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 theatres 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 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.
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 kilometres. 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.
This non-profit theme park, owned by the city of Gilroy and dedicated to educating children about plants and gardens, is a real charmer. In addition to low-key rides and attractions geared especially for little ones, Gilroy Gardens is home to 25 “Circus Trees” by Axel Erlandson, whimsically shaped topiaries, which dot the grounds. Kids can also romp around themed gardens. As for rides, classics get a California-centric twist, such as the Artichoke Dip (think spinning tea cups) and the Garlic Twirl (a Gilroy-specific take on the classic tilt-a-whirl). Some of the gardens have specialized tours—like a relaxed boat cruise through the flower-filled Rainbow Garden. Or climb aboard a recreation of an antique 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.
This park on the shores of Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland has been making kids smile (and delighting parents in the process) since 1950. In fact, the story goes that Walt Disney 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, not to mention rides like a carousel and a trolley. 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.
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 and kid-friendly rides, including a carousel and Ferris wheel.
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.
Get your “arg” on at the undeniably entertaining Pirate’s Dinner Adventure in Buena Park. