Four decades after opening, the Magic Kingdom is still the world’s No. 1 most popular theme park, working its pixie-dust charm on more than 17 million annual visitors.
But Mickey Mouse has some competition. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which opened in the summer of 2010, single-handedly carried Islands of Adventure into the world's top 10. Theme parks in Asia are growing even faster.
The takeaway? If you build it, they will come—especially if you spend a boatload of money and create an experience that's, to use the industry's favorite buzzword, immersive. The latest and greatest new theme-park attractions are designed to pull us right into the story, whether we're engaging in an epic robot battle, soaking up the retro cars culture along Route 66, or downing pints of butterbeer with Hogwarts students.
Get the scoop on which other attractions and events are drawing crowds to the world’s most-visited theme parks.
1) Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, FL
Annual Visitors: 17,142,000
In 2011, more than 17 million people visited the world's favorite theme park, eager for photos by iconic Cinderella's castle and a turn on rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and Splash Mountain. “It is what people think about when they think of Disney World,” explains Deb Wills, founder of AllEars.Net. A Disney character parade cuts through the park and heads down Main Street, USA, every afternoon, and a fireworks spectacular lights up the sky many nights. The makeover of Fantasyland is the big news for 2012.
2) Disneyland Park, Anaheim, CA
Annual Visitors: 16,140,000
Disney's original theme park, opened in 1955, comes in a close second to its significantly larger counterpart in Orlando. Disneyland can boast about some of Walt's best original rides as well as the newly revamped Disney California Adventure next door—all the more reason to book an Anaheim vacation.
3) Tokyo Disneyland
Annual Visitors: 13,996,000
Though closed for a full month in 2011 following the tsunami, the 126-acre Japanese Disneyland still managed to pull in 14 million visitors. “It was a little bit surprising how strong this park did in the face of literal disaster,” says Robert Niles of Theme Park Insider. But maybe locals needed that Disney magic more than ever.
4) Tokyo Disney Sea
Annual Visitors: 11,930,000
Attendance dropped 6 percent at Disney's unique marine-themed park, whose seven themed areas are replicas of some of the world's most scenic ports of call. Like Tokyo Disneyland, it was closed for a month in 2011 following Japan's earthquake and tsunami.
5) Disneyland, Disneyland Paris
Annual Visitors: 10,990,000
Europe's most popular theme park had a respectable 5 percent attendance bump amid a Continental recession. The park is heralding its 20th anniversary in 2012 with an elaborate nighttime light-and-sound show, a new carnival-style parade, and a meet-and-greet character train.
6) Epcot, Walt Disney World, FL
Annual Visitors: 10,825,000
Disney's futuristic- and international-themed park fell one position last year as its attendance flatlined at 10.8 million visitors. Expect a surge in numbers when the feverishly anticipated major renovation of Test Track is completed this fall. Other top attractions include Soarin' and Mission: SPACE.
7) Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World, FL
Annual Visitors: 9,783,000
This 500-acre homage to Africa is by far the largest of all Disney theme parks, re-creating a lush jungle area and savanna that is home to 1,700 animals from 250 species. The Expedition Everest coaster and Kilimanjaro Safaris often attract the biggest crowds.
8) Hollywood Studios, Walt Disney World, FL
Annual Visitors: 9,699,000
Disney's entertainment-themed park claimed the No. 8 spot for the second year running. Much of the credit goes to favorite thrill rides Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, not to mention stunt-filled shows like “Lights, Motors, Action!”
9) Universal Studios Japan, Osaka
Annual Visitors: 8,500,000
A chockablock calendar of 10th-anniversary events in 2011 helped secure the No. 9 spot for Universal's Japanese park, which mixes the best elements from its Orlando and Hollywood counterparts and features crowd-pleasing rides (Jaws) and shows (“Shrek's 4-D Adventure”). Watch for attendance to skyrocket when the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opens in 2014.
10) Islands of Adventure, Universal Orlando, FL
Annual Visitors: 7,674,000
Catapulting ahead of Disney California Adventure and into the top 10 for the first time has given Universal execs newfound bragging rights. And with an expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in the works, don't expect attendance to slacken anytime soon.
See more of the World's Most-Visited Theme Parks