From Disneyland classics to beachfront carousels, the Golden State’s best-in-class theme parks deliver something for everyone. Take a tram ride to tour movie back lots at Universal Studios Hollywood, or ride on a beachfront carousel in Santa Cruz. Find out what’s in store at these family fun-zones, with insider tips on new rides, classic favourites, and best entertainment.
A wide beach and splashable waves are always inviting; add a colourful boardwalk with rides, games, and music—well, how can you say no? Not many people do—this popular waterfront boardwalk is a summertime ritual for countless California families, a wonderful way for you to relax and play just like the smiling locals. While there are countless attractions lining the boardwalk, the big star is the Giant Dipper, a burly wooden coaster first opened in 1924 and generating screams, squeals, and squinched-shut eyes for decades. These days, it’s not the only thrill ride in town; the boardwalk also features the 125-foot/38-metre-high Double Shot tower for heart-in-throat adrenaline lovers. For tamer rides, especially for little ones, take a spin on the painstakingly restored 1911 Looff carousel (yes, that’s real horse hair in the tail of your painted steed). A noisy but fun indoor arcade offers laser tag, mini-golf, skee-ball and countless video games. Peace out with a ride above it all in the overhead Sky Glider funicular (providing GoPro-worthy views of the beach, rides, and Santa Cruz Mountains. On Wednesdays in summer, stick around for free outdoor movies on the beach; and on summer Fridays, for free concerts.
Just northwest of Disneyland Park in Anaheim, the town of Buena Park offers more places to play. Knott’s Berry Farm features Camp Snoopy with kids’ favourites like Pig Pen’s Mud Buggies, and for adrenaline-seekers, sky-high thrills with Rip Tide and other exciting rides. The family classic Calico Mine Ride, the original main attraction of this park (opened in 1960), is still a charmer, with nearly 50 state-of-the-art animatronic humans and dozens more animals.
Beat the heat on the tube slides and wave pools at nearby Knott’s Soak City Water Park. Take part in a swashbuckling high seas adventure—without getting wet—at Pirate’s Dinner Adventure, set on a Spanish-style galleon in a huge indoor lagoon. Or at Medieval Times, watch live jousting, falconry, and acts of chivalry by dashing knights, all while enjoying a four-course dinner.
The only way to get closer to swirling sea life is to tug on a wetsuit and dive in. This unparalleled facility, with soaring, glass-walled tanks letting you feel as if you’re truly under the sea, defines the standard for aquariums. It’s also one of the best makeovers on the planet: in the early 1900s, the main building was a bustling canning facility for sardines, all chronicled in fascinating historical exhibits near the entrance. (Excellent behind-the-scenes tours shed more light on the aquarium’s history, as well as its remarkable inner workings.)
Intriguing history or not, this is one big wow of a place. Mesmerizing tanks and exhibits showcase more than 35,000 animals and plants representing over 550 species—a large number of them California natives. Watch a giant Pacific octopus unfurl its tentacles, stand in the centre of a swirling school of sardines, have hammerhead sharks swim inches away from your face, and see how trainers do daily health checks of the aquarium’s cutest inhabitants, California sea otters. A host of special activities, including junior diving programs, sleepovers, and custom romance tours (nothing like a little undersea light to make things dreamy) are also available. Insider tip: Get tickets online in advance to skip long lines.
Billing itself as having more world-class roller coasters than any other destination, this theme park roughly an hour’s drive northeast of Los Angeles is a daredevil’s paradise. Teens and young adults flock here to get spun, flung, and plummeted on rides with names like Goliath, Twisted Colossus, Viper, Sling Shot, and Apocalypse—you get the picture. Comic-book heroes get a nod here too, as on the Superman: Escape From Krypton mega-ride. If you need a place to settle your brain back into your skull, or if you have little ones who aren’t quite ready to ride a chair upside down at 65 miles/105 km per hour, head for mellower Bugs Bunny World, with pint-size rides and dressed-up Looney Tunes characters saying hi to the kids.
For a cool retreat in summer, bring your bathing suits and head to adjacent Hurricane Harbor, where you can have slip and slide on more than 20 water slides, ride a make-believe African river, and relax beside a tropical lagoon. The harbor is open May through September.
There’s no hiding what’s the big draw at this popular attraction in the East Bay city of Vallejo. Even before you park your car you’ll see the giant loop-de-loops, spirals, and white-knuckle descents of the park’s trademark coasters and thrill rides, such as Superman Ultimate Flight and Tsunami Soaker. Get your fill of these adrenaline pumpers, then retreat to the calming beauty of the Butterfly Habitat. Once your blood pressure is back to normal, watch entertaining dolphin and sea lion shows, see African lions and Bengal and Siberian tigers and mountain lions in naturalized enclosures, ride an elephant, or feed a giraffe.
For tamer entertainment for the little ones, let them romp around Acme Fun Factory, a two-story playhouse. There’s also a water play area just for smaller kids, plus tot-friendly rides and activities. For you, consider deluxe experiences, like finding out what Flipper really feels like on a special dolphin interaction.