The Ultimate Guide to Illinois’ Top Theme Parks

Here's everything you need to know about planning your next roller coaster adventure.

When it comes to summer in Illinois, visions of rooftop bars, Lollapalooza, and Millennium Park tend to dominate the daydreams, but then you remember that there’s an Illinois beyond Chicago. Outside the requisite city summertime experiences, there’s a whole world of fun and excitement waiting to be explored throughout the Prairie State. Sure, hikes are great, and the fact that there’s a national park in Chicago’s backyard is something special, but what about when you want more adrenaline? More roller coasters? More lazy rivers? You’ll have to venture to Illinois’ best theme parks for those.

Because at the end of the day, Chicago is a city that loves its theme park attractions—this was the city that gave the world its first Ferris wheel, after all. Nowadays, Illinois is still inventing attractions, they’re just not for World’s Fairs. Rather, they run the gamut from high-speed attractions and charming kiddie coasters to a whole slew of slippery slides at the state’s largest water park. Whether you’re looking for thrills or chlorinated waves, here are Illinois’ best theme parks to check out this year.

Six Flags Great America/Hurricane Harbor
Six Flags Great America/Hurricane Harbor

Opening date: April 15, 2022
Ticket price: $34.99 and up
Location: Gurnee, Illinois
Public transit connections: Take the Metra from the Chicago Ogilvie Transportation Center north to Waukegan, then transfer to the #572 bus at the Waukegan Metra Station to the Washington Street and Milwaukee Avenue stop in Gurnee.
What’s new: The “Thrill Capital of the Midwest” got a serious glow up for its 2022 season, beautifying its landscaping, adding single rider lines, re-theming Steelworks Pub, and opening a whole new section of the park called DC Universe. As you might have guessed, this area is all about DC comics, complete with three thrill rides: a high-speed launch coaster called THE FLASH: Vertical Velocity, the AQUAMAN Splashdown flume ride, and a spinning attraction called DC Super-Villains Swing.

2022 also sees the return of Roaring Rapids, a refurbished raft ride that’s been closed the past two years, and it’s implementing something called “Wow” Moments, which are aesthetic touches throughout the park designed to stand out and comfort, like 65 new benches, 50 new picnic tables, and three new mac & cheese options at the Waterin’ Hole.

Santa’s Village Amusement & Water Park
Photo courtesy of Santa’s Village Amusement & Water Park

Opening date: May 8, 2022
Ticket price: $32.99 and up
Location: East Dundee, Illinois
Public transport connections: Take the CTA Blue Line towards O’Hare and transfer to the #605 bus at the Rosemont stop. Take that to Pace I-90/IL-25 Park-n-Ride, the transfer to the the #543 bus towards Meadowdale Shopping Center. Exit at the Dundee Avenue and Piemonte Drive stop.
What’s new: Joining longtime OG attractions like the Snowball Ride at this whimsical Santa-themed park this year is The North Pole Expedition. Slated to arrive later this summer, it sounds like a veritable Polar Express, complete with stops at the Workshop and in Santa’s Magical Office.

Making a return this year is Santa Springs, a Caribbean-inspired water park with lounge chairs, cabanas, water slides, and a huge play area for kids called Lighthouse Harbor. And in case you missed it last year, The Blizzard was a pendulum-swinging thrill ride added in 2021.

Raging Waves Waterpark
Photo courtesy of Raging Waves Waterpark

Opening date: May 28, 2022
Ticket price: $29.99 and up
Location: Yorkville, Illinois
What’s new: For anyone tired of dodging volleyballs on North Avenue Beach, look no further than Raging Waves Waterpark. Located 45 minutes southwest of the city, which frankly is probably quicker than finding parking anywhere near Lake Michigan, the largest waterpark in the state is back and better than ever for the summer season.

Rising like a beacon of kaleidoscopic slides amidst a 58-acre sea of peaceful farmland, Raging Waves boasts 19 slides, a wave pool, a meandering lazy river, 43 private cabanas, and three kiddie pools. The park is also home to Aussie Mat Dash, the first Proslide RallyRACER in Illinois, a type of waterpark innovation that uses u-shaped flumes and low separator walls to lend the sensation of racing in a toboggan.

Grady's Family Fun Park
Grady's Family Fun Park

Opening date: April 15, 2022
Ticket price: $22 and up for wristbands, or rides and activities can be purchased a la carte
Location: Bloomington, Illinois
Public transport connections: Take the Texas Eagle 21 from Chicago Union Station towards San Antonio Amtrak Station, and exit at the Bloomington-Normal Station. Transfer to the GN bus to Downtown Bloomington Transfer Center. Transfer to the Og bus towards Hamilton Road and Merna Lane, and exit at Lincoln Street and McGregor Street.
What’s new: This family-fun location is back with its endless options of wholesome kid-friendly fun, including rides, mini golf, batting cages, bumper boats, bumper cars, and go-karts.

In terms of attractions, kiddie rides include the Dragon Wagon, Jr. Ferris Wheel, Red Baron Air Plane, Tea Cups, and the Western Train, while most of the adult fare—the Swinger, the Tornado, the Sizzler—entails spinning around in the air at various speeds.

Safari Land
Safari Land

Opening date: Open year round
Ticket price: 10 attractions for $25, or a single ride for $5
Location: Villa Park, Illinois
Public transport connections: Take the UP-W Metra from Ogilvie Transportation Center towards Elburn, and exit at the Villa Park stop (walking or ride required from there).
What’s new: The largest indoor theme park in the state, clocking in at 62,000 square feet, this year round attraction hosts a slew of jungle- and savanna-themed rides, games, and activities. The crown jewel is the Tiger Terror Roller Coaster, which zooms through a veritable florescent forest of arcade games and flashing lights.

Other rides include the MaxFlight Simulator, bowling lanes, billiard games, the under-the-sea-themed Atlantis restaurant (alcohol is available, don’t worry parents), and a kids’ play area called the Lion’s Den, which sounds a lot more ferocious than it is.

Great Wolf Lodge
Great Wolf Lodge

Opening date: Open year round
Ticket price: $40 for a half day pass and $50 for a full day pass
Location: Gurnee, Illinois
Public transport connections: Take the UP-N Metra from Ogilvie Transportation Center to the Waukegan stop, then transfer to the #572 bus towards Waukegan Metra Station. Exit at the Grand Avenue and Dilleys Road stop.
What’s new: Featuring a whopping 80,000 square feet, there’s no shortage of fun to be had at this staggering indoor water park. Open year round, with a water temp maintained at a balmy 84-degrees, the sprawling lodge-themed resort includes play pools for kids, Coyote Cannon water slide, family-sized raft slides, a lazy river, and a four-story “water fort treehouse,” Fort Mackenzie.

Great Wolf Lodge newly announced a new set of celebrity partnerships with its Pack of Parents program for 2022, working with the likes of Nate Berkus and Whitney Port to create new enhancements for the resort. First up is a new pool party experience recurring this summer, complete with beachy playlist and poolside activities, created by Stephen “tWitch” Boss and Allison Holker.

Grand Bear Resort
Grand Bear Resort

Opening date: Open year round
Ticket price: Free for overnight guests, or $20 for LaSalle County residents on Thursdays
Location: Utica, Illinois
What’s new: In case you’re too exhausted to drive back to Chicago after a day full of hiking and waterfall-chasing in nearby Starved Rock State Park, there’s a cozy, rustic-chic lodging option that just so happens to come with a 24,000 square foot water park. Open year round and free for guests of Grand Bear Resort, Grand Bear Falls is a massive indoor water park teeming with rivers, pools, and waterfalls—basically, the artificial version of what you just saw at Starved Rock, but the water is much warmer.

Fun for all ages, Grand Bear Falls has a hot tub area that’s great for soothing and relaxing, while a wave pool and water slides pump up the adrenaline.

Knights Action Park
Photo courtesy of Knights Action Park

Opening date: May 27, 2022
Ticket price: $40.95 for an Action Splash Pass, which includes rides, mini golf, and your choice of batting cages, driving range, or go-karts
Location: Springfield, Illinois
What’s new: What started as a driving range in 1930 has grown into a kingdom of kid-friendly attractions, rides, and slides, across 65 acres in Springfield. The family-run park now includes batting cages, a mini-Ferris wheel, eight water slides, a playground, go-karts, and of course, an expanded driving range.

A newer addition is The Sunken Rum Barrel, a poolside patio bar with tropical cocktails and icy beers. Or if you’d like to keep the old-school vibe going, check out the adjoining Route 66 Drive-In Theater for al fresco films and all the Dippin Dots you can handle.

Navy Pier
Photo courtesy of Navy Pier

Opening date: Open year round
Ticket price: Free to enter, and attractions are priced a la carte, starting at $9
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Public transport connections: If arriving via Metra, take the CTA bus #124 from Union, Ogilvie, or Millennium stations, or CTA bus #29 from LaSalle Street and Millennium station. Additional CTA bus routes that travel to Navy Pier are #29 State, #65 Grand, #66 Chicago, #124 Navy Pier, and #2 Hyde Park Express.
What’s new: The closest thing to a theme park within city limits, as exemplified by the fact that its nearly 200-foot Ferris wheel is a replica of the original one from the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, Navy Pier has really upped its game in recent years to emerge from tacky tourist trap to actually cool place for locals to hang out—and occasionally say “why not?” to a carousel or funhouse maze.

The newest addition is its first hotel, Sable at Navy Pier Chicago, and the largest rooftop bar in the country, Offshore, which at 36,000 square feet, is literally the size of a theme park. Coming up, Pixar Putt opens May 28 as an open-air mini golf experience themed to Pixar flicks like Toy Story, Coco, A Bug’s Life, and Wall-E, and Navy Pier will be the only US destination for SailGP, a catamaran competition hitting the water—at speeds up to 120 mph—on June 18 and 19.

In 2021, Navy Pier also added a surprisingly hardcore thrill ride called Drop Tower, a slingshot-style attraction that launches guests at G-force speeds before they free-fall back down.

Matt is a recent transplant to Oklahoma City after two and a half years of RV living, Matt Kirouac is a travel writer working on a memoir about the epic ups and downs from life on the road as a gay couple—and the lessons learned along the way. Follow him on IG @mattkirouacofficial.