America’s Best Attractions: Top Picks in Four Categories
A water park or living history museum seems like a natural part of a student group trip. So does a safari park or an iconic shrine that reminds students of their country’s roots and its moral fiber. Such attraction categories represent just a few ways of enlivening an itinerary and keeping students talking about the trip for months to come.
To provide educators and other tour planners with ideas on freshening up their itineraries, StudentTravelPlanningGuide.com compiles lists of top attractions in various categories, four of which we feature in the following pages. We don’t rank these sights in any order; our goal is to showcase some of the more notable ones, always with a geographical spread in mind.
You may not agree with every item on our “top” lists, but we know they will provide fun reading and food for thought. Perhaps the following listings will spur you to create your own “top” lists.
1. Top Patriotic Places
There are certain icons of freedom that every American should visit at least once in his or her lifetime. No matter how many times you’ve seen pictures of these shrines to our nation’s heroes and heritage, it’s a star-spangled thrill to witness them in person. They appeal to our patriotism and remind us what it means to be an American.
Statue of Liberty
A beacon of freedom for generations of immigrants who arrived in New York Harbor, this colossal figure remains a symbol not only of New York but of America. Liberty Island ferries depart from Lower Manhattan’s Battery Park.
The Liberty Bell
In Philadelphia, the birthplace of our nation and its capital from 1790 to 1800, the bell rang out July 8, 1776, to call citizens to the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. Visitors enter a glass chamber where they are encouraged to observe the 2,080-pound bell in silence.
Arlington National Cemetery
Overlooking the Potomac River, just across from Washington, D.C., rows and rows of simple white headstones sweep across the wooded hillsides of our nation’s burial ground, the resting place of soldiers who served their country. A must-do is the solemn guard-changing ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns,
Fort McHenry National Monument
Situated at the entrance to Baltimore’s harbor, the brick fort was the home of the flag that inspired lawyer Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1814. A flag-changing ceremony takes place at the beginning and end of each day.
Marked by a red-brick or painted red line on the sidewalks, the 2.5-mile route snakes from centrally located Boston Common to Charlestown Navy Yard, passing historic sites that recall America’s fight for independence before and during the Revolutionary War. Way stations include the Paul Revere House, Old North Church, Faneuil Hall and USS Constitution.
Black Hills, South Dakota
Carved into a granite peak in western South Dakota, the iconic “Shrine of Democracy” features the chiseled faces of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
National September 11 Memorial & Museum
Occupying the site of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, the poignant memorial features pools of water embedded in the footprints of the buildings that fell in the 2001 terrorist attacks. The new museum chronicles events of that day.
Hawaii’s most visited attraction has museum galleries, a waterfront memorial park and movie showing footage of the destruction caused by the Japanese bombings on Dec. 7, 1941 —“a day that will live in infamy,” to use the oft-quoted words of Franklin D. Roosevelt. A Navy launch takes visitors to the USS Arizona Memorial, the final resting place of 1,177 sailors.
The former Spanish mission became permanently etched in the annals of American history when 189 men fighting for independence from Mexico turned it into a fortress and for 13 days in 1836 held off some 4,000 troops. All defenders paid the ultimate sacrifice for freedom, but the cry “Remember the Alamo” became the rallying call of the Texas Revolution.
2. Top Water Parks
In the sizzling summer heat, student groups can cool down at a water park. Besides waterslides, wave pools and lazy rivers, some parks offer educational programs that allow students to learn and have fun at the same time. Here are 10 great water parks to consider:
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
“America’s Largest Waterpark” is located in the heart of Wisconsin Dells, the “Water Park Capital of the World.” Noah’s Ark offers 49 waterslides, two giant wave pools and two endless rivers, plus mini-golf, a 4D movie theater and a surfing ride. Students enrolled in Ark-ology 101 learn about the physics of how wave pool waves are created.
America’s largest indoor water park features the Swahili Swirl, a bowl raft ride; the Zip Coaster, an uphill roller coaster waterslide; and plenty of other slides and pools inside and outside. African-themed Kalahari also has a Wisconsin Dells location.
Disney’s Blizzard Beach
Blending ski resort and tropical themes, the Disney World water park features Summit Plummet, one of the world’s tallest and fastest free-falling waterslides and side-by-side racing waterslides down Mt. Gushmore.
Wet ’n Wild
This Orlando favorite features a six-story, free-fall speed slide, wave pool, lazy river and the four-lane Aqua Drag Racer. For student groups, the STEM Aqua Lab Education program showcases the science and engineering behind the thrills, while the Sun ’n Sounds performance program lets school groups and choirs take the stage.
Water Country USA
The Mid-Atlantic’s premier water park, located near Busch Gardens, has acres of rides and slides, including Vanish Point, a 75-foot vertical drop slide, and Meltdown, a high-speed toboggan race.
Six Flags White Water
With more than 60 attractions including the Cliffhanger, which plummets nine stories, this Atlanta-area splash kingdom is Georgia’s largest water park.
Federal Heights, Colorado
Nearly 50 aquatic attractions await groups at this Denver-area water park, including Jetstream, which shoots the rider down twisting dark tubes, two wave pools and a lazy river. An all-you-care-to-eat buffet option is available for groups of 15 or more.
New Braunfels, Texas
The 70-acre water park features more than 40 rides in six areas including two uphill water coasters, nine tube chutes, the world’s longest tubing adventure, 17 water slides, the Boogie Bahn body boarding ride, a family wave pool, five swimming pools, five heated pools, seven children’s water playgrounds, and water and sand volleyball courts.
San Dimas, California
At California’s largest water park, float down the Amazon River, catch a wave on the Flowrider surfing simulator and plunge into total darkness on a four-man raft in Neptune’s Fury, which includes a 60-foot drop at 30 miles per hour. Raging Waters also has Sacramento and San Jose locations.
