Mini roller coasters, character meet-and-greets, splash pads, and snack opps galore make these parks our favorites for toddlers
If piggyback rides and bucket swings aren’t cutting it anymore, it may be time to take your little daredevil to a theme park! But which one should you visit? Big parks can be expensive for you and exhausting for little kids, no matter how great their “toddler-friendly” lands may be. So why not try a theme park that’s just right for your little thrillseeker (and maybe even for your wallet, too)?
Story Land - Bartlett, NH
Perch on the wall with Humpty or sit on that tuffet, Little Miss Muffet-style! This fairy tale-themed amusement park has thrills for kids of all ages, from roller coasters and flume rides for the big kids to swan boats and teacups for the tiny tots. The nearly 70-year-old theme park has more than 30 rides geared to children ages 2 to 12—with many of the attractions suitable for even the littlest riders. Toddlers will love the Pharoah's Reign Splash Battle, which lets them shoot water cannons at passersby; as well as Cinderella's Pumpkin Coach Ride, which takes them on a ride around the park on Cinderella's famous carriage. There are also storybook characters roaming the park, so be sure to have your phone ready to snap a pic when your child says "cheese."
Idlewild - Pittsburgh, PA
Calling all Daniel Tiger fans! This old-fashioned theme park nestled into the mountains outside Pittsburgh has a real live "Neighborhood Trolley" that chugs past friendly neighbors and all of Mr. Rogers' favorite spots. Called the "Best Kids Theme Park" by Amusement Today, this 145-year-old park—which is surrounded by lush forests and greenery—is the oldest amusement park in Pennsylvania (the third oldest in the U.S.!) and has more than 35 rides and attractions, plus a sprawling water park.
Toddlers will love running into the pages (literally, you have to run through a giant book to enter the land) of Story Book Forest, which is filled with sets, characters, and real animals (!) from nursery rhymes and fairy tales. There's also an impressively huge playground that lets kids of all ages blow off some steam with ropes courses, giant slides, and other climbing features.
As for the rides, there are a plethora of toddler-sized thrills, including some that don't even let adults aboard! Kids can fly on little airplanes, drive small cars, and chug-chug on tiny motorcycles all by themselves. At the adjacent Soak Zone waterpark (included in admission) there are several toddler-friendly areas, including a splash pad area, a children's pool, and a lazy river.
Adventure City - Anaheim, CA
Located just a few miles from Disneyland, this little park packs a lot into its two acres! Parents will love that all of the rides offered here are appropriate for kids under 5—even the biggest coaster in the park, the Rewind Racers (it goes backward and forward) accepts kids as small as 39". There are tiny cars to drive, little planes to fly, and whirling balloons to ride. There's also a petting zoo and "Thomas the Tank Engine" play area where kids can take a break from the action to play with wooden train sets. And, with admission starting at $26.95, it's a perfect family outing that is just big enough to tire them out... but not so much that they'll melt down.
Diggerland USA - Berlin, NJ
Is your mini mesmerized by construction sites? Is the sandbox her happy place? This construction-themed adventure park lets kids drive, ride and operate tractors, mini dumpers, excavators, land rovers, and more. Note: While most rides require kids to be at least 42 inches tall to operate the machinery, kids as small as 36 inches can ride on a parent's lap. There is also a train ride and truck ride around the park that will give even younger tots a view of all the cool vehicles around the park.
If you've got swimmers (and your kids are at least 36 inches), the adjacent water park is included in admission and has a wading pool and construction-themed water play area that littles will love.
Santa’s Village - Jefferson, NH
If your kids can't wait until December 25, why not celebrate the big day early at this Christmas-themed amusement park where Santa (clearly) spends his summers? Inside the gates, you'll find all things yuletide, from painted igloos and snowflakes to elves and real live reindeer. Open May through December, the park has 23 rides—all of them designed to thrill riders under 13, but many suitable for toddlers, with cute names like the Chimney Drop, the Little Elf Flying School, and the Little Drummer Boy. Many of the rides, including the flying Santa's Sleigh, which takes riders on a monorail-led sleigh ride around the park, accommodate all ages.
And, don't worry about those New England summers dampening all the Christmas fun! The adjacent Santa's Village water park is open in the summer and included with the regular admission ticket. Toddlers who aren't afraid of a little H2O will love the splash pad and wading pool, while older sibs will be zipping down the Joy Ride Slides, a network of colorful tube slides, over and over again.
LEGOLAND - Various Locations
Sure, toddlers may be on the younger end of LEGOLAND's demographic, but we couldn’t resist including LEGO's famous thrill center only because it does such a good job of catering to little riders and because there are no big scary rides to make the tinier tots feel left out.
Officially, the park bills itself as being geared to kids ages 2-12—but whether or not your toddler has even touched a LEGO (or Duplo), hey'll have a blast here. Besides a roller coaster or two that your tot will have to wait a few years to ride, there are a slew of other rides that either don't have a height requirement or that can be ridden with a lap-wielding adult. There are also shows, an assortment of playgrounds, and a sandbox where your kid can search for pretend fossils.
Don't miss the dedicated DUPLO play area, a land designed for kids under 5 that includes a small train ride and several play areas where kids can run around and get those wiggles out. And, try to book a room at the LEGOLAND Hotel, which has so many fun features(A secret disco elevator! A kids' buffet! Bunk beds!) that your kids may not even want to go to the actual theme park.
Located in Carlsbad, CA; Goshen, NY; and Winter Haven, Fl.
Sesame Place - Langhorne, PA and San Diego, CA
Kids who spend their weekday mornings hanging with Elmo and his gang will be blown away by the fact that all their friends have come to life at this theme park dedicated to all things Sesame Street. Whether your kids want to ride their first roller coaster or blast off into outer space in an Elmo-themed rocket ship, all the rides here are cartoonified with familiar faces and designed to be fun for all ages (even the roller coaster, Super Grover's Box Car Derby, is suitable for kids as small as 38 inches—the size of an average 3-year-old!). Of course, those iconic furry faces are everywhere—including in the stores—so expect your little Sesame sprout to be all about the merchandise.
Want to cool off? Both locations have a water park (San Diego's is bigger, though the PA location is opening a brand new water play area this summer!) that is included with your admission ticket, so you'll get two experiences for the price of one!
Dutch Wonderland - Lancaster, PA
With 21 of its more than 35 rides and attractions dedicated to kids 36-inches and under (and most of the others allowing small children to ride with an adult), this Pennsylvania Dutch Country amusement park is the perfect first theme park for kids who want to feel like they can do it all. Kids above 36 inches can try their first roller coaster if they dare—there are three of them! But thrills abound all over—including swing rides, a dizzying number of spinning rides, train and boat rides, and an animatronic dinosaur trail, throughout the 43-acre park. There are also a few water rides and a splash park, so bring your bathing suits!
Pssst: Make a weekend out of it and stay at the nearby Cartoon Network Hotel, a hotel that opened in 2020 and pays homage to all of CN's hit shows.
Enchanted Forest - Salem, OR
Enchanted Forest may be one of the most authentic theme parks in the country. First of all, the 20-acre amusement park is actually hidden inside a real forest: The trails (which are bound by railings made from real tree branches!) snake through northwest Oregon's dense green forests, hiding the spattering of rides from view until you're right beside them. Secondly, with a fairytale theme that begins when you walk through the castle entrance and continues with storybook facades and familiar nursery rhyme characters throughout, your kids will feel like they've stepped into a real enchanted land.
Of the 10 rides hidden throughout the park, five of them take kids 36 inches and smaller. There are some big rides here that are too scary (and fast) for toddlers, including the Ice Mountain Bobsleds roller coaster, the Haunted House, and the Big Timber log ride (which is reportedly the largest of its kind in the Pacific Northwest), but it's not the rides that the littles will love; it's the scenery. The forested trails are perfect for running free, and the heavily themed fairytale sets will spark those little imaginations to run wild.
Another bonus: Admission is just $25, with rides costing additional tickets (tickets are $1 each). That means if you just want to go in and explore the forest trails—and maybe add a kiddie ride or two—that's enough! Included in admission are the various mazes and interactive elements that lead guests straight into the stories (for instance, kids can climb through a hole in a log that leads to Wonderland). Want to know more? Check out Coaster Studio's Youtube video for a cool look inside the park.
Gilroy Gardens - Gilroy, CA
The annual Garlic Festival isn't the only thing bringing tourists to Gilroy! The unique agriculturally-themed Gilroy Gardens amusement park lets kids climb aboard a giant artichoke for a teacup-style ride or hop on a caterpillar for a spinny trip around a giant apple core. Of the 18 garden-themed rides in the park, all but three are good for toddlers (though big sibs will love them!)
But it's not all about the rides! The real reason to come to this 536-acre park is to visit its collection of bizarre "Circus Trees." These trees, with intentionally bent and snarled roots and branches, are living masterpieces grown through a particular process that results in trees that are unique works of art (some of which are so big you can walk through them!). The sprawling property also has six botanical gardens, some of which offer specialized tours, including a relaxed boat cruise through a Rainbow Garden and an on-a-track replica Model-T tour of a model of Historical Santa Clara Valley.
Hersheypark - Hershey, PA
If a theme park devoted to candy isn't enough to get your child 100 percent on board, we don't know what is! This sprawling amusement park, located in the town where Hershey Bars are made (the whole town really smells like chocolate!), has a slew of rides for kids of all ages—with many devoted to even tiny riders (the rides are grouped into candy type, with "Hershey’s miniatures" being those that take kids under 36-inches; "Hershey’s Kisses" being those that take littles 36 to 42-inches; and "Reese's" being littles 42-48-inches). Kids will love whirling around in giant chocolates and bouncing up and down on candy bars. We're pretty sure you won't get through the day without eating some of the sweet stuff, too, as the must-do Chocolate Factory Tour includes a free sample at the end and plops you out right into a massive chocolate shop.
When you're done riding all the rides, the adjacent ZooAmerica houses a small but mighty collection of more than 200 animals, and entrance to the zoo is included with the price of Hersheypark admission. It's a quiet enough place that you can wheel your toddler around during naptime and have a good chance he'll catch some Zs.
There's also a waterpark—included with your admission ticket—with some toddler-friendly features like a splash pad and a shallow-water wading area.
Nickelodeon Universe - East Rutherford, NJ and Minneapolis, MN
Give cold weather the cold shoulder and head to the mega-entertainment complex, American Dream, the Western Hemisphere's biggest amusement park, which is home to an indoor ski slope, a water park, a skating rink—and Nickelodeon's second "Universe" theme park (the first is at the Mall of America in Minnesota). The park's 27 rides (all indoor!) are based on the network's famous faces such as Paw Patrol, Spongebob, the Backyardigans, Diego, and more.
And while there are quite a few big coasters that might intimidate little visitors, tiny Nick Jr. fans will love hopping aboard smaller thrills like Blaze's Monster Truck Rally, Blues Skidoo, Boots Banana Swing, and Butterbeans Sweet Spin (all of which are suitable for toddlers) as well as romping around various playgrounds such as Paw Patrol's Adventure Bay and the Slime Zone.
Disney World's Magic Kingdom (FL) & Disneyland (CA)
Oh, Disney. We can’t do this list without you. Sure, you're a huge park with equally huge ticket prices, but we can't say no. Because let's face it: By age 2 most kids are sufficiently Disnified that seeing their beloved buds in person is, quite simply, worth the hassle and expense (especially if you're a Disney-loving parent as well). It helps that kids under 3 are free at all Disney parks.
Of all of The Mouse's properties, Disney World's Magic Kingdom (or Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, which shares many of the same rides) has been called the best for toddlers since it has so many of the iconic shows and rides that littles will love. Think Cinderella's Castle, It's a Small World, the Jungle Cruise, and the Mad Hatter's Teacups. And while there are some big rides that your small child won't want to (or can't) ride, the majority of the offerings are good for all ages.
DIsney's Animal Kingdom is also a good choice for smaller kids because even though there are a lot of big rides your toddler may not be ready for, there's still a zoo's worth of animals to see (and all the big rides have parent swap stations so you can take turns riding while a partner stays with your child).
Of course, bringing a toddler to any Disney park requires some bit of planning (pack lots of snacks... and pull-ups!) and flexibility (this mom blogger has some great tips)—as well as being at peace with the fact that your day may be cut short when your toddler needs a nap or teeters near tantrum-territory. In other words, don’t expect to make it to the fireworks, but be pleasantly surprised if you do.