Whether child or adult, most of us find magic in a simple Ferris wheel or old-fashioned roller coaster. Amusement parks have been around in one form or another since the early European fair and it was the traditional 'fairground' model which influenced the modern amusement park - one of the main differences between a park and a fair, of course, being that carnivals and fairs are portable and so, typically, 'travelling' attractions.
The first theme park was designed around Santa Claus and opened in Indiana just a few years before Disneyland in California. How did the idea of a 'theme' change amusement parks? More conceptual rides (and lots of them), characters from fairy tales or animated films, food, candy, enormous quantities of merchandise and shopping, and what do you have? A magical alternate world enjoyed by kids and adults alike - and, if successful, an attraction that spins money as fast as the rides spin you.
Even though he didn’t actually build the first theme park, Walt Disney was the person who arguably added the magic - conceiving of, designing and animating a slew of original characters that captured the imagination of a nation and then of the world. Once his world was firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of first thousands and then hundreds of thousands of people, Disney had the capital to leave the drawing board. He brought his characters and sets to life, literally, creating fantasy lands that not only survive today, but that have been increased in number over the last 60 years.
Disney theme parks are certainly not the only ones around now. Many others have sprung up, such as the Sea World chain and the popular Six Flags parks. From the numbers - the huge volume of money generated and the hundreds of thousands of visitors annually - it seems clear theme parks will never go out of style. They may change over the years, characters or rides coming and going, perhaps even seeing enormous stylistic shifts in the future. But whatever the presentation, people will always enjoy the escape of fantasy and the thrill of safe, legal extreme speed.
Which of these enchanting theme parks are currently the most popular in the world? Which attraction saw the most visitors, coming from all over the world - and which had the longest lines? We'll let you guess the answer to that last question, as we give you the answers to the first two with our list of the 10 most popular theme parks in the world.
10 Islands of Adventure – 7,981,000 Visitors per Year
This park at Universal Orlando, Florida features The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, complete with stores and restaurants from Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Visitors can have a Butterbeer at the Hog’s Head pub or buy Bertie Bott’s beans at Honeyduke’s. Get a wand at Ollivander’s (though these don't do much more than look great), and even fly over Hogwarts after you’ve seen inside! As if all this weren’t enough, Islands of Adventure also offers Toon Lagoon, Seuss Landing, Jurassic Park, and for superhero fans, Marvel Super Hero Island. No wonder so many people flock to this theme park. Wait: Up in the sky! It’s a bird…it’s a plane…No! It’s Harry Potter!
9 Universal Studios Japan – 9,700,000 Visitors per Year
This theme park in Osaka, Japan reached the one million visitors mark faster than any other theme park in the world; in fact, within its first year of operation, it had eleven million. This park doesn't even rely on many visitors from outside Asia, as tourists from within Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan provide ample numbers. Some of the popular rides at Universal Japan include Space Fantasy, Hollywood Dream, The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, Jurassic Park, Jaws and Back to the Future, and special shows include Terminator 2 in 3D, Backdraft, Universal Monsters Live Rock & Roll Show and 4D shows of both Sesame Street and Shrek. That’s enough to keep any restless group busy for quite some time!
8 Disney’s Hollywood Studios – 9,912,000 Visitors per Year
At this Walt Disney World venue in Florida attractions are themed just as the name suggests: Rides are Hollywood-themed, like the Honey I Shrunk the Kids Movie Set Adventure, The Great Movie Ride, The Legend of Captain Jack Sparrow, Muppet*Vision 3D, the Rock ’n Roll Coaster Starring Aerosmith, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, and more. See The Incredibles Super Dance Party or The Jedi Training Academy, meet Ariel, Aladdin and Jasmine, Alice in Wonderland and many others. There are other attractions, such as Disney plays, an AMC movie theatre, The American Idol Experience, Disney Junior Dance Party and Festival of the Lion King – and if parents get tired doing all that, there are even spas to help unwind after all the other-worldly excitement.
7 Disney’s Animal Kingdom – 9,998,000 Visitors per Year
Walt Disney believed so much in Animal Conservation that this fourth of the Walt Disney World theme parks in Florida was built on 500 acres, and is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. It is the largest Disney park in the world, and the second largest of all the world’s theme parks. According to their Website, there are 250 species and more than 1700 animals. Although this park focusses on birds and beasts, there are some of the usual Disney rides and productions, but the highlights here are a safari experience or taking a slow ride on the Wildlife Express train. All aboard!
