For young children, a ride on a carousel’s painted pony, a spin with dad around the bumper car track and a dripping swirl of frozen custard are the stuff summer memories are made of. No need to seek out the latest scary high-tech roller coasters (which means you can cross Luna Park's most scary rides off your list).
Rides that look mild (or frankly, downright boring) to big people usually provide just the right amount of thrills for toddlers and preschoolers. Happily, there are a number of amusement parks and water parks in and near New York City that offer these kinds of tame attractions. Here's our roundup of theme parks that are perfect for the pint-sized.
New York City
Victorian Gardens – Central Park
Open daily Memorial Day weekend to mid-September
You don't even have to leave the city to transport your family to a kinder, gentler amusement park. Victorian Gardens' Wollman Rink location is intimate and enclosed, making it perfect for first-timers. Little walkers don't have to cover the long distances that are the norm for most modern theme parks and can conserve their energy for fun. The rides here are subdued, so even parents with vertigo can hop on the Hydro Racer and the Happy Swing. There are also arcade games and live entertainment on weekends. Smaller children will need a parent to accompany them on most of the rides as the typical height minimum is 42 inches, but there will be plenty your tall preschooler can ride solo. If your kid is tall enough to go it alone, our advice is to buy the unlimited wristband for your child, and just buy tickets for yourself. It will probably be much cheaper, especially if you end up spending the entire day there! (Kids under 36 inches tall, so toddlers, enter the park for free with a paying adult.) Be forewarned, though, the unlimited wristband only covers the rides; you'll need tickets for the ubiquitous carnival games.
RELATED: 25 Things to Do with Preschoolers in NYC Before Kindergarten
Let the kids fire a water cannon at Coney Island's Luna Park to cool off.
Luna Park – Coney Island
1000 Surf Ave
Open daily Memorial Day to Labor Day; weekends late-March, April, September and October
Standing on the grounds of the late, great Astroland, Luna Park opened in 2010 and offers plenty of rides for $3-6 a pop. The spot is reminiscent of its early 20th-century namesake, which closed in 1944 after a series of fires, making it a great multigenerational destination. On the website, you'll see that rides are organized into mild, moderate, high and extreme thrills, so there are plenty of options for everyone in the family. Located near the New York Aquarium and the beach, you can satiate the kids with a few rides before moving on to other activities.
Adventureland – Farmingdale, Long Island
2245 Broad Hollow Road (Route 110)
Open weekends late-March and April; Wednesday-Sunday in May and June and daily July-Labor Day
Approximately 1 hour by car from Midtown Manhattan
With 10 kiddie rides, tots won’t feel left out at this amusement park. Classics like the carousel, swings and helicopters all promise fun not fear. There are rides that will provide bigger thrills, too, so everyone can enjoy the day trip. Locals dominate the scene, and there are lots of camp groups during the week. There is an air-conditioned, sit-down restaurant, which is a great place to cool off and take a break. The menu is loaded with kid-pleasing options and even gluten-free pizza.
Splash Down Beach – Fishkill, New York
16 Old Route 9 West
Approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes by car from Midtown Manhattan
Opens for the season Memorial Day weekend; open daily from mid-June through Labor Day
Speaking of water parks, we're big fans and Splash Down Beach, which bills itself as "America's Biggest Little Water Park," and sure offers big fun for its littlest customers. You'll find a Bob-the-Builder themed kiddie area, plus plenty of places for the family to play together. There are slides big and small, including a new-in-2016 Arctic Mammoth, a family-friendly raft slide, plus water park staples like the Croc Creek Wavy Lazy River and the Monster Wave Pool. If you're in the mood for a more relaxing pool experience, frolic in the good, old-fashioned Coconut Pool. Cabana rentals are available, too.