Calverton, New York
At this 96-acre Long Island water park, drop eight stories in three seconds on the Cliff Diver extreme body slide, get drenched by four-foot waves in the wave pool and experience a 40-foot drop in total darkness on Dr. von Dark’s Tunnel of Terror tube slide.
3. Top Living History Museums
Living history museums engage students in a fun and educational way, usually featuring costumed interpreters doing everyday chores and demonstrating old-time crafts. Many offer programs just for school groups.
Costumed townspeople go about their everyday life in the world’s largest living history museum, which features hundreds of restored and reconstructed buildings. Exhibits, craft demonstrations and dramatizations portray the story of 18th century Virginia’s capital, a short drive from Jamestown and Yorktown.
More than 40 buildings, including a train depot, blacksmith shop, school, general store and Wichita’s first jail, recreate a thriving cattle town in the 1870s. A working farm depicts agricultural history.
In this 200-acre park along the White River, students go back to 1836 as they experience life in a town on the Indiana prairie through role playing, making crafts and meeting costumed interpreters.
Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer
Grand Island, Nebraska
Students experience life on the Nebraska frontier in this 200-acre museum, best known for the 1890s Railroad Town alive with townspeople conducting business. See hundreds of Western and Native American treasures on display.
Old World Wisconsin
The world’s largest museum of rural life tells the story of ethnic groups that settled the state through 10 working farmsteads with animals, fields and gardens, and the 1870s Crossroads Village.
Old Sturbridge Village
Old Sturbridge Village depicts 1830s New England complete with a rural village, a working farm, water-powered mills and costumed staff who demonstrate skills like pottery making, hearth cooking and blacksmithing. It includes more than 40 restored buildings that were moved from various parts of New England.
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
More than 30 original buildings preserve the memory of the Shakers, a communal religious society in the 19th century. They were admired by the outside world for their craftsmanship, particularly furniture making.
Frontier Culture Museum
Reconstructed working farms at this Shenandoah Valley museum from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries showcase European influences on Appalachian cultural traditions. Costumed interpreters portray rural life in West Africa, Ireland, Germany and England.
Living History Farms
Focusing on Midwestern rural life from the 1700s to early 1900, the 500-acre agricultural museum features working farms, an Indian village and Walnut Hill, an 1875 frontier town with a mansion, general store, schoolhouse and other buildings.
LSU Rural Life Museum
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
This outdoor museum is a re-creation of an 1800s Louisiana plantation, with thousands of artifacts and more than 30 buildings divided into three areas—the Exhibit Barn, Plantation and Louisiana Folk Architecture. Included are a grist mill, schoolhouse, country church and slave cabins.
4. Top Safari Parks
Student groups can get up-close to mammals from North America, get a taste of the African plains and encounter exotic fauna of other continents at safari attractions across the United States. Besides tours of open countryside teeming with animals, these parks may offer walk-through wildlife exhibits, zip lines and other amusements. They might mix outdoor adventure with lessons in biology, zoology and wildlife conservation:
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
In what is probably the best-known safari park, an open-air tram affords views of elephants, giraffes, zebras and 300 other species that roam freely on vast expanses that simulate their natural habitats. Also visit the walking safari area and the aviary with California condors.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom
One of four theme parks at Walt Disney World Resort, this one includes not only rides and shows but open-air Kilimanjaro Safaris expeditions that take riders through a savanna teeming with antelopes, cheetahs, lions, elephants, giraffes, rhinos, ostriches and other African animals.
Lion Country Safari African Adventure
America’s first drive-through safari park abounds with lions, wildebeests, rhinos, zebras and other exotic animals from Africa, India and South America. It’s divided into seven sections with names like Serengeti Plains and Kalahari Bushveldt, and there’s also a walk-through amusement park.
Six Flags Great Adventure & Safari
Jackson, New Jersey
Besides 13 roller coasters, guests at this theme park can ride all-terrain vehicles through a 350-acre wildlife preserve for views of lions, giraffes, elephants, rhinos, bears and other animals.
Northwest Trek Wildlife Park
A naturalist-guided tram tour showcases animals native to the Pacific Northwest, including moose, caribou, bison, elk and mountain goats. Students also will enjoy the walk-through habitats and a zip line park.
Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari
A four-mile drive through this park affiliated with Omaha’s famous Henry Doorly Zoo highlights such animals as elk, bison, sandhill cranes and other North American species. See gray wolves and bears in Wolf Canyon, which has hiking trails. There’s a picnic area for groups.
Virginia Safari Park
Natural Bridge, Virginia
A menagerie of animals, from buffalo and elk to giraffes and zebras, roams this 180-acre drive-through zoo. Observe more exotic creatures in the Safari Village walk-through area. Wagon rides and a picnic area are available.
More than 9,000 acres provide plenty of room for the camels, rhinos, cheetahs, wild horses and other inhabitants to stretch their legs at this conservation center affiliated with the Columbus Zoo. In addition to bus, open-air tram and truck tours that last just over two hours, there are horseback rides and zip line tours. The grounds include a bird-watching station and butterfly habitat.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
See cheetahs sprint across the plains and marvel at the free-roaming zebras, giraffes, rhinos and ostriches on the open-air Serengeti Safari tour at this African-themed fun park. Other wildlife-viewing areas include Myombe Reserve, where chimpanzees and gorillas rule.
Out of Africa Wildlife Park
Camp Verde, Arizona
The narrated African Bush Safari Tour, by tram or trolley, provides close-up looks at zebras, sable antelope, gemsbok and other game on the Serengeti preserve. Also entertaining visitors are the Giant Snake Show and other wildlife presentations.