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The Difference Between Theme Park vs Amusement Park

griffon roller coaster at busch gardens williamsburg, theme park vs amusement park
Griffon Roller Coaster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg Theme Park

You hear both used interchangeably. You use both interchangeably. Because, is there really a difference between a theme park and an amusement park?

Yes, there is.

Now, does the difference between them warrant the “well, *actually* it’s not an amusement park, it’s a theme park” nitpick anytime you use them interchangeably?

No, it doesn’t. It’s not that serious, friends.

And technically, a theme park is an amusement park. So, if you ever get “corrected” on the matter, correct them too while everyone’s at it.

Just know that while a theme park is an amusement park, an amusement park is not necessarily a theme park.

It all comes down to the core purpose…

Related Reading: Difference Between A Carousel & Merry Go Round

Theme Park vs Amusement Park – The Big Difference

The key difference between a theme park vs amusement park is that a theme park is focused on a central theme while an amusement park is focused on amusing (a ground breaking revelation, I know).

Theme parks are centered around a themed experience in every aspect of the park–rides, shows, dining, and more.

Whereas, amusement parks are more invested in providing the most thrilling or fun experience–largely attraction oriented.

The fundamental difference between the two is simply a matter of whether or not the whole park revolves around a common theme.

busch gardens williamsburg rhinefeld village, difference between an amusement park and a theme park
Busch Gardens Williamsburg Theme Park

What is a theme park?

Theme parks are a type of amusement park.

They hone in on a single theme parkwide and maintain that in every element of the park to provide an immersive experience.

These themes might be based on a central idea, fairy tales, different worlds, popular movies, countries or cultures, historical periods, and anything else, really.

All of the attractions, rides, architecture, food, merchandise, music, and even special events will correlate to this central theme. After all, it’s all in the details.

Themed amusement parks will transport you to a novelty world atypical from the real world.

anaconda roller coaster at kings dominion, whats the difference between amusement parks and theme parks
Anaconda Roller Coaster at Kings Dominion Amusement Park

What is an amusement park?

Amusement parks are the OG type of recreational park.

Theme parks, water parks, and adventure parks are just a few of the types of parks that find their origins in amusement parks.

And, amusement parks specialize in providing the most entertaining, thrilling, amusing experience possible. A fact that often inclines them to focus on their rides and attractions more heavily than shows and dining.

They’re not invested in creating a cohesive thematic experience like a theme park. Although, it’s not uncommon for an amusement park to have themed lands, but they tend to be contradictory themes and loosely themed at best.

Amusement parks are mostly a collection of various attractions, rides, games, and other exciting experiences.

epcot germany pavilion, theme park vs amusement park
Epcot Theme Park at Walt Disney World

History of Amusement Parks & Theme Parks

Amusement parks are an evolution from pleasure gardens and medieval fairs.

The more common old time amusement parks (open and closed) that you’re imaging stem from the pleasure gardens premise. Whereas, a select few derived from the medieval fair background.

Examples of both include Vauxhall Gardens in London and Bakken (it is *old*) in Denmark.

Meanwhile, theme parks are a more modern evolution from amusement parks.

A number of theme parks started from the ground up while others originated from different expenditures shifting gears into the amusements industry.

Examples of both include Disneyland in Anaheim and Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park.

Traditional Amusement Parks

As mentioned above, amusement parks started off as fairs and pleasure gardens. These were public gathering areas with varying degrees of entertainment, from performances to prototype rides.

A note of which leads nicely to this factoid about an early form of carousels–horses were used as manual labor for the “attraction” and kids commonly shot at them with peashooters for a faster ride. Different days.

These pleasure gardens and fairs found a way of competing with one another in adding what new entertainments they could.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century spurred innovations such as steam-powered carousels (fortunately, for the horses) and the Ferris wheel, which was first showcased at the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago.

These revolutionized the newly developing amusement park industry with the technological advancements making it possible to create larger, more thrilling rides.

Coney Island, classic amusement park Americana, was also a pivotal role in the evolution of amusement parks.

Located in Brooklyn, New York, Coney Island was a major resort destination in the 19th century and extending solidly into the 20th.

It was a trifecta of amusement parks–Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland–that opened between 1897 and 1904. 

These were the frontrunning parks that introduced larger society to amusement attractions, like the iconic wooden roller coaster, the Cyclone, and the Wonder Wheel.

All of this paved the way for the modern amusement parks we know today.

pirates of the caribbean exterior magic kingdom, the difference between theme parks and amusement parks
Pirates of the Caribbean at Magic Kingdom Theme Park

Modern Day Theme Parks

Theme parks, the more modern spin off of amusement parks, spawned from the concept of basing an entire amusement park on one main theme.

Knott’s Berry Farm cites itself as being the first theme park after having began as a small boysenberry farm in California before expanding to become a themed attraction.

After selling preserves, pies, and berries throughout the 1920s, Knott’s began adding attractions to entertain people waiting for seats at their restaurant.

The 1940s was when Knott’s opened a replica Ghost Town and created a new industry of theme parks.

Come the 1950s, Disneyland entered the scene.

This theme park fully fleshed out the idea of a theme park and set a prime example for theme parks to come in design, experience, attractions, dining, employee costuming, and more.

Instead of providing a variety of rides and attractions without an overarching theme, Knott’s and Disneyland were providing thematic experiences from the wild west to fairytale fantasy.

This marked the shift in the park industry, where the focus was no longer solely on the fastest roller coaster or novelty thrill ride, but rather creating an all-encompassing hallmark narrative experience.

big thunder mountain at magic kingdom, theme park vs amusement park
Big Thunder Mountain at Magic Kingdom Theme Park

Different Experiences at a Theme Park vs Amusement Park

For some perspective based on real life examples, we’re going to look at some of the most notable differences between theme parks and amusement parks based on Magic Kingdom and Cedar Point.

Specific Theme

Magic Kingdom: ​”The world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.”

Cedar Point: ​”The roller coaster capital of the world.”

Themed Areas

Magic Kingdom: Main Street USA, Adventureland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland

Cedar Point: Main Midway, Lakeside Midway, Millennium Midway, Gemini Midway, The Boardwalk, Frontier Trail, Frontier Town, Forbidden Frontier

Roller Coasters

Magic Kingdom: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Barnstormer, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Space Mountain, Tron Lightcycle Run

Cedar Point: Gatekeeper, Millennium Force, Maverick, Steel Vengeance, Blue Streak, Corkscrew, Wild Mouse

Different Rides

Magic Kingdom: Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Jungle Cruise, Its A Small World, Prince Charming Regal Carrousel, Mad Tea Party

Cedar Point: Cedar Downs Racing Derby, Dodgem, Power Tower, Sky Ride, Giant Wheel, Atomic Scrambler, Midway Carousel

Entertainment

Magic Kingdom: Happily Ever After, Festival of Fantasy, Mickey’s Magical Friendship Faire

Cedar Point: ​Summerbration, Pep Rally

Dining

Magic Kingdom: Cinderella’s Royal Table, Liberty Tree Tavern, Pinocchio Village Haus, The Diamond Horseshoe

Cedar Point: Coasters Diner, Dockside Grill, Farmhouse Kitchen, Crystal Rock Cafe

americana ferris wheel at kings dominion, theme parks and amusement parks
Americana Ferris Wheel at Kings Dominion Amusement Park

Amusement Park and Theme Park Similarities

Despite their hallmark differences, there are a few similarities between amusement parks and theme parks.

​Regardless of their takes on different themes, both parks aim to provide novelty experiences for guests.

Shows often have some sort of theme or story regardless of the type of park. Likewise, both park types might have dark rides, which are always immersive and story driven.

Fundamental similarities extend to their array of attractions, entertainments, ample dining, fun shopping, ambient music, and so forth.

The quality between both parks can be just as impressive and top notch (or disappointing) with or without a central theme. 

You’ll be bound for a great adventure either way.

Examples of Amusement Parks

Some of the most popular examples of amusement parks that you’ll inevitably recognize are: Cedar Point, Six Flags Magic Mountain (or any Six Flags honestly), Kings Dominion, and Elitch Gardens.

Examples of Theme Parks

Some of the most popular examples of theme parks are: Disney Parks (from Magic Kingdom theme park to Disney California Adventure), Universal Studios Hollywood & Orlando, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

busch gardens williamsburg roller coasters, amusement parks and theme parks
Busch Gardens Williamsburg Theme Park Roller Coasters

Discount Park Tickets

If you’re planning on visiting an amusement park or a theme park in the future, you can get discounted tickets for up to $85 off–no catch, it’s legit.

The discounts are available for 60 parks including: Disney Parks, Universal Studios, SeaWorld Parks, Busch Gardens, Cedar Fair, and many more.

Don’t pay full price. Spare your wallet.

Wrap Up

Theme parks are amusement parks but amusement parks are not theme parks. 

Got it? Cool.

The biggest difference between the two: an overarching theme. Priorities.

Does the park focus on the latest and greatest attractions only? Amusement.

Is the entire park focused on an immersive experience based on a concept? Theme.

All the same, the prep work of trip planning is largely similar between the two. And, you can start on that with my guide on A Carnie’s Guide On What To Bring To An Amusement Park.

…or a theme park.

​You get the point.

mad tea party at magic kingdom, amusement park vs theme park
Mad Tea Party at Magic Kingdom Theme Park

Theme Park vs Amusement Park FAQs

Are theme parks basically similar to amusement parks?

Theme parks and amusement parks are similar in that they both offer attractions like rides and entertainment, but they differ in their focus and design.

Theme parks are built around a specific theme or multiple themes, creating an immersive experience that is consistent throughout the park. This theming affects everything from the rides to the food and the overall atmosphere.

Amusement parks, on the other hand, offer a variety of rides and attractions without a unifying theme.

What’s the difference between a theme park and a water park?

Curiously, a water park could be a theme park (and vice versa).

The difference between a theme park and a water park would depend on whether or not the park has a common theme.

A theme park is characterized by its central theme, which influences all aspects of the park. Whereas a water park, is focused on water-based attractions like slides, wave pools, and lazy rivers.

An example of a regular water park is Wet n Wild, while an example of a themed water park is Typhoon Lagoon.

What was America’s first theme park?

Knott’s Berry Farm is considered to be America’s first theme park. 

Originally a berry farm in California, it evolved into a theme park in the 1940s with the creation of a replica Ghost Town.

This predates Disneyland, which opened later in 1955.

Are carnivals and theme parks the same thing?

Carnivals and theme parks are not the same.

Carnivals are typically traveling shows and fairs featuring rides, games, and food vendors. They’re known for the temporary and mobile nature, being set up in various locations for a short period of time before moving somewhere new.

Theme parks, on the other hand, are permanent attractions built around specific themes, making them more immersive and of far larger scale than carnivals.

How are theme parks different from pop up fairs and festivals?

Theme parks are permanent attractions with theme rides, entertainment, and environments.

Pop up fairs and festivals, meanwhile, are temporary events that have rides, games, and food set up for a limited duration.

animal kingdom tree of life, theme park vs amusement park
Animal Kingdom Theme Park at Walt Disney World

For more amusement park–and theme park–guides, you can also check out:

Thanks for reading!

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