance groups may participate in music, dance and cheerleading festivals. During Thrill U Education Days, students can apply physics and math principles to rides. (worldsoffun.com)

Knott’s Berry Farm

Buena Park, California

Knott’s Berry Farm, founded in the early 1900s as a farm selling boysenberries, has expanded into a booming amusement park. Divided into six themed areas: Ghost Town, Fiesta Village, The Boardwalk, Camp Snoopy, Wild Water Wilderness and Indian Trails, it offers 10 roller coasters from the Boomerang to the GhostRider. Student groups can enjoy annual park events like Knott’s Halloween Haunt and the Winter Coaster Solace. Student groups can participate in Physics Day to learn about the concepts that go into constructing the rides and educational tours to learn about the history of Knott’s Berry Farm. (knotts.com)


Hershey, Pennsylvania

Founded in 1907 for the employees of the Hershey candy company, Hersheypark is an amusement park filled with more than 65 rides and attractions. Performers dressed as Hershey product characters interact with guests throughout the park. The rides and roller coasters are dispersed throughout nine theme areas: Tudor Square, The Boardwalk, Rhineland, Founder’s Circle, Comet Hollow, Mine Town, Music Box Way, Pioneer Frontier and Midway America. Student groups can board rides like Fahrenheit Lift, the Trailblazer Midcourse, or the newest attraction, the Skyrush, the fastest roller coaster in the park. The Boardwalk is a water park that boasts one of the largest water rides in the world. Student groups can gain hands-on educational experiences on subjects such as physics and math during the park’s Education Days. (hersheypark.com)