6 Epcot – 11,063,000 Visitors per Year
Opened in 1982, this Walt Disney World Resort park in Lake Buena Vista, Florida focuses on human achievement. The iconic Spaceship Earth represents what Epcot is all about and is also reminiscent of a traditional World’s Fair, which Epcot has long been likened to. Epcot portrays international culture and the technological revolution of which Walt Disney and his team were part. Visitors can go on a shuttle launch with Mission: Space simulator, have NASA “training” or, in Spaceship Earth, ride through time to see how communication progressed: from early Man painting on cave walls to the present, travelling through seminal epochs and places in between. A trip within a trip – maybe that’s part of what makes this park so attractive to over 11 millions visitors a year.
5 Disneyland Park at Disneyland Paris – 11,200,000 Visitors per Year
Disney clearly rules the theme park world, whether in Florida, Japan or even France. How fortunate to be able to combine a sophisticated European vacation with the magic of childhood that Walt Disney so well understood. Originally part of what was called Euro Disney, its layout is similar to both Disneyland in California and Magic Kingdom in Florida, with similar attractions, too. The castle here is a replica of the castle in Sleeping Beauty, and the overall emphasis is on fairy tale characters and Disney characters. Whether location or its overall effect, tourists across Europe and the world have clearly decided it’s one of the best.
4 Tokyo Disney Sea – 12,656,000 Visitors per Year
Alongside Tokyo Disneyland, this theme park is part of the Tokyo Disney Resort. These are the only Disney parks in the world not owned by the Walt Disney Company. Tokyo Disney Sea alone is the most expensive theme park ever built, at an estimated $4 billion US or more. From the name, one can aptly guess that the overall focus is nautical. The layout includes seven main areas, including: Mediterranean Harbor, Mermaid Lagoon, Arabian Coast and Mysterious Island. This park is targeted more towards adults, with faster and scarier rides and more adult-appropriate shows. Clearly Disney is not just for kids, as the fourth most popular theme park in the world can attest to.
3 Tokyo Disneyland – 14,847,000 Visitors per Year
Like its predecessor, this is part of the Tokyo Disney Resort, and in 1983 it was the first Disney park built outside the U.S. Also like its predecessor it has seven main areas, including: Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Mickey’s Toontown and Adventureland, among others. Visitors can go on rides familiar from the original Disneyland, such as The Enchanted Tiki Room, Jungle Cruise and The Mark Twain Riverboat with Tom Sawyer Island. Fantasyland predictably (and happily) consists of the Cinderella Castle and rides through the scenes of movies like Peter Pan, Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Those who have previously visited any other Disneyland will see that truly, It’s a Small World after all!
2 Disneyland – 15,963,000 Visitors per Year
This is the original theme park, and the only one both designed and built under Walt Disney’s personal supervision. His magic clearly lives on in this second most popular park. Besides, it’s never difficult to visit Southern California. There are eight themed “lands”: Frontierland, Main Street, U.S.A., Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Mickey's Toontown, Critter Country, New Orleans Square and Adventureland. People literally swarm to Anaheim to see the sights advertised in so many of the ads, and fireworks in front of the castle featured before so many Disney films. Can you say, “Tinkerbell”?
1 Magic Kingdom – 17,536,000 Visitors per Year
At Magic Kingdom see Cinderella’s castle instead of Sleeping Beauty’s, the latter being at Disneyland. Both were based on the original movie castles and have been used as the Disney logo – sometimes alone, and sometimes combined into one. Dedicated to Disney characters and fairy tales, Magic Kingdom was the first theme park built at Florida’s Walt Disney World Resort. Visitors can practice their aim at Frontierland’s Shootin’ Arcade, get their spooked-out thrills at the classic Haunted Mansion, ride a giant teacup at the Mad Tea Party or brave the infamous Space Mountain, which - despite strong competition - is still regarded as one of the world’s best rides. Want to know why? You’ll have to join over seventeen and a half million people per year to find out - that number would certainly account for at least a few of those hellish winding queues...