This park has its share of thrills in the form of rapids and half-pipes and bullet-fast water chutes but what makes it truly special is its wildlife (in particular, its stars: the Commerson's dolphins) and the serene and playful ways in which visitors can observe it. Walkabout Waters and Kata's Kookaburra Cover are ideal for the littlest in your party while thrill-seekers might opt for Omaka Rocka or the Dolphin Plunge, Aquatica's most popular ride. And when you're ready to relax, hit the "beach." You can even splurge on one of the park's premium private cabanas.
Recommended for Best Theme Parks because: Before Aquatica, visitors lamented: water park or animal park? Now they don't have to choose.
A.D.'s expert tip: Relaxing and cool, Loggerhead Lane's lazy river floats past colorful aquariums, beneath shady bridges and waterfalls and offers a fish-eye view of the Commerson's dolphins. Don't miss it.
Located roughly 30 miles from Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, this theme park bills itself as being "Built For Kids," but it's really built for everyone. Sure there are a fair share of kiddie rides, but there are also a few rollercoasters, including some perfect for those just starting to test the thrill-seeking attractions. As you can imagine, there are LEGO sculptures everywhere! There also are 3D movies, LEGO play areas and a waterpark (which does require a separate admissions ticket) connected to the LEGOLAND. Opening later this year after undergoing some improvements is Miniland USA, a massive area in the park made up of 32 million LEGO bricks. You'll see cities like Las Vegas and San Francisco recreated as well as well-known attractions like Daytona Speedway and Kennedy Space Center, complete with a shuttle that launches. The park is celebrating its 10th birthday in 2021 and has a calendar filled with special events, including the launch of a Brickbeard's Watersports Stunt Show, a Master Builder Experience and the premiere of a 4-D movie.
Recommended for Best Theme Parks because: The lines are rarely long at this theme park and you can accomplish a lot in one visit.
Michelle's expert tip: Save time to walk around the beautiful Cypress Gardens botanical gardens, which has been around since 1939.
With Diagon Alley delighting the Potter people, Springfield USA luring Simpson fans worldwide and the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride still high on visitors' lists, Universal Studios Florida gives its sister park more than a run for its money. Honestly, which you prefer will likely depend on a smidge preference for one ride or section over another. Additionally, coaster aficionados will rejoice in both the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit and the indoor marvel of Revenge of the Mummy, which plunges riders into darkness as they race through dazzling, special effects-driven perils from the film that inspired it: scurrying carnivorous scarabs, an army of warrior mummies and an almost too-real fireball. Don't miss the new attraction Bourne Stuntacular, which opened in 2020 and is based on the Bourne Identity franchise.
Recommended for Best Theme Parks because: Blazing hot with everything from Transformers to Minions to the Simpsons' Springfield, Universal Studios is a Hollywood-style heavy hitter.
Michelle's expert tip: Fans of the macabre take note: this park is home to Halloween Horror Nights, 10-time winner of Amusement Today's Golden Ticket Award for "Best Halloween Event." If your visit falls during the season, come find out why.
More unforgettable experiences in Orlando
Want to go on one of the fastest rides at Walt Disney World? Disney's Blizzard Beach is where you need to head. The waterslide Summit Plummet plunges those who dare 12-stories almost straight down reaching speeds of 65 mph. By comparison, EPCOT's Test Track reaches an average top speed of 64.9 mph. If speed isn't your thing, you'll probably enjoy Cross County Creek. The 3,000-foot lazy river is one of the longest in the country. It can take between 20 to 30 minutes to complete one circle, depending on how lazy you want to be of course. One can't-miss-attraction at this winter-themed waterpark is the "ski lift," likely the only one in Florida.
Recommended for Best Theme Parks because: There are options for those who want to ride the rides, those who want to relax and for those who want something in between.
Michelle's expert tip: Spoil yourself with a cabana and have food and drinks delivered right to you.
Epcot may be undergoing the largest transformation in Walt Disney World history, but the park still has plenty to offer. World showcase features slices of life from a host of different nations, miniature cultural immersions via food, music, art, architecture and more. That said, don't think the kids will miss out on their favorite Disney characters. Anna-and-Elsa fans will delight in Norway's Frozen Ever After ride. The gang from "Finding Nemo" is on hand at The Seas with Nemo and Friends pavilion, which boasts one of the largest manmade ocean environments in the world (people actually snorkel and scuba dive in it). Epcot is the theme park of festivals and there's a good chance your visit will coincide with one. Whether it's the International Festival of the Arts, the International Food & Wine Festival or the Flower & Garden Festival, they all feature plenty to see, do and eat!
Recommended for Best Theme Parks because: Want to scratch a host of countries off your travel Bucket List in a day? Until teleportation becomes reality, there's always Epcot.
