Summertime is high time for amusement park vacations. But a few days among the roller coasters and Disney characters might leave you with more than you bargained for—including a few extra pounds. While running from one roller coaster to the next at Six Flags or exploring every aspect of Disney’s Frontierland might entail serious caloric expenditure, it’s not likely to combat the temptation of churros, funnel cakes, chili-cheese fries, and the abundance of foods that simply scream to be sampled.
Surely a good vacation means leaving the calorie-counting at home and indulging a bit in such once-a-year treats. But some of these park offerings might leave you with buyer’s remorse … and indigestion.
Ginormous Turkey Leg
How bad can turkey be? It’s got to be better than, say, a Big Mac, right? Think again. Disney’s Magic Kingdom, for example, serves a smoked turkey leg that has over one thousand calories and almost a day’s worth of fat. Its sodium clocks in at just over five grams.
In fact, a 2006 analysis initiated by Bloomberg Media  found that Disney regularly serves food higher in fat, calories, and sodium than McDonald’s Corp.; the turkey leg is just one example of enlarged portion size creating a monster out of a mere menace.
Many theme parks offer the big ’ol leg, and Six Flags even touts theirs as “low-carb.” However, it’s not a healthful option by any stretch of the imagination.
Better bet: try a grilled chicken, chicken salad, or deli sandwich at a counter service spot.
Nothing says “summertime fair food” like funnel cakes. Fried batter topped with powdered sugar and served warm—it’s like a plate-size doughnut. Though usually eaten just once a year, this indulgence can either be bad or really bad. Sea World in San Diego, for instance, serves up a Brownie à la Mode Funnel Cake —a chocolate funnel cake topped with vanilla soft-serve and hot fudge. Knott’s Berry Farm tops theirs with chocolate syrup and bacon . And Six Flags has various deluxe versions of the traditional; you can have it with ice cream, fudge, whipped cream, sweetened apples, strawberries … you name it, and you can pretty much get it on your funnel cake.
Better bet: instead of going all out, opt for regular, plain funnel cake and split it; at over 750 calories and forty grams of fat, it’s worth sharing.
Fries Gone Awry
No one pretends that fries are good for you, but theme parks and fairs seem to specialize in adding insult to injury. Plate-size cheese fries, chili-cheese fries, or foot-high mounds of garlic fries are the norm. But the worst (or best) of the lot might be the Fancy Fries at Pennsylvania’s Knoebels Amusement Park —topped with cheese sauce, bacon bits, and ranch dressing.
Better bet: Knoebels’ Criss Cut regular-size fries with a side of ketchup—save the ranch for a salad. If you’re really looking to improve your french fry habit while at the parks, you could opt for corn on the cob with a pat of butter and dash of salt.
State fairs raised the sweet-and-savory bar by deep-frying Twinkies, candy bars, Coke—even butter—and you’re likely to come across similar concoctions at amusement parks. At Cedar Point, the roller coaster–heavy theme park in Ohio, they offer deep-fried Oreos . But with just one of these cookies coming in at over 150 calories and around ten grams of fat, it might put a kibosh on later splurges. Amusement parks also have the luxury of offering desserts in a sit-down setting, so they can really go all out. Knoebels’ deep-fried brownie topped in ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and a cherry might sound like a must-try, but desserts like these are best left for the marathon runners.
Better bet: a caramel-covered apple will at least give you some fiber with your sugar; cotton candy, the spun-sugar confection, is pure sweet, but is only a few hundred calories. If you’re in a Disney park, look for their Dole Whips , which are soft-serve pineapple sorbet and relatively low in fat and calories.
Hot dogs are notoriously high in sodium and not shy on saturated fat, but once they’re coated in batter and deep-fried, they become a different beast. A regular-size corn dog can run over twenty grams of fat and pack over one thousand milligrams of sodium. At places like Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s theme park in Tennessee, you can get a “fried to perfection” foot-long corn dog, which means that there’s a few more inches of dietary sabotage. Cedar Point offers a vegetarian version—cheese coated in corn-dog batter and deep-fried, served on a stick. Not likely to be any more healthful.
Better bet: look for a regular-size hot dog or a small burger.
In the age of childhood obesity, many amusement parks have faced criticism for their less-than-healthful food offerings (especially since they mainly cater to kids) and have revamped accordingly. Six Flags partnered with Sunkist to offer fresh fruit; Disney has fresh fruit options, carrot sticks, and plenty of sit-down eateries that are heavy on veggies and grilled meats; Sea World offers low-fat/low-carb/meatless entrees and even has a Healthy Alternatives Café. Of course, you still have to pass by (and pass up) chili-cheese foot-long hot dogs and hefty German chocolate cookies , but at the end of a weeklong stay at an amusement park, your waistline might thank you for it.