5 Thrilling Theme Parks Open Into the Fall

Extend your summer fun with amusement rides, haunted houses, concerts and seasonal snacks you can only get in autumn.

by NEA Member Benefits


Key takeaways

  • Many theme parks and other seasonal attractions stay open on weekends in October and beyond.
  • Enjoy advantages such as smaller crowds and potentially lower ticket prices.

If your definition of summer includes carefree days at an amusement park, flitting between thrill rides and the midway, you’ll be glad to know the fun doesn’t end on Labor Day. In cold-weather states, many theme parks and other seasonal attractions stay open on weekends in October and beyond, allowing us one last “hurrah” before fall snowballs into the busy holiday season.

The advantages of waiting include pleasant weather, smaller crowds and, in some cases, lower ticket prices. The trade-offs: fewer rides are open and shorter hours of operation, and if there’s a water park, it will likely close on Labor Day. But if you’re game for a late-season getaway, these five theme parks are all about family fun.

1. Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, Virginia

Photo courtesy of Busch Gardens

Howl-O-Scream takes over the park in October and offers daytime programming that is relatively tame. Children can get their faces painted and take photos with their favorite characters in the Sesame Street Forest of Fun. After 6 p.m., however, the park becomes more appropriate for an older audience, with seven haunted houses and five “Terror-tories.”

You’ll see why this park has won awards for its gardens, design and visual appeal. It’s separated into distinct “countries,” with dining and shopping options to match. Even the rides—more than 50 in all—are themed. You’ll find Verbolten—an indoor/outdoor, multi-launch roller coaster—in Germany, and Griffon—the world’s first floorless dive coaster—in France.

Driving distances: 30 minutes from Newport News, Virginia | 1 hour from Richmond, Prince George and Norfolk, Virginia | 90 minutes from Virginia Beach and Charlottesville, Virginia

Where to stay: Red Roof Inn Williamsburg | Country Inn & Suites Williamsburg East | Kingsmill Resort

2. Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio

Photo courtesy of Cedar Point Amusement Park

Cedar Point is the second-oldest operating amusement park in the United States. The park, located on Lake Erie, began a long-standing tradition as the “roller coaster capital of the world.” The park’s first coaster, the Switchback Railway, was introduced in 1892. Today there are 18 coasters in all, including notable record-breakers such as the new Valravn dive coaster—the world’s tallest, fastest and longest dive coaster—and GateKeeper, the world’s longest wing coaster.

Through October 30, Cedar Point is open Friday through Sunday for HalloWeekends. For 20 years, this annual event has included a kid-friendly “Great Pumpkin Fest” during the day and a scary “Haunt” event at night. With more than 150 rides, shows and 3 miles of midway, there’s something for everyone.

Driving distances: 30 minutes from Fremont and Norwalk, Ohio | 1 hour from Toledo and Cleveland, Ohio | 90 minutes from Akron, Ohio | 2 hours from Columbus, Ohio, and Ann Arbor and Detroit, Michigan

Where to stay: Red Roof Inn Sandusky - Milan| The Maples Motel | Hotel Breakers

3. Dollywood, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

Photo courtesy of Dollywood

Located near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Dollywood is open through December, with the exception of the first week of November. In addition to 40 traditional amusement park rides—including the new Lightning Rod, the world’s fastest wooden roller coaster—Dollywood features turn-of-the-century crafts, Southern-style food and music.

Entertainment is a big draw here. Concerts—including appearances by country music legend Dolly Parton—are presented several times a day. In addition, you can experience 15 different shows with storytellers, D.J. dance parties and children’s programs. In fall, the National Southern Gospel and Harvest Celebration brings in performers from around the South for free concerts, while the park is decked out in autumn decorations.

Driving distances: 1 hour from Knoxville, Tennessee | 2 hours from Asheville, North Carolina and Johnson City, Tennessee | 3 hours from Greenville, South Carolina

Where to stay: Econo Lodge Riverside | Clarion Inn | Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort

4. Hersheypark, Hershey, Pennsylvania

Photo courtesy of Hershey Entertainment & Resorts

During October, the “Sweetest Place on Earth” becomes “Hersheypark in the Dark,” a Halloween celebration centered on chocolate, of course. Most attractions remain open, and there’s trick-or-treating through Treatville village.

Hersheypark is designed to have an historic, Americana vibe. There’s an ample selection of thrill rides, including 12 coasters and more than 20 rides geared for young children. The classics are well represented, with a carousel, teacup-style ride, monorail and the iconic Kissing Tower with panoramic views of the entire park. There’s live entertainment on 6 stages, strolling performers and larger-than-life Hershey’s characters walking around the park. Stop by Hershey’s Chocolate World on your way out for fresh candies and treats only available on the premises.

Lesson-plan resources: The Hershey Story offers a variety of Hershey-related lesson plans for grades K through 12.

Driving distances: 30 minutes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania | 90 minutes from Hagerstown, Maryland | 2 hours from Baltimore, Maryland and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Where to stay: Days Inn | Hershey Lodge | The Hotel Hershey

5. Silver Dollar City, Branson, Missouri

Photo courtesy of Silver Dollar City

A part of the Ozark mountain landscape for more than 50 years, Silver Dollar City is themed as an 1880s mining town, with 40 rides, live shows, crafts demonstrations and seasonal festivals. The park’s season runs mid-March through December, and nearly everything remains open through fall, weather permitting. The National Harvest & Cowboy Festival in October adds a Wild West Show, barn dances and country music performers. Silver Dollar City is also known for its above-par arts and crafts shopping, Southern food and the Marvel Cave, 500 feet underground.

The park’s attractions appeal to all ages, but older children love the PowderKeg explosive-launch roller coaster, WildFire multi-looping coaster and Outlaw Run double barrel roll wooden coaster. For younger children, Fireman’s Landing is a firefighter-themed section, and Half Dollar Holler! is a play area with treetop funhouses and climbing nets.

Lesson-plan resources: Silver Dollar City provides a variety of professionally developed curriculum guides, lesson plans and student activity worksheets for school groups, with topics ranging from fine arts to math and science.

Driving distances: 1 hour from Springfield, Missouri | 2 hours from Joplin, Missouri and Fayetteville, Arkansas | 3 hours from Fort Smith, Arkansas

Where to stay: Welk Resort | Hilton Promenade at Branson Landing | Savannah House

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