It may be almost exactly 700 miles from his front door, but Hopkinton’s Patrick Gross and his family have made the trek to rollercoaster mecca Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, numerous times — even when the ride once took over double the usual 12-hour trip time due to a freak October snowstorm.
“We like the rides, the roller coasters,” Patrick said of his family: Nellie, 21, Marissa, 19, Devin, 12, and wife Maria. “I like the atmosphere of the parks, too, and how there’s usually something for everybody.”
And he’s not talking just about Cedar Point. Since the kids were young, the family has traveled to an amusement park every year (sometimes more than once), from Cedar Point to Hersheypark, to Six Flags Great Adventure New Jersey and Connecticut’s Lake Compounce.
They’ve got great taste, too, as all of these parks appear on national roller coaster expert Pete Trabucco’s 2016 Top Amusement Parks list. Trabucco, author of America’s Top Roller Coasters and Amusement Parks, releases a list of his top picks annually. His criteria for making the list takes every facet of the park into consideration, and he understands that not everyone follows the same guidelines he does.
“If you ask 10 people what makes a good park, they’ll come up with 10 different things,” he said. “I look at many things.”
Trabucco weighs not only the types of rides, but also their re-rideability, meaning you want to go on them again and again.
“It’s the difference between running to get back in line or saying, ‘I think one time was enough,’” he said.
He also looks at the cleanliness of the park, the culture and friendliness of people who work there, the food, and the shows offered.
Here’s how Trabucco rates some East Coast favorites, as well as the No. 1 spot in the U.S.
No. 1: Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio:
Known as the Roller Coaster Capital of the World, the Ohio institution (cedarpoint.com) is also the second-oldest operating amusement park in the United States, and home to one of Trabucco’s top ride picks, Millennium Force.
“There are 18 coasters and they are just the top throughout the country; each one is better than the next,” he said. Cedar Point coasters are wooden, steel, racers, twisty, tall, floorless — everything a coaster aficionado could dream of. That’s not all, though. The scenery you catch as you ride is spectacular.
“Not only do you have the amusement park, but it’s surrounded by water on three sides, so you also have a nice beach where you can lay out and enjoy the waters of Lake Erie,” he added. (Check out the view on page 16)
No. 8: Hersheypark, Hershey, Penn.:
“It really is the sweetest place on earth,” Trabucco said. Not only does the park (hersheypark.com) have fantastic coasters like Lightening Racer and the Great Bear, but it also offers old ones, like the Super Dooper Looper, one of the first looping roller coasters. It’s also quite magical in its own way, and that begins with the Hershey Kiss-shaped streetlights that greet you as you drive closer to the park.
“Milton Hershey built this park for his workers at first; it was there to bring them joy,” Trabucco said. “There are beautiful mountains surrounding it, and it also offers some of the best shows around.” He even compared the show caliber to that of Dollywood.
The working chocolate factory is also right around the corner, though there is a simplified version of that offered as a tour ride at the park entrance. There’s also a nearby zoo and a trolley ride excursion that takes you through town. Plus, where else can you buy a 1-pound Hershey Kiss or the world’s largest Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups?
No. 25: Knoebels Amusement Park, Elysburg, Penn:
Knoebels (knoebels.com) is a family-owned and operated park outside of a city with a lot of culture — and a unique payment system: Admission is free.
“Most parks, you have to pay one price, but here you can pay as you go [per ride],” Trabucco said. “If you’re not an amusement park aficionado or a roller coaster junkie, it’s a great system.”
Knoebels’ wooden roller coaster, Phoenix, (as seen on previous page) is also one of Trabucco’s Top 10: “It’s got a great feel to it. Laughter is universal, so when you can see people smiling and having a good time on that ride, it’s hard not to enjoy it yourself.”
Knoebels also has a museum and bald eagle habitat, a large area for picnicking and camping, many classic amusement park games, and free parking.
26. Lake Compounce, Bristol, Conn:
“It’s one of the oldest amusement parks in the country,” Trabucco said. Like Cedar Point, it’s situated on water, offering great views. One of the best comes out of The Sky Ride, a ski lift-type ride that goes up and over the mountains for a view that Trabucco called “breathtaking.”
A noted thrill ride is Boulder Dash, a wooden coaster that keeps riders guessing and was voted the world’s No. 1 wooden coaster.
“It follows the contours of the hills and valleys and the trees,” Trabucco said. “When you’re on the ride, you don’t know what’s coming next. Everything is far enough away that it’s safe, but it may not feel that way.”
New for 2016 is the Phobia Phear Coaster, which sits 15 stories tall, hits speeds of up to 65 mph, and offers a cobra roll inversion at 150 feet in the air.
For a more gentle experience, the Antique Carousel is also a beautiful part of the park. Built in 1898, it was moved to Lake Compounce in 1911 and is one of America’s oldest carousels.
