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Hidden gems to discover across the USA

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Arthur Levine, Special to USA TODAY
Published 8:49 a.m. ET April 23, 2019 | Updated 9:30 a.m. ET April 23, 2019

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Sure, you know about Disney World. Chances are, you’re also familiar with Universal Orlando. Megaparks such as Cedar Point in Ohio probably register as well for their huge collections of attention-grabbing roller coasters and thrill rides.

But there are a bunch of lower-profile theme parks and amusement parks that deserve some love. They may not be that well-known beyond their local markets, but they are nonetheless wonderful places to visit that are filled with fun – and often surprising – things to experience. Some of these park gems are more hidden than others, but all of them warrant consideration as you plan your warm-weather road trips.

Let’s begin our journey in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Amid the region’s stunning natural splendor are two theme parks that cater to the 12-and-under set and their families. Both are loaded with charm.

Santa’s Village in Jefferson dates back to the early 1950s, and the same family that opened it still owns and operates it with loving care. Midcentury crooners belt out holiday tunes over the sound system, the Reindeer Shoe Blacksmith Shop greets guests and Santa Claus awaits visitors in his cozy log cabin.

The Christmas-themed haven may seem frozen in time, but there are modern touches as well such as Poogee Penguin’s Spin Out, a coaster with rotating cars, and the 3D film “A Tinkerdoodle Christmas.” Santa’s Village welcomes guests in the warmer months but remains open through the fall and, yes, the holiday season. The park never lets a little snow get in the way of fun. (It is in the White Mountains, after all.)

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Story Land in Glen, New Hampshire, first welcomed visitors in the 1950s as well, and its storybook- and nursery rhyme-inspired attractions also span generations and evoke warm and fuzzy nostalgia. The Woman in the Shoe may have so many children, she doesn’t know what to do – but she’ll gladly greet you and show you around her unusual, overcrowded home. Mother Goose, Cinderella and the Three Little Pigs (actual little pigs!) are also on hand.

There are plenty of low-impact rides at Story Land including an antique German carousel and a pirate ship. More daring visitors will want to try the Bamboo Chutes log flume and Roar-O-Saurus, a surprisingly potent wooden coaster. Don’t forget your bathing suit; you can cool down in the park’s Oceans of Fun water play area.

Six Flags is known for thrills, and the park chain’s Great Escape in Queensbury, New York, has lots of hair-raising rides including a 192-foot-tall drop tower, Sasquatch, and the looping coaster Steamin’ Demon. But the park was once known as Storytown USA, and it still has some of its enchanting, pre-Six Flags lands and attractions, such as the walk-through Alice in Wonderland trail and the Storytown Train.

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Great Escape’s highlight is the Comet, a wooden coaster that dates back to 1948 and was transplanted from another park. The wonderful ride is one of the country’s most underrated coasters. The Hurricane Harbor outdoor water park is included with admission. Across the street from the theme park, the Six Flags Great Escape Lodge offers hotel accommodations, an indoor water park for year-round fun and table-service restaurants amid a pleasant Adirondacks setting.

Since 1926, generations of the Knoebel family have been inviting guests to Knoebels, their lovely, forested spot in rural Elysburg, Pennsylvania. One of the country’s few remaining free-admission parks, visitors purchase tickets and pay per ride. Parking and entertainment are also free.

Among the highlights at Knoebels are Phoenix and Twister, the highly regarded and impeccably maintained wooden coasters. The park built Flying Turns, a retro-style, wooden bobsled coaster, in house. It also built the Haunted Mansion dark ride using its own crew. Knoebels has many classic features including an antique carousel, vintage bumper cars and a parlor featuring the throwback arcade game Fascination. The amusement resort also offers a campground, cottages and a bed-and-breakfast.

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Owned by the host city of Gilroy in Northern California, the unique, nonprofit, horticulture theme park Gilroy Gardens is as much about its landscaped grounds as it is about its rides. Visitors can board a train or a monorail and ride through Monarch Garden, a tropical greenhouse filled with butterflies and flowers. Among the park’s most intriguing features are its circus trees, a collection of oddly configured trees that were painstakingly shaped over many years by dedicated arborists. Descriptive names for the curious trees include Four-Legged Giant, Compound Eight and Squat Curvy Scallops.

Instead of a swinging pirate galleon, Gilroy Gardens offers a swinging banana. Other produce-themed rides include the Artichoke Dip, the Mushroom Swing and the Apple & Worm. The park’s costumed characters, Gil and Roy, are sunglasses-wearing garlic bulbs.

Lagoon, located in Farmington, Utah, dates back to 1886. It has a number of old rides that still bring smiles and screams including a carousel installed in 1906 and a woodie simply named Roller Coaster that opened in 1921. Among Lagoon’s nine other thrill machines is its headliner, Cannibal. The ominously named steel ride features an elevator lift in a darkened shaft that brings its trains up 208 feet, an inclined first drop that sends passengers barreling down at 116 degrees, a top speed of 70 mph and four topsy-turvy inversions.

In addition to its many thrill rides, family rides and kiddie rides, Lagoon offers Pioneer Village, an Old West facsimile with a one-room schoolhouse, a music hall and a town hall, and Lagoon A Beach, a 6-acre, attraction-packed water park that is included with admission.

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