Playland's Castaway Cove – Ocean City, New Jersey
10th and the Boardwalk
Approximately 2 hours by car from Midtown Manhattan
If you haven't taken the family to Ocean City’s boardwalk, get going. It is pure Americana and looks like a film set from the 1950s. The boardwalk is home to several small, family-owned amusement parks, with rides and games galore. Giant clouds of pink cotton-candy scent the sea air with a sugary aroma. The beach offers clean white sand and refreshing Atlantic waters. Castaway Cove is in the middle of the boardwalk on 10th Street, just a block away from Manco & Manco Pizza (known as Mack and Manco's until December 2011), an iconic Jersey Shore pizzeria serving giant, cheap, cheesy slices. The park has some great, small-scale rides, like bumper cars and a hand-painted merry-go-round and an indoor arcade that's loaded with games. Go for a spin on the 90-foot Ferris wheel and you'll be rewarded with a spectacular view.
Also consider Storybook Land, also in southern Jersey, or Land of Make Believe, which is a bit closer to NYC.
RELATED: Best Water Theme Parks for Families Near NYC
Check out the dinos at Dutch Wonderland's Exploration Island.
Dutch Wonderland – Lancaster, Pennsylvania
2249 Lincoln Highway East
Approximately 3 hours by car from Midtown Manhattan
Open daily Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day; weekends in May, September and October
Lancaster County is known as a great family vacation destination. I've got so many wonderful memories of going there as a child. But when you inevitably tire of seeing horse-drawn buggies driving down the highway, take the brood to Dutch Wonderland. With a host of rides for kids under 36 inches, it's a preschooler's paradise. The Duke’s Lagoon water play area has small slides located under shady palm trees. There are lots of food options, including some healthy choices like salad, yogurt and fruit. As a bonus: It's also a great place to spot dinosaurs!
Dorney Park – Allentown, Pennsylvania
3830 Dorney Park Road
Approximately 2 hours by car from Midtown Manhattan
Open daily Memorial Day-Labor Day; Weekends in April, May, September and October
You are correct in thinking that this park is home to several roller coasters that send chills down the spine of even hard-core thrill seekers. But for the junior set, there's Planet Snoopy, 16 mild Peanuts-themed rides. Fly with the Red Baron, swing with Charlie Brown and ride the scaled-down roller coaster, the Woodstock Express. A theater hosts live performances starring the gang that will entertain tots with singing and dancing. If the kids want more, Dorney has other family rides, including a carousel and a tilt-a-whirl. And remember, there's also the sister water park, Wildwater Kingdom.
Splash around at Count's Castle at Sesame Place.
Sesame Place – Langhorne, Pennsylvania
100 Sesame Road
Approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes by car from Midtown Manhattan
Open daily Memorial Day-Labor Day; weekends in April, May, September-December
Fans of the PBS TV series will go gaga (especially if that's the only word they can say!) for this park. There are a ton of rides aimed at kids ages 2 to 6. Happily, there are dozens of options that will appeal to older siblings, too. The park is big, with wet and dry attractions, so bring a bathing suit. Don’t miss the Neighborhood Street Party Parade, in which Big Bird, Elmo and the gang sing, dance and prance to the delight of their devoted fans. For a special treat, reserve a meal with your child’s favorite Sesame Street character.
Every age enjoys the teacup ride at Quassy. Ride with mom or without!
Quassy Amusement Park – Middlebury, Connecticut
2132 Middlebury Road
Approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes from Midtown Manhattan
Open daily Memorial Day-Labor Day; weekends in April, May & September
Quassy's lake-front location has been operating as an amusement park for more than 100 years, so it knows a thing or two about family-friendly fun. You'll find a selection of seven kiddie rides in addition to eight other rides sure to thrill the whole family. If the cool lake breeze isn't enough to chill you on a summer day, there's also a water park on site, which features a brand-new "slide city" in 2016.
Bonus: Though decidedly further flung, if you've got a train fan underfoot, the newly opened Thomas Land at Edaville in Massachusetts, is worth the trip. It's about four hours away, so consider making this adventure a weekend getaway.
Top image: What kid can resist a hug from Cookie Monster? All photos provided courtesy the venues.
This article first published in July 2011.