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What You Need to Know About California Theme Parks

Some parks are open for seasonal events, food, shopping, and more

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As California continues to reopen, legions of fans have been listening for that familiar sound of moving turnstiles at the Golden State’s bucket-list theme parks. The good news is that many of the big parks, while not totally open, are starting to welcome guests for modified forms of classic fun.

“Parks have spent months developing comprehensive draft guidelines with input from international health and safety experts,” says California Attractions and Parks Association Executive Director Erin Guerrero. “Parks are ready to reopen with best-practice protocols to provide a healthy and responsible environment for both guests and employees.”

Like other attractions around the Golden State, theme parks must adhere to their respective county and local guidelines and regulations—along with some added reopening guidelines for both small parks (those with a capacity of 15,000 or less) and larger parks. Smaller parks can reopen while the state is in the orange, or moderate, tier of California’s reopening levels, while large parks can open once their counties are in the yellow, or minimal, risk level. Some parks that are not open year-round have announced that they will stay closed until 2021—such as Gilroy Gardens in the Central Coast region and California’s Great America in Santa Clara, whose seasons typically kick off in March.

While all of this may sound a little confusing, it’s a good reminder that you should check those local resources, and each theme park’s website, before you go. While you’re at it, check out the CDC's guide for visiting parks and recreational facilities and Visit California’s Responsible Travel Hub.

What to Expect

Many partially open theme parks are offering similar protocols: reduced maximum capacity to avoid crowds; online ticket sales to reserve your spot; temperature checks for guests entering the park; ample hand-washing/hand-sanitizer stations, and increased cleaning of park surfaces throughout the day. Some opened theme parks are limiting admission to relatively local visitors—say, county residents—while others are offering special perks, like waived parking fees or discounted admission prices.

Parks also ask that guests do their part: Bring a face covering (per the state mandate for masks in public places), be mindful of the six-foot physical distancing guidelines, and stay away if you feel sick.

During this reopening phase, some parks are offering scaled-back features. At Anaheim’s Disneyland Resort, the shops and eateries of Downtown Disney District are open for business. As of Nov. 19, you can also enjoy one area within Disney California Adventure Park: Many of the shops and restaurants of Buena Vista Street, the 1920s-style area meant to channel the L.A. of Walt Disney’s early career, are welcoming guests again.

To access either area, park in the resort’s Simba Lot for $10 (and be aware that to access some specific stores or eateries, you may need to be on a waiting list through the mobile app).

At Universal Studios Hollywood, CityWalk is open for business with limited capacity, including shopping and outdoor dining, with the added perk of free parking. Temperature checks are done in the parking structure, and each business will monitor its own capacity limits. Similarly, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is offering outdoor fun in the form of arcade games, shopping, and boardwalk cuisine—including “Hoppy Hour” food-and-beer pairings.

Other partially open parks are emphasizing their unique, non-ride delights. Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in the East Bay town of Vallejo is embracing its origins as a zoo and aquarium: Go to the park’s Marine World Experience ($19.99; free for members and passholders) where you can see lions, penguins, alligators, and displays such as the acclaimed Butterfly Exhibit. You can also buy funnel cakes and other snacks using the park’s mobile app.

At LEGOLAND California, the Big Shop is open, while the LEGOLAND Hotel welcomes guests at a starting rate of $169 a night. Hotel guests, passholders, and most shoppers can also explore the scaled LEGO-constructed cityscapes of Miniland USA inside the park. On select dates from Nov. 20–Jan. 10, anyone can explore the decorations, strolling characters, and treats of the Holidays at LEGOLAND, with early bird admission starting at $14.99.

SeaWorld San Diego will deck its halls, too. The Celebrate Christmas at SeaWorld event (starting at $63.99, select dates from Nov. 13–Jan. 4) features seasonal food and drink and presentations such as Dolphin Island Christmas, Clyde & Seamore’s Christmas Special, and holiday decor such as the Tunnel of Lights. On select dates from Nov. 20–Jan. 3, Six Flags Magic Mountain is holding a cars-only Holiday in the Park Drive-Thru Experience ($20 per person, and free for members and season pass holders); it’s also a good time to buy a pass to the Santa Clarita park for next year, with rates starting at a discounted $60.

Taking a cue from its popular annual Boysenberry Festival, Orange County’s Knotts Berry Farm is offering the holiday-themed Taste of Merry Farm within the park’s Old Town section. Your reservation gets you a tasting card ($40 for adults, $20 for kids) for five treats among the 60 “menu” items, at tasting stations such as turkey-dinner-flavored tater tots and maple-and-pecan-enhanced cinnamon rolls. Between snacks, browse the gifts made by artisans such as chainsaw carvers and glassblowers. The Knott’s Berry Farm Hotel and many stores and eateries in the California Marketplace are open, too.

Before You Go

Advance planning is the key to a successful visit to any of these parks. Start by booking your date-specific ticket online, for parks that require it, and see if there’s anything else you can book early, such as parking. Download the park’s app for the latest information and to manage your reservation, buy food, or get on any waiting lists.

Also, check out the attraction’s map on its website, and either save it to your phone or make a printout, since paper maps likely won’t be available onsite. Bring along your own stroller or wheelchair, if you would otherwise rent one, since such rentals may not be available right now. Once inside, look for directional signs on the ground—one-way traffic helps encourage good distancing.

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