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13 Smaller Theme Parks & Attractions

These classic California attractions make for a great afternoon or evening of family fun

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Historic oceanfront playgrounds, classic city-park charmers, boisterous adventures—California’s smaller theme parks and attractions offer unique ways to play. These smaller parks, listed north to south, tend toward old-fashioned entertainment like rideable model railroads, wildlife sightings, and charming puppet theaters, as well as toddler-friendly rides. A bonus: Many of them have fewer crowds than the bigger theme parks, and they’re scaled so they can be enjoyed in a day—especially nice when you’ve got young children in tow.

Funderland Amusement Park, Sacramento

This low-key attraction in the capital city, located next to both 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-sized daredevil in your family, head for the Flying Dragon Roller Coaster, while junior explorers will love zooming around in Backroads Buggies. When summer temperatures rise, cool off with a ride on the classic Log Run. (more)

Safari West, Santa Rosa

The sheer amount of African wildlife at this Sonoma County park will amaze even seasoned safari-goers. Giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, gazelles, bongos, and other incredible animals roam its rolling hills and woodlands in Santa Rosa, a 90-minute drive north of San Francisco. Guests tour the park in small vehicles with informative guides, and you really don’t know what will be around the next corner—or how close you can get. For an unforgettable experience, stay overnight in a tricked-out safari-style glamping tent, with plush beds, private bathrooms, and a natural soundtrack that’s straight out of the Serengeti. (more)

Sonoma TrainTown Railroad, Sonoma

Sonoma’s 10-acre railroad park is one of the most detailed sets of quarter-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 the park’s village that includes a petting zoo (and kid-friendly rides, including a carousel and Ferris wheel). Park admission and parking are both free for the whole family—you just buy tickets for individual attractions instead. (more)

Children’s Fairyland, Oakland

The story goes that this park—which opened in 1950 on the shores of downtown Oakland’s Lake Merritt—impressed early visitor Walt Disney so much that he incorporated elements of it into his own Anaheim theme park, such as guides dressed up as storybook characters. These days, the park is filled with climb-able, slide-able, and explore-able tree houses, castles, pirate ships, and giant pumpkins, plus a small petting zoo. At the gate, say hello to the Old Lady in the Shoe, then wander the adorable Alice in Wonderland maze, constructed from giant playing cards. Two of Fairyland’s biggest draws are its Storybook Puppet Theater and live-action children’s theatre. (more)

California’s Great America, Santa Clara

This amusement-plus-water park in Santa Clara has been a family favorite since 1976. Older kids and adventure seekers can head for Gold Striker, the tallest and fastest wooden roller coaster in Northern California, and the Flight Deck, a jet coaster that includes zero-gravity barrel rolls. For tot-friendly rides and shows, head to Planet Snoopy, and when temperatures rise during summer, head over to South Bay Shores, a massive waterpark with a swimming lagoon, a lazy river, and a state-of-the-art waterslide complex. (more)

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

With rides, games, and music, all set along a wide beach with splashable waves, the boardwalk amusement park in Santa Cruz has timeless appeal. While there are countless rides and attractions lining the historic boardwalk, the big star is the Giant Dipper, the classic wooden coaster that first opened in 1924. The park also a beautifully restored 1911 Looff carousel and an arcade with laser tag, mini-golf, skee-ball, and video games. Check the calendar for free concerts, movies on the beach, or craft beer tastings. Don’t miss the overhead Sky Glider funicular, which provides huge views of the beach, rides, and Santa Cruz Mountains. (more)

Gilroy Gardens, Gilroy

Inspire a new love of veggies by taking the kids this charmingly “agricultural” amusement park in Gilroy, the Garlic Capital of the World. The shady 536-acre property has six botanical gardens and mellow garden-themed rides with cheeky names like Artichoke Dip. Gilroy Gardens’ showstoppers, though, are the Circus Trees by Axel Erlandson, who cultivated 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. (more)

Santa Monica Pier

Pacific Park, Santa Monica

Stroll along Santa Monica’s signature pier and you get one of the most iconic views in Los Angeles County: the classic Pacific Park, with its not-too-scary roller coasters, classic carnival rides, and its Ferris wheel, with its twinkly evening nights (and which is now solar-powered). Enjoy simple pleasures—a creamy thick shake, or a necklace of seashells—at snack shacks and trinket shops lining the pier. To glimpse the local fish, head to the Heal the Bay Aquarium, with some 100 species of fish and aquatic animals, and lots of family-friendly educational displays. (more)

Adventure City, Anaheim

For little kids who are just getting used to rides—and for families looking for bite-size amusement—this Anaheim park is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, with its small coasters, a 1946 carousel, and a create-your-own train layout. Most rides are geared to the 4-foot-and-under set, so little ones will definitely feel like this is a place is for them. A few rides cater to kids who are growing into bigger thrills, like the 45-foot-drop tower called the Drop Zone, or the 40-foot-high Rewind Racers, which is the country’s first forward-and-reverse–style family coaster. (more)

Pirate’s Dinner Adventure, Buena Park

Get your “arrrg” on at this family-friendly dinner theater in Orange County’s Buena Park, where the auditorium is a simulated lagoon. The star pirates—along with dozens of other actors, singers, and stunt performers—take you on a rollicking adventure centered around a full-sized replica of an 18th-century Spanish galleon, complete with cannon blasts and lots of fiery pyrotechnics. The evening includes a full course dinner, with a cash bar and kids’ meal options, as well as with chances for kids to join the fun as on-stage volunteers. (more)

Medieval Times, Buena Park

Enjoy a royal feast while knights joust and horses prance at Orange County’s branch of the high-spirited indoor attraction Medieval Times. 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 and spirited competitions. Each show ends with a knight being crowned champion of the jousting festivities. (more)

Balboa Fun Zone, Newport Beach

This old-school coastal amusement park sits on Balboa Peninsula, right off the coast from the Orange County town of 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 great spot place to rent bikes or take a scenic harbor tour with Hornblower Cruises. (more)

Roller coaster track at Belmont Park

Belmont Park, San Diego

This classic park, next to the surf and sand of San Diego’s 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 Zero Gravity, while little ones like to climb aboard decorated steeds on the Liberty Carousel—especially pretty when it lights up at night. (more)

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