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Quirky alternatives to major theme parks

Summer has always been a time for vacations. The weather warms up, schools close down, and families hit the highway. Many people visit the “Mouse” for entertainment, while others travel off the beaten path and look to the roadside for inspiration. And it just so happens that the United States is overflowing with funky alternatives to the dense crowds, long lines, and high prices of major theme parks. All it takes is a bit of adventure and an open mind to discover what else is around the bend.

We’ve chosen seven places that will keep your vacation prices low while still amplifying the summer fun.


Located near the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, Dollywood is a popular destination for music fans and families. In 1986, singer, songwriter, and actress Dolly Parton joined forces with Herschend Entertainment to create one of the most visited attractions in Tennessee. The 125-acre park includes shows, rides, and many crafts. The most popular rides are the Smoky Mountain River Rampage, an outdoor rafting experience, and the Dollywood Express, a journey through the Smoky Mountains aboard a 110-ton steam locomotive.

Since Saturdays can be quite busy during the summer, visit on a Wednesday or Thursday to avoid crowds. Also, arrive early in the morning and head to the Tennessee Tornado or Thunderhead at the back of the park to beat the crowds. Dollywood Publicist Trish Mcgee notes that “Bypassing the very first lines is a great way to start the day at Dollywood.”

To save a little extra cash, arrive after 3 p.m. from April through October, and the next day is free. This allows time to get acquainted with the park, and plan for the next day’s events for $46, the price of a single-day adult admission. The most economical way to visit the park more than once a year is the Season Pass for $75. Visit the Dollywood’s website for further information.

The House on the Rock

Overlooking the Wyoming Valley in Spring Green, Wisconsin, the House on the Rock is filled with treasures from around the world. The interior of the house contains 14 rooms designed in a complex pattern of hallways and stairs. Life-size wind-powered music machines scattered throughout the property spring to life at the drop of a coin. The most popular room is the Infinity Room, a glass-walled structure that juts 218 feet above the treetops and gives visitors a chance to view the valley below from a glass table in the floor.

In addition to the original house, there are 12 more buildings connected under one roof. Each one features its own unique attractions, from massive antique collections to the world’s largest carousel, a blinking, swirling structure filled with 269 hand-carved animals, but not a single horse.

The Heritage of the Sea Building features an undersea adventure, where a 200-foot whale battles with a giant squid amongst artifacts of sea voyages, including mementos from the Titanic. The Streets of Yesterday allows guests to wander along old storefront windows filled with collectibles of a previous time. The Circus Building contains a miniature circus composed of more than one million pieces, as well as a pyramid of life-sized elephants positioned in the middle of the room. The rest of the property contains rooms dedicated to themes as varied as aviation materials, transportation artifacts, automated musical machines, dollhouses, weapons, and the Orient.

The tours are self-guided, so visitors can wander at their own pace, and it may take several hours to see everything in each room. Jennifer Greene, director of operations at the House on the Rock, states, “To get the most out of a visit I would suggest comfortable shoes, plenty of time, and a camera.”

Admission is $27 for an adult to tour the entire property, but viewing fewer rooms can cost less. Visitors can also stay at the House on the Rock Inn, where they can find package deals that include entrance to the house. For more information, visit the House on the Rock’s website.

Holiday World

Located on East Christmas Boulevard in Santa Claus, Indiana, Holiday World brings the spirit of the season throughout the year. The park has something for all ages, from thrilling roller coasters to rides specifically tailored for tiny tots at the Rudolph Reindeer’s Ranch. The water park, Splashin’ Safari, is also included in the price of admission, and offers the perfect way to cool down on a warm afternoon.

With a floating sensation that lasts 24 seconds and five underground tunnels, the Voyage is the most popular roller coaster ride. The Raven, named for Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, is another popular wooden roller coaster. Other rides include Raging Rapids, Liberty Launch, Frightful Falls, and Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride. The park also offers various daily shows, ranging from Santa Claus reading children’s stories to a rock concert covering a range of music from disco to contemporary.

One-day adult admission for Holiday World and Splashin’ Safari is $37, but the park offers several ways to save money. For instance, bring an empty Pepsi can or Bunny Bread wrapper and save $4 off general admission prices Sundays through Fridays in July and August. Many nearby hotels also offer package deals or discounts. When it comes to saving money, Paula Werne, Holiday World’s director of public relations, says “Lots of families enjoy visiting for two or more days, and next-day tickets are just $19 per person.”

Saturday is the busiest day, so visit midweek to avoid crowds and long lines. More tips on when to go to the park to make the most out of a visit are available online. For more information, visit Holiday World’s website.

Tinkertown Museum

Located along the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway, about 20 miles outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Tinkertown Museum is a funky little place filled with the trinkets of one man’s imagination. After years of traveling to county fairs and carnivals to exhibit his miniature wood carvings, Ross J. Ward created the museum in 1983 as a place to house his work and the collections that took him more than 40 years to procure. His motto, “I did all this while you were watching TV,” makes visitors question how many hours of television they have watched as they travel through the narrow hallways and 22 rooms, constructed from more than 50,000 glass bottles, metal sculptures, and other oddities. Each room is filled with hand-carved western towns, miniature circuses, hand-painted signs, and quirky collectibles.

Throughout the museum, visitors can use tokens to animate particular scenes. For instance, wooden figurines in the miniature Old West will perform daily chores and antics, while circus entertainers will complete stunts. Guests can also have their fortunes read by Esmeralda or have Otto, a one-man wooden music band, play to their heart’s content.

Ward continued to create and build until his death in 2002. His wife Carla is happy to share his talent and vision with the public. To get everything out of the museum, she recommends that you “allow plenty of time and go slowly! Read all the signs.”

The museum is open April through November, and admission is $3 for adults. The weekends are the busiest time, but the place empties out a bit around noon. For further information, visit the Tinkertown Museum website.


Orlando, Florida, is not only home to a friendly mouse, but alligators live there as well, and Gatorland is the place to visit them. The park has been wowing guests, young and old, for more than half a century with its up-close-and-personal alligator shows and activities. Within the 110-acre theme park and wildlife preserve, visitors can tour a petting zoo, an aviary, and a breeding marsh.

The Gatorland Express is an interactive train ride that carries passengers to the south end of the park, where they can witness one of the most popular reptilian shows, Gator Wrestlin’, in which gator wranglers wrestle six- to eight-foot alligators. The park also offers daily performances of Gator Jumparoo, in which alligators jump at least four to five feet out of the water to retrieve food, and Upclose Encounters, in which visitors meet both native and exotic creatures.

For those looking for something a little more daring, the park also offers the Trainer-for-a-Day program, allowing people to work with live alligators. The park is also now offering the Gator Night Shine Tour, during which visitors take a tour of the breeding marsh in the dark, with only a flashlight and hot dogs as protection. Advance reservations are required.

Single-day admission to Gatorland is $20 for adults, but discounts are available for senior citizens and AAA members, as well as online and in most tourist publications. Package deals are also available at the admissions area of the park. The park is the most crowded from 11 a.m. to close. Visitors who arrive before that time will have free reign of the park. Michelle Harris, a Gatorland spokesperson, states, “We recommend that whatever time you visit, please allow roughly four hours to see and enjoy all that we have available.” For further information, visit Gatorland’s website.

Hershey Park

The small town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, is known for not only its chocolate and the sweet smell of dark cocoa that greets every visitor, but also for its theme park. Originally built in 1907 by Milton S. Hershey as a picnic grounds for the employees of his candy company, Hershey Park has expanded immensely over the last 99 years. It now encompasses 110 acres, with more than 60 rides and attractions ranging from mild to thrilling.

With 10 world-class roller coasters, six water rides, and more than 20 kiddie rides, the theme park has something for all ages. The most popular ride is the Storm Runner, a high-speed roller coaster.

The park’s amphitheatre offers concerts Sunday nights. Live performances also happen continuously on one of the many stages throughout the park during the day.

Single-day adult admission is $42. Arrive two-and-a-half hours before close to get a sneak preview of the park and only pay for the following day’s admission. Two-day flex passes are more economical at $59, and allow guests to use their tickets at any time during the season. Package deals are also available at nearby hotels and resorts.

Saturdays tend to be the busiest days, especially in July and August. Visit midweek or when it’s overcast to avoid long lines and crowds. Kathy Burrows, Hershey Park’s public relations manager, suggests that visitors “come on a day when there is rain in the forecast. It usually does not rain all day and the lines are usually much shorter.” For further information, visit Hershey’s website.

Winchester Mystery House

Sarah Winchester, the rifle fortune heiress and widow, began construction on the Winchester House in 1884 and continued to build until her death 38 years later. Located in San Jose, California, the elaborate house and its myth have been attracting people for years.

A Victorian mansion, the Winchester Mystery House, consists of about 160 rooms, three working elevators, 47 fireplaces, two basements, 467 doorways, and more than 1,200 window frames. On paper, it seems that it is just an eccentrically large mansion, but it’s not just size that makes the Winchester house so appealing.

There is no known blueprint of the house, as Mrs. Winchester would often draw up new plans on napkins or random bits of paper, so no one is quite sure of the exact layout or how many rooms actually exist. Many consider the house to be a labyrinth, where stairs lead to the ceiling and windows lead to the floor below.

Many of the house’s mysteries are addressed on the tours. On the “Mansion Tour”, guides will discuss the mystery surrounding why Mrs. Winchester continued to build. The “Behind-the-Scenes Tour” gives guests the opportunity to explore areas that have remained untouched for more than 75 years and to see how the mansion operated when Mrs. Winchester was head of the house. Single-day adult admission is $22 for the Mansion Tour and $19 for the Behind-the-Scenes Tour. A combination of both tours is the most economical for $27 per adult. This price also includes entrance to the Victorian Gardens and to the two museums, the Winchester Firearms Museum and the Antiques Products Museum. Special night tours are available every Friday the 13th and Halloween, in which guests wander through the darkened mansion with only a flashlight.

The house can get fairly busy during the summer. Wednesdays and early morning or late afternoon tend to be slower times to visit. Shozo Kagoshima, the Winchester Mystery House general manager, recommends “[bringing] a camera so that you can take home pictures of your visit, because you will never see another home like this one.” For further information, visit the Winchester Mystery House’s website.

Visit Roadside America for other great stops and attractions along the road.

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