29. Six Flags New England, Agawam, Mass.:
Trabucco said Six Flags establishments are known to be not quite friendly, but he finds the total opposite at the Massachusetts park (sixflags.com/newengland).
“The culture is amazing, the people are so nice,” he said. “They spend a lot of time training their people to do an amazing job. They take care of the grounds, they have some great shows, the food is excellent.”
The park also offers great coasters, one of which is also a Trabucco favorite. Formerly known as Bizarro, Superman The Ride is a steel coaster with a 20-story drop. Other superhero-themed thrill rides include Gotham City Gauntlet: Escape from Arkham Asylum, and Batman: The Dark Night. The New England Sky Screamer is a well-loved thrill attraction — swings that rise 400 feet in the air and spin riders around at 35 miles per hour.
A family affair
Hopkinton’s Gross and his family have hit up amusement parks since their oldest was 10. In addition to Cedar Point, they’ve visited Six Flags New England; Lake Compounce and Quassy Amusement & Waterpark in Connecticut; Hersheypark, Dorney Park, and Knoebels in Pennsylvania; King’s Island in Ohio; Darien Lake in New York; and Disney World in Florida.
They drive to most places and try to make a whole trip out of it, exploring nearby attractions as well. Sometimes they venture to only one park, and others they set off on a journey.
“We did Dorney, Hershey, King’s Island, and Cedar Point in one week. I was very dizzy by the end,” he said, with a laugh. “It looks good on paper, but by the time we were done it was, like, ‘Oh my God, why do we do this?’”
“Oh, yeah. I would do it again.”
While the girls and Patrick aren’t averse to any rides, mom Maria prefers to sit most out. However, as Patrick points out, that’s fine because parks aren’t just about the rides.
“Walking around is nice, the atmosphere is nice. My wife doesn’t do the rides at Cedar Point, but she’ll go any time because she just likes to walk around,” he said.
And Cedar Point is home to Patrick and the girls’ favorite ride: Millennium Force.
“It’s tall and it’s fast and it’s fun,” 12-year-old Devin noted.
And she’s not exaggerating: This “giga coaster” is 310 feet tall and hits speeds of 93 mph. It’s also situated on Lake Erie, providing riders with a nice view of the city as they scream.
“It’s controlled chaos,” Patrick said of why he likes coasters so much. “You’re there, you know you’re safe, but it scares the living snot out of you.”
Touting a large family may seem daunting (especially to the wallet), but Patrick said there are tricks to employ to make the experience better: “Go when it first opens and schools are still in session, pre-summer. It’s quieter, and the prices may be lower.”
He also pointed out that some parks are owned by the same company, and a ticket to one may allow entrance into several. For example, season passes at Six Flags are good for any Six Flags park around the country.
And, he added, always keep the experience in mind: “We like being with the family, hanging out and having a good time.”
Pete Trabucco’s 2016 Top Amusement Park List
1. Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio
2. Walt Disney World, Orlando, Fla.
3. Six Flags Magic Mountain, Valencia, Calif.
4. Universal Studio’s Islands of Adventure, Orlando, Fla.
5. Disneyland/California Adventure, Anaheim, Calif.
6. Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, NJ.
7. Busch Gardens (Africa) Tampa, Fla.
8. Hersheypark, Hershey, Penn.
9. Six Flags Over Texas, Arlington, Texas
10. Kennywood Park, West Mifflin, Penn.
11. Wonderland Park Toronto, Canada.
12. Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, NJ.
13. Kings Island, Cincinnati, Ohio.
14. Knott’s Berry Farm, Anaheim, Calif.
15. Worlds of Fun, Kansas, City, Miss.
16. Dollywood, Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
17. Holiday World, Evansville, Ind.
18. Silver Dollar City, Branson, Miss.
19. Morey’s Piers, Wildwood, NJ.
20. Michigan Adventure, Muskegon, Mich.
21. Carowinds, Charlotte, NC.
22. Kings Dominion, Doswell, Va.
23. Busch Gardens (Europe), Williamsburg, Va.
24. Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom, Allentown, Penn.
25. Knoebels Amusement Park, Elysburg, Pa.
26. Lake Compounce, Bristol, Conn.
27. Luna Park, Brooklyn, NY
28. SeaWorld, Orlando, Fla.
29. Six Flags New England, Agawam, Mass.
30. ValleyFair, Shakopee, Minn.
Overcoming Coaster Anxiety
Though you can find a whole section in his book about overcoming the fear of rollercoasters, Trabucco shared some tips with us. As a former pilot, he knows what it takes to deal with heights and G forces.
Take a look: Contrary to what you believe, you should keep your eyes open: “It’ll help stop vertigo,” he noted.
Don’t hold it in: Scream! “Keep the blood flowing into your upper extremities,” he added. This also helps to keep you from becoming nauseous.