Gilroy Gardens
Courtesy of Gilroy Gardens

Smaller Theme Parks & Attractions

Historic oceanfront playgrounds, classic city-park charmers, boisterous adventures—smaller theme parks and attractions offer an array of ways to play.  These smaller parks offer old-fashioned fun like ride-able model railroads, wild and barnyard animals, and classic children’s puppet theaters as well as rides and unique attractions. Many of these parks have fewer crowds than bigger fantasylands, and are scaled so they can be enjoyed in a day—especially nice when you’ve got young children in tow. 

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Lisa/ Flickr

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Spend the day at this seaside charmer

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.

Santa Monica Pier & Beach

Santa Monica Pier & Beach
A 1909 classic and golden sand

Take a stroll along Santa Monica’s signature pier at sunset, that enormous sun sinking into the Pacific, and you’ll probably wonder if it can get much better than this. But wait; it can. Right here. First, there’s an amusement park—perched right on the pier—called Pacific Park, with not-too-scary roller coasters and classic carnie rides that make a nice mix even for little ones. Then there are incomparable views from atop the pier’s solar-powered Ferris wheel. On weekends, you can join free historical walking tours to learn more about the pier, which dates to 1909. And then there are those simple pleasures—a creamy thick shake, a simple necklace of seashells—at snack shacks and trinket shops lining the pier. And there are the local fishermen adding color to the scene; hang out for a while and you’re bound to hear some good yarns and watch some slippery fish reeled in. Find out what those fish might be by heading under the pier (directly below the turn-of-the-20th-century wooden carousel), to the inviting Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, with some 100 species of fish and aquatic animals, and lots of family-friendly educational displays.

And then of course, there’s the beach, a broad expanse of pale yellow sand lining the coast for 3.5 miles/5.6 kilometers. For the complete beach treatment, explore the ocean atop a paddleboard (various rentals and lessons are available) or go VIP with your own Perry’s on the Beach Butler service. 

 

Dave Parker/Flickr

Gilroy Gardens

Gilroy Gardens
Specialty rides highlight the area’s agricultural roots

If you're still searching for a way to get your kids to eat their veggies, take them to this charming agricultural amusement park in the Garlic Capital of the World. The garden-themed rides—with silly names like Artichoke Dip (think spinning tea cups)—are so mild, some allow infant riders. Climb aboard a hungry worm for a trip around an apple core or crawl into the center of a giant garlic bulb for some whirls and twirls.

In addition to low-key rides and attractions geared especially for little ones, Gilroy Gardens is home to “Circus Trees” by Axel Erlandson, who helped them achieve their whimsical shapes through an elaborate grafting process. Your child can go on a scavenger hunt of the famed trees—just grab a brochure at the entrance. They’re all masterpieces, but the basket tree and the four-legged giant are must-sees.

The shady 536-acre property has six botanical gardens, the largest being Monarch Garden, set in a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse. Some of the gardens have specialized tours—like a relaxed boat cruise through the flower-filled Rainbow Garden. Or you can climb aboard a re-creation of a Model-T car to tour the South County Backroads area, landscaped to show how this broad valley south of San Francisco was once almost exclusively farmland. Kids will also have a blast seeing the tropical and subtropical plants from on board the park’s miniature replica of a steam train.

Nathan Jongewaard/Flickr

Children’s Fairyland

Children’s Fairyland
Old-fashioned fun with storybook characters

This park on the shores of Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland has been making kids smile (and delighting parents in the process) since 1950. Evidently it impressed Walt Disney, too: After his visit, the story goes that he visited and incorporated elements of Fairyland, like guides dressed up as storybook characters, into his own Anaheim theme park. 

These days, the park is filled with climb-able, slide-able, explore-able tree houses, castles, pirate ships, and giant pumpkins, plus a small petting zoo, puppet shows, and several party venues for special birthdays. At the gate, you’re greeted by the Old Lady in the Shoe, and you can start by wandering through the adorable Alice in Wonderland maze, which is constructed from giant playing cards. Two of Fairyland’s biggest draws are its Storybook Puppet Theater and live-action children’s theatre. Need to refuel? Stop by Johnny Appleseed’s Café, or spread out a blanket in the Teddy Bear Picnic Grove. In summer, check Fairyland’s schedule for special family sleepovers.

Insider tip: Magic Keys that “unlock” Talking Storybook Boxes throughout the park are available at the entrance for $3. The kids can save their keys and use them on another visit.

Safari West
Tai Power Seeff

Safari West

Safari West
Take an African-style adventure in the Sonoma Valley

The sheer amount of African wildlife at this park will amaze even seasoned safari-goers. Giraffes, rhinos, zebras, wildebeests, gazelles, bongos and other incredible animals roam rolling hills and woodlands in this expansive park, a 1½-hour drive north of San Francisco. Dozens of birds also call the park home, including cranes, flamingoes, ostriches, and storks. Guests board small vehicles to tour the park with informative guides, and you really don’t know what will be around the next corner. Visitors of all ages also enjoy closer encounters with some of the park’s animals. For an unforgettable experience (families welcome), consider an overnight stay in an ultra-tricked-up safari-style tent, with plush beds, private bathrooms, and a natural soundtrack outside that’s straight out of the Serengeti.

Mike Johnston/Flickr

Sonoma TrainTown Railroad

Sonoma TrainTown Railroad
All aboard this family favorite in the heart of wine country

This quarter-scale railroad park was the dream of Sonoma printer Stanley Frank. He filled the park’s 10 acres with scaled-down locomotives and train cars built as exact replicas of classic full-size versions, making TrainTown one of the most detailed sets of scaled trains in the country.

But kids don’t just get to look at these trains—they get to ride them too. A 20-minute tour winds through tunnels and over bridges before stopping at Lakeview, TrainTown’s own village that includes a petting zoo of barnyard critters (bring lots of quarters to purchase kibble from the vending machines) and kid-friendly rides, including a carousel and Ferris wheel. 

Park admission and parking are both free for the whole family—you buy tickets for individual attractions instead. On weekdays, you’ll avoid any crowds, but most of the rides, with the exception of the train, carousel, and airplane, are closed.

Funderland Amusement Park
Courtesy of Funderland

Funderland Amusement Park

Funderland Amusement Park
A small park for the small fry

This low-key attraction adjacent to the Sacramento Zoo and Fairytale Town lets little ones climb aboard vehicles of all sorts—boats, cars, trains, and planes, all scaled for the pint-size set. If you’ve got a knee-high daredevil in your family, head for the Flying Dragon Roller Coaster. Junior explorers love zooming around in Backroads Buggies. When summer temperatures rise, cool off with a ride on the classic Log Run. Even the littlest visitors can feel like they’re in on the action by stepping into a scene in a trio of adventure-themed photo ops. 

Pirate's Dinner Adventure
Courtesy of Pirates Dinner Adventure

Pirate's Dinner Adventure

Pirate's Dinner Adventure
Wraparound entertainment puts you in a Spanish galleon

Get your “arg” on at this undeniably entertaining indoor attraction in Buena Park. Performances take place within an enormous simulated lagoon, where you’ll be seated with other guests at one of six “ships.” Each one is led by a fearless pirate who, along with dozens of actors, singers, and stunt performers, takes you on a rollicking adventure on and around a meticulously detailed full-size replica of a classic 18th-century Spanish galleon (complete with 40-foot/12-meter masts, cannon blasts, and lots of fiery pyrotechnics). Guests—including kids—can join the fun as volunteers, assisting their pirates with challenges around the arena, from hoisting sails to battling ferocious sea dragons. It’s swashbuckling good fun, plus it includes a full-course dinner.

Julia/Flickr

Medieval Times

Medieval Times
Enjoy a royal feast while knights joust and horses prance

Join the fantasy of the Middle Ages—a time of chivalrous knights, fair maidens, and dazzling swordplay—at Medieval Times, this high-spirited indoor attraction. It’s hard to know what kids like best: the jousting, the horses, the acrobatic moves, or the chance to dig into dinner medieval style—with your hands. This is a join-in-the-fun-and-clank-your-steins kind of place, with generous doses of singing, spirited competitions, and tomfoolery. Each show ends with a knight being crowned champion of the jousting festivities.

Insider tip: Arrive early; seating is first-come, first serve, and close-up seats can add to the fun. 

California's Great America
Courtesy of Great America

California's Great America

California's Great America
Have a blast on thrill rides and water slides

This combo amusement-water park aims to make every age find a way to have fun. Older kids and adventure seekers can head for Gold Striker, the tallest and fastest wooden roller coaster in Northern California, with high-speed twists, turns, and drops at your-gonna-scream speeds of up to 54 miles/87 kilometers per hour. There’s also Flight Deck, a jet coaster that includes zero-gravity barrel rolls (probably best to do this one before lunch), and The Demon, including two 360-degree loops.

Once you have used up every ounce of adrenaline, or if you have little ones who want a tamer experience, take in the low-key rides in Planet Snoopy, with tot-friendly rides and attractions.

When summer temperatures rise, head over to Boomerang Bay, a 13-acre/5-hectare complex with a swimming lagoon, a long and lazy river for inner tube lounging, a wave pool, and poolside cabanas for rent.

Belmont Park
Nancy/Flickr

Belmont Park

Belmont Park
Fun and thrills at the beach

This venerable classic, adjacent to the surf and sand of Mission Beach, features a 1925-vintage Giant Dipper Roller Coaster, bumper cars, and other old-time favorites. Teens will opt for stomach churners with names like Control Freak and Vertical Plunge, while little ones like to climb aboard decorated steeds on the Liberty Carousel—especially pretty when it lights up at night. It’s not all rides here—you can compete for a hole in one in the mini-golf area, or let the kids scramble up the climbing wall while you rent a beach chair and just chill out.

Balboa Fun Zone
Mr. Littlehand/Flickr

Balboa Fun Zone

Balboa Fun Zone
Play at a coastal Charmer

An appealing throwback to the classic coastal amusement parks of days gone by, this SoCal attraction makes add-on when visiting Newport Beach. Start the fun by riding the Auto Ferry to the park, then let the kids loose to take a spin on the waterfront Ferris wheel, tour a nautical museum, and test their skills on arcade games. Rally the troops to head for a stand selling the park’s signature ice cream treat, a chocolate-dipped Balboa Bar. 

This is also a popular place to rent bikes or take a scenic harbor tour with Hornblower Cruises.