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 favourites, and best entertainment.
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 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 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.
A few miles from Anaheim, Buena Park first found fame due to a small family farm—and it has grown ever since into a wide-ranging family-friendly destination.
The Orange County town dates back to the 1850s and a few buildings still remain from those frontier days—including the site of the Stage Stop Hotel, now the home of the California Welcome Center. But Buena Park was really put on the map in the 1920s, when a farmer named Walter Knott started having success growing a hybrid berry called a boysenberry (part loganberry, part raspberry and part blackberry); his farm stall expanded into a restaurant and later into Knott’s Berry Farm theme park.
Today, the theme park is still the biggest attraction in town, with its own hotel and a classic selection of rides, live shows and an updated version of that original eatery, called Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant. During the summer, the offerings include the nearby Knott’s Soak City Water Park.
Otherwise, the main artery of town runs along Beach Boulevard, which is home to a slew of hotels, restaurants and two big family-friendly cabaret attractions: Pirate’s Dinner Adventure, a swashbuckler-starring show set on a Spanish-style galleon in a huge indoor lagoon; and the popular chain Medieval Times, where you’ll dine while watching jousting, falconry and acts of chivalry.
Tucked between the two theatres is the must-try Porto’s Bakery & Cafe, the only Orange County outpost of the beloved Cuban bakery from LA County. Don’t worry about the queue that can form outside at any time of the day—it moves briskly. Inside, a dazzling range of pastries, Cuban sandwiches and the famous potato balls (stuffed with beef, or cheese and peppers) await.
Families—or anyone with a sweet tooth—will also want to stop at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour, a revival of the 1960s-era parlour where you can still get the 30-scoop Zoo sundae, delivered to your table on a stretcher. There's also an attached confectioner's counter here, where you can learn how to make saltwater taffy (think chewy sweets) and take a bag of your own confections home. Next door is Knott’s Independence Hall, a brick-by-brick replica of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, including a copy of the Liberty Bell. Grown-ups, meanwhile, may want to pull up a stool at the nearby Cauldron Spirits and Brews, a witches-and-wizards-themed pub and eatery with magically themed cocktails (including the Grey Witch cocktail which contains gin, champagne and crème de violette) and Provençal-style pub fare, such as Croque Monsieur sliders.
Keep driving west on Beach Boulevard and after about 16 kilometres, you’ll arrive at the famous surf breaks of Huntington Beach.
The only way to get closer to swirling sea life is to tug on a wetsuit and dive in. This unparalleled facility, with soaring, glass-walled tanks letting you feel as if you’re truly under the sea, defines the standard for aquariums. 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 exhibits 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 centre of a swirling school of sardines, have hammerhead sharks swim inches away from your face, and see how trainers do daily health checks of the aquarium’s cutest inhabitants, California sea otters. A host of special activities, including junior diving programs, sleepovers, and custom romance tours (nothing like a little undersea light to make things dreamy) are also available. 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 the big draw is 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-the-loops, spirals and white-knuckle descents of the park’s trademark rollercoasters and thrill rides, such as Medusa and Skyscreamer. Your favourite comic-book superheroes and super-villains are represented as well, with supercharged rides like SUPERMAN Ultimate Flight and THE JOKER.
Get your fill of these adrenaline pumpers and 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 Californian sea lions. Get up close with big cats like African lions and Bengal and Siberian tigers and cougars, and meet a sloth or feed a giraffe.
For milder entertainment for the little ones, let them romp around the Acme Fun Factory, a two-storey playhouse. There’s also a water play area just for smaller children, plus tot-friendly rides and activities, many based on the classic Warner Bros. characters of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Tweety Pie, such as the mini aeroplanes of Yosemite Sam’s Flight School. Keep an eye out for the wandering characters, too, for a photo op. For all-ages fun, choose from 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 programmes, where you can go backstage and learn more about the amazing animals.