From Disneyland classics to beachfront carousels, the Golden State’s best-in-class theme parks deliver something for everyone. Take a tram ride to tour movie back lots at Universal Studios Hollywood, or ride on a beachfront carousel in Santa Cruz. Find out what’s in store at these family fun-zones, with insider tips on new rides, classic favorites, and best entertainment.
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.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium, an unparalleled facility with soaring, glass-walled tanks that make you feel as if you’re truly under the sea, defines the standard for modern marine exhibits. The only way to get closer to swirling sea life is to tug on a wetsuit and dive in. It’s also one of the best makeovers on the planet: in the early 1900s, the main building was a bustling canning facility for sardines, all chronicled in fascinating historical displays near the entrance. (Excellent behind-the-scenes tours shed more light on the aquarium’s history, as well as its remarkable inner workings.)
Intriguing history or not, this is one big wow of a place. Mesmerizing tanks and exhibits showcase more than 35,000 animals and plants representing over 550 species—a large number of them California natives. Watch a giant Pacific octopus unfurl its tentacles, stand in the center of a swirling school of sardines, have hammerhead sharks swim inches away from your face, and see how trainers administer daily health checks to the aquarium’s cutest inhabitants, southern sea otters. The furry mammals get the spotlight on a special experience led by experts; learn how these endangered animals are cared for at the aquarium, and about the aquarium’s ongoing research to protect otters in the wild.
The aquarium’s vibrant undersea world is as close to a real-life Finding Dory as little kids can get. You’ll want to park it for a while in the Splash Zone & Penguins area. Here, they’ll spy Nemo’s cousins in the tropical fish tank, watch African penguins feeding, and explore hands-on educational exhibits. It’s the Splash Zone’s Coral Reef Kingdom, though, that really sets this aquarium apart. The soft safe zone (even the floor is padded!) gives little kids—under 34 inches tall—exclusive access to a waterbed for making waves, interactive exhibits at eye level, a block area, and a touch pool. There are also special family sleepovers, and a chance for kids to become underwater explorers by donning specially designed gear and swimming in the protected Great Tide Pool fronting the aquarium. Behind-the-scenes tours offer the opportunity to learn more about sharks or jellies, and grownups can book customized experiences for two, where you can create your own romantic rendezvous—perhaps champagne and dinner?—with an underwater glow.
Insider tip: Get tickets online in advance to skip long lines.
Billing itself as having more world-class roller coasters than any other destination, this theme park roughly an hour’s drive northeast of Los Angeles is a daredevil’s paradise. Teens and young adults flock here to get spun, flung, and plummeted on rides with names like Goliath, Twisted Colossus, Viper, Sling Shot, and Apocalypse—you get the picture. Comic-book heroes get a nod here too, as on the Superman: Escape From Krypton mega-ride. If you need a place to settle your brain back into your skull, or if you have little ones who aren’t quite ready to ride a chair upside down at 65 miles/105 km per hour, head for mellower Bugs Bunny World, with pint-size rides and dressed-up Looney Tunes characters saying hi to the kids.
For a cool retreat in summer, bring your bathing suits and head to adjacent Hurricane Harbor, where you can have slip and slide on more than 20 water slides, ride a make-believe African river, and relax beside a tropical lagoon. The harbor is open May through September.
There’s no hiding what’s the big draw at Six Flags Dicovery Kingdom, located in the North Bay city of Vallejo. Even before you park your car you’ll see the giant loop-de-loops, spirals, and white-knuckle descents of the park’s trademark coasters and thrill rides, such as Medusa and Skyscreamer. Your favorite comic book super heroes and super villains are represented as well with supercharged rides like SUPERMAN Ultimate Flight and THE JOKER.
Get your fill of these adrenaline pumpers, then retreat to the calming beauty of the park’s unique Butterfly Habitat. Once your blood pressure is back to normal, watch the educational demonstration shows to learn more about Atlantic bottlenose dolphins or California sea lions. Get up close with big cats like African lions and Bengal and Siberian tigers and cougars, meet a sloth, or feed a giraffe.
For milder entertainment for the little ones, let them romp around Acme Fun Factory, a two-story playhouse. There’s also a water play area just for smaller kids, plus tot-friendly rides and activities, many based on the classic Warner Bros. characters of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Tweety Bird, such as the mini airplanes of Yosemite Sam’s Flight School. Keep an eye for the strolling characters, too, to do a photo op. For all-ages fun, choose among the Family Rides like the teacup-style Monkey Business or the big rafts of the seasonal White Water Safari. For more up-close and personal experiences check out the Dolphin Discovery or Wildlife Discovery programs, where you can go backstage and learn in-depth about these amazing animals.