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.
A wide beach and splashable waves are always inviting; add a colorful 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 historic 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For little ones who are just getting used to rides—and for families who want a bite-sized theme park visit—Adventure City is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, with its small rollercoasters, a 1946 carousel and the chance to create your own train track design. Most rides at the Anaheim theme park are geared to the 4-foot/120-cm-and-under set, so younger children will definitely feel like this is a place for them.
The park gets creative with those rides, though. At the photo-op-magnet Rescue 911, kids can try on real firefighter's helmets and jackets, board little vehicles and then respond to silly-style emergency calls from the dispatcher. A few rides are great for those who are growing into bigger thrills, like the 14-metre-drop tower called the Drop Zone, or the 12-metre-high Rewind Racers, which is the country’s first forward-and-back–style family rollercoaster.
There are numerous attractions beyond the rides, too. Visit the petting farm to canoodle with bunnies, pet a goat or meet a pig. Watch one of the daily shows at the Kids’ Theater, or play games in the arcade to collect toy tickets. Let the children scale the 6-metre climbing wall (meant for ages 4 and up), where reaching the top is heralded by bells and sirens. And for some visitors, the biggest enticement may be the Thomas the Tank Engine zone, where you can create an infinite number of layouts with the little tracks, trains and bridges.
You’ll find family-friendly theme park cuisine—from pizzas and salads to curly fries, frozen lemonade and churros—and nice touches, like single- and double-pushchair hire at the park entrance. One of the biggest family perks, though, is the low admission price: just $19 for adults and children aged 1 and up, and $15 for seniors.