Michelle's expert tip: The new attraction, Remy's Ratatouille Adventure is set to open Oct. 1, 2021, in honor of Walt Disney World's 50th anniversary.
This tried and true classic has its 50th birthday in 2021, and there are plenty of celebrations in store. Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World's first theme park is still making memories half a century later. The three mountains, Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain are iconic to the park, but so are many of the other attractions. The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, It's a Small World, Mad Tea Party, the list goes on and on of the rides that bring back countless childhood memories for so many. The park only got better with newer additions like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Magic Kingdom will gain even more attention with the upcoming opening of the roller coaster TRON Lightcycle Run.
Recommended for Best Theme Parks because: There are lots of celebrations planned for Walt Disney World's 50th birthday, which is in October 2021. Check its website for all the details.
Michelle's expert tip: Search for Hidden Mickeys. Subtle representations of the Disney icon are hidden throughout all the Disney parks and properties in the architecture, decor, just about anywhere! Bonus: it's a good way to pass time while waiting in line.
From the towering sight of Hogwarts Castle as you explore the Wizarding World's Hogsmeade to the colorful fun of Seuss Landing (ideal for the littlest ones in your party) and the old-school flume-ride fun of Jurassic Park to the innovative thrills of Spiderman to the exciting meld of 3D technology and animatronics in Skull Island: Reign of Kong, Islands of Adventure is a king among the heavy-hitting theme-park contenders this city has to offer. Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure isn't a rollercoaster, but a story coaster where guests encounter favorites from the world of Harry Potter. Debating which rides, or even which section of the park, tops them all is best slated for some after-park drinks at nearby Universal CityWalk after thoughtful research in the field.
Recommended for Best Theme Parks because: The combination of Hogwarts and butterbeer with Dr. Seuss and Spiderman make Islands of Adventure tough to beat.
Michelle's expert tip: If you want the full Harry Potter experience, you'll need tickets to both Universal Parks, which is the only way to ride the Hogwarts Express.
Chase after the yeti on the peaks of the Himalayas, shoot the Kali Rapids on a lush and beautiful Indian River, go back in time to find dinosaurs on a prehistoric, dark-ride journey and delight in a colorful, fun musical presentation of "Finding Nemo" at this wondrous part of the Disney realm. Its newest section, Pandora, leaves the planet altogether, taking guests on a journey to lush and primordial Pandora. It's a magnificent trip, but all the new doesn't take a thing away from things like the Kilimanjaro Safari, where live animals roam free or the resplendent Tree of Life Nighttime Awakenings show.
Recommended for Best Theme Parks because: Between its exotic residents, its incredible coasters and its beautiful Disney-driven details, Animal Kingdom is a definite Top-10 park.
A.D.'s expert tip: Avatar Flight of Passage, which takes riders on a banshee flight over Pandora, is one of the most immersive and exhilarating rides imaginable.
Combining signature thrill rides and movie magic, Disney's Hollywood Studios is the only place where you can enjoy tot-friendly Muppetvision in 3D, then plummet 13 stories on the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror! Experiences here, particularly for well-versed fans of the big and small screen, are surreal. Fill your Star Wars quota to overload with a visit to the planet Batuu in Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. While thrill-seekers take a ride on Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, little Disney fans will love the Disney Junior Play and Dance show where they'll get to see friends like Princess Sofia, Doc McStuffins and Jake the Pirate. Toy Story Land is a must for the whole family if only to grab a photo with the colorful, fun décor. But chances are, the rides there will be a hit.
Recommended for Best Theme Parks because: There is easily something for everyone at this park, from the littlest Disney fans to the more seasoned ones. From the thrill-seekers to the people-watchers.
Michelle's expert tip: This park is going to get an even bigger boost in 2021 with the opening of the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, a two-night all-immersive adventure.
You'll feel like you're on an all-inclusive island rather than the center of a city known for theme parks. Your admission ticket not only gets you access to the dolphins, but it also includes a snorkel experience with thousands of tropical fish and coral reefs, entrance to the aviary and much more. Breakfast, lunch, drinks and snacks also are part of the deal. In fact, you don't even need towels or sunscreen. They are provided along with wetsuits. The lazy river is designed to look like a lagoon among a rainforest with waterfalls, caves and rocky terrain. Waterproof masks are given to guests when swimming with the dolphins and masks also need to be worn when in the restaurant or gift shops. You can rent a cabana to get an ultra-exclusive, private feel. There are other add-ons, like swimming with sharks or exploring the coral reef with a dive helmet.
Recommended for Best Theme Parks because: The park has always operated at a limited capacity, even pre-Covid, to provide intimate and engaging animal encounters and the best overall park experience.
Michelle's expert tip: You can pack light. The experience includes food, drinks, towels and even sunscreen.