Travel

The Best Amusement Parks to Visit This Winter

Eggnog and roller coasters? Yes, please!

Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort
Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort
Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort

Amusement parks may be a staple of summer, but there are drawbacks to visiting when everyone is on vacation: long lines, crowded restaurants, heat that doesn’t seem to let up, even when those misters are on full blast. But while some parks shut for the season once temperatures dip, others take a cue from Christmas markets and festivals around the country and deck the halls, er, rides, for the holidays. From an Eiffel Tower-turned-Christmas tree to parades led by Anna and Elsa-plus the rest of the Disney characters-here are the best theme parks to visit this winter.

Photo courtesy of LEGOLAND California
Photo courtesy of LEGOLAND California
Photo courtesy of LEGOLAND California

LEGOLAND

Carlsbad, California & Winter Haven, Florida
Given the mild climate of both states, visiting the LEGOLAND parks means you get to unleash your inner bricklayer without a bulky parka getting in the way. Both bring polar vibes to warmer climates with a Holiday Village Postal Service where you can send letters to LEGO Santa and 30-foot-tall Christmas trees made of, yep, LEGOs. If a mountain of colourful plastic isn’t enticing enough, then go for the 360-degree light show or nightly snowfall, especially if you don’t live in a place where winter means snow and grey skies 24/7. More for the kids, there’s also a holiday character crew that comprises LEGO Santa and LEGO Gingerbread, plus holiday shows. But even the most ardent Grinch-who’s actually associated with a different theme park on this list, but bear with us-should consider winter a prime time to ride the rides (without standing in lines all day) and walk among the block cities. Both parks are open year-round, ensuring that, even in the middle of February, you’ll find entertainment.

Knott's Berry Farm
Knott’s Berry Farm
Knott’s Berry Farm

Knott’s Merry Farm

Buena Park, California
One of the most exciting parts about winter is the comfort food, and what better place to spend your time eating than California’s very first theme park, Knott’s Berry Farm? What started as a roadside berry stand and chicken dinner restaurant almost a century ago is now one of Southern California’s most popular theme parks, complete with coasters and water slides. A wintertime trip to Knott’s means gracious helpings of Tinseltown’s turkey, bacon, and alfredo tater bites, funnel cakes, and Santa’s apple pie cupcakes. Time your visit with the holiday ice skating show, which features Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang-and this year marks the 40th anniversary of Snoopy on Ice, so there’s a special spin to the show. Holiday music comes in the form of a capella singers serending with Christmas classics and a bluegrass duo crooning classic and new hits. And there’s plenty of family entertainment in the form of cookies in Mrs. Claus’ kitchen and photos in Santa’s Christmas cabin.

Dollywood
Dollywood
Dollywood

Dollywood

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
If you’re planning a mountain getaway in the South, one of the best escapes for the holidays is the Great Smoky Mountains, where you can spend your days at one of the most-visited theme parks in the world-Dollywood. Dolly Parton’s amusement-filled monument to, well, Dolly Parton, has appeal beyond fans of country and bluegrass-though those people are more or less guaranteed an experience similar to finding out heaven is covered in rhinestones. Up until new year’s day, Dollywood features parades, plus several award-winning live shows like musical revue “Christmas in the Smokies” and classics like “Twas The Night Before Christmas.” The park is closed from early January through mid-March, so plan accordingly if you want to spin on the Dizzy Disk-essentially a giant spinning saucer-and a walk through Chasing Rainbows, an interactive museum filled with many of Parton’s dazzling gowns and awards, plus a hologram of Dolly herself.

Kings Dominion
Kings Dominion
Kings Dominion

Kings Dominion

Doswell, Virginia
There are many reasons to go to Kings Dominion, like testing your bravery on the Berserker, a viking ship replica that swings in a 360-degree loop, or flying at 67 miles per hour on the Dominator, the world’s longest, floorless steel roller coaster. But, during the holidays, it comes down to three words: spiked hot chocolate. While many kid-centred amusement parks prohibit the selling and drinking of alcohol, you need not worry at Kings Dominion. During WinterFest-which takes place select nights through New Year’s Day-there are multiple spots to grab a nice cup of this spiked treat, along with a range of local craft beers, wine, and another adult Christmas classic, spiked eggnog. Of course, there’s more to do than just drink here, as the Eiffel Tower transforms into a 300-foot-tall Christmas tree and the fountain on International Street turns into an ice-skating rink, letting you live out all your Rockefeller Center holiday fantasies in a place-dare we say it-that’s much more magical.

Carowinds
Carowinds
Carowinds

Carowinds

Charlotte, North Carolina
There’s so much happening at Carowinds WinterFest that it would take the rest of winter just to tell you about it all. Just know there will be many lights (millions, if you want us to be more precise) and live performances, including jingles from Carowinds’ musical acts Christmas Bluegrass, Cool Yule, and the Yule Logs. Hop on any of the numerous rides that’ll be operating, like the Scream Weaver (the name is accurate) and the Electro-Spin, which we don’t suggest going on right after eating a full plate of roasted pork mac and cheese. WinterFest lasts until January 1, after which the park closes for the winter, but feel free to stay a few hours later for the New Year’s Eve at WinterFest celebration, where you can count down to the fireworks at the largest party on the state line.

Photo courtesy of Walt Disney World
Photo courtesy of Walt Disney World
Photo courtesy of Walt Disney World

Disneyland and Walt Disney World

Anaheim, California & Orlando, Florida
The Disney parks are often cited as the happiest places on Earth, and their winter makeovers-particularly during Magic Kingdom’s beloved Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party-seriously amp up the cheer. The usual suspects are present-weekend fireworks extravaganzas, nightly parades, iconic characters in costume-but everything is given a winter twist, from the occasional puff of cinnamon wafting through the air to holiday-themed shows and It’s a Small World‘s snowy makeover. The food-which some people actually visit the park for-also gets a makeover, while the characters get into the spirit of the holidays with new costumes. Oh, and of course Santa’s at the parade, along with Anna and Elsa. Just the sight of that iconic magic castle dripping with icicle lights and a nice dusting of fake frost is enough to make a Disney trip during the holidays.

Six Flags Great Adventure
Six Flags Great Adventure
Six Flags Great Adventure

Six Flags Great Adventure

Jackson Township, New Jersey
Sure, there are tons of Six Flags across the country, and they put on pretty cool holiday events, but when’s the last time you got to ride a “hypercoaster” at 80 miles per hour in New Jersey’s frigid temps? Never, that’s when. But no worries, that can all change after you conquer your fears and hop on one of the world’s top steel coasters, Nitro. Its name is just as intense as the first hill you’ll go up-which is a casual 233 feet high. For something more winter-themed, Holiday in the Park is on until January 1, and that’s just enough time for you to go on every ride in the park-or you can try to ride all 36 of them in one day.

Before you lose your voice screaming from the top of Batman, remember to grab a handy entertainment schedule at the front gate of the park so you don’t miss any of the cheerful singing and holiday shows. After you’re all sung out and you’ve gotten your picture on Santa’s lap, wind down the day in S’mores Village (pretty obvious what you’ll find here)-or snag a gingerbread or peppermint funnel cake-and warm up your hands at the fire pits. You can also pick up last-minute gifts at the North Pole Village, in case you still have a few to check off your list.

Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort
Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort
Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort

Universal Studios

Los Angeles, California and Orlando, Florida
Both coasts are in for a treat as Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Orlando are decking their parks with holiday decor, food, music, and enough Harry Potter to get you through 2023. If you’re in Orlando, you’ll want to start your day by having breakfast while the Grinch stops by at your table to bring some holiday cheer-or not, depending on how big his heart is that day/your tolerance for a guy doing an impression of Jim Carrey. Then, get lost in the sorcery of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter as you walk the streets of Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley.

California friends, along with the theme park action, there are exciting events for you, too-the most anticipated being the holiday takeover of Universal CityWalk, where you can take photos by the extremely lit (200,000 music-synced lights, to be exact), 40-foot-tall Christmas tree at the 5 Towers Stage. And, when your eyes need a break, wander through the shops at CityWalk and pick up those last-minute holiday gifts you’ve been putting off since Black Friday.

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Kristen Adaway is a travel and local editorial assistant at Thrillist. It is very likely that you’ll find her eating multiple funnel cakes at many of the parks on this list this winter. Send her your support @kristenadaway.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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