Gilroy Gardens
Courtesy of Gilroy Gardens

Smaller Theme Parks & Attractions

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

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Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

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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 roller 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 Double Shot tower for heart-in-throat adrenaline lovers. For tamer rides, especially for young children, 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 films on the beach; and on summer Fridays, for free concerts.

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Santa Monica Pier & Beach

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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 carnival rides that make a nice mix even for little ones. Then there are incomparable views from the top of the pier’s solar-powered Ferris wheel. On weekends, you can join free historical walking tours to learn more about the pier, which dates back to 1909. And then there are those simple pleasures—a creamy thick milkshake or a simple necklace of seashells, at snack shacks and trinket shops lining the pier. And there are the local fishermen adding colour 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-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. For the complete beach treatment, explore the ocean atop a paddleboard (various hire equipment and lessons are available) or go VIP with your own Perry’s on the Beach Butler service. 

 

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Dave Parker/Flickr

Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park

Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park
Specialty rides highlight the area’s agricultural roots

This non-profit theme park, owned by the city of Gilroy and dedicated to educating children about plants and gardens, is a real charmer. In addition to low key rides and attractions geared especially for young children, Gilroy Gardens is home to 25 'Circus Trees' by Axel Erlandson, whimsically shaped topiaries, which dot the grounds. Children can also run around themed gardens. As for rides, there are California centric twists, such as the Artichoke Dip (think spinning tea cups) and the Garlic Twirl (a Gilroy specific take on the classic tilt-a-whirl). Some of the gardens have specialised tours, like a relaxed boat cruise through the flower filled Rainbow Garden. Or you can climb aboard a re-creation of an antique 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.

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Nathan Jongewaard/Flickr

Children’s Fairyland

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Children’s Fairyland
Old fashioned fun with storybook characters

This park on the shores of Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland has been making children smile and delighting parents in the process, since 1950. In fact, the story goes that Walt Disney 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 climbable, slide-able, explore-able tree houses, castles, pirate ships, and giant pumpkins, plus a small zoo, puppet shows, and several party venues for special birthdays, not to mention rides like a carousel and a trolley car. Two of Fairyland’s biggest draws are its Storybook Puppet Theatre 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.

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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, flamingos, 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 a safari style tent with all the comforts: plush beds, private bathrooms, and a natural soundtrack outside that is straight out of the Serengeti.

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Mike Johnston/Flickr

Sonoma TrainTown Railroad

Sonoma TrainTown Railroad
All aboard this family favourite

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

But children 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 farmyard animals and children friendly rides, including a carousel and Ferris wheel.  

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Courtesy of Funderland

Funderland Amusement Park

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Funderland Amusement Park
A small park for the small fry

This low key attraction adjacent to the Sacramento Zoo and Fairytale Town lets young children climb aboard vehicles of all sorts -boats, cars, trains, and planes, all scaled for the very young set. If you have a knee high daredevil in your family, head for the Flying Dragon Roller Coaster. Young 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. 

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Courtesy of Pirates Dinner Adventure

Pirate's Dinner Adventure

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

Speak like a pirate at this undeniably entertaining indoor attraction in Buena Park. Performances take place within an enormous simulated lagoon, where you will 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 masts, cannon blasts, and lots of fiery pyrotechnics. Guests, including children, 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.

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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 children like best: the jousting, the horses, the acrobatic moves, or the chance to eat dinner medieval style with their hands. This is a join in the fun 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. 

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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 children 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 speeds of up to 54 miles per hour that will certainly make you scream. There’s also Flight Deck, a jet roller 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 young children 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 complex with a swimming lagoon, a long and lazy river for inner tube lounging, a wave pool, and poolside cabanas for rent.

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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 favourites. Teens will opt for stomach-turners with names like Control Freak and Vertical Plunge, while young children like to climb aboard decorated steeds on the Liberty Carousel, which is 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 children scramble up the climbing wall while you rent a beach chair and just rest.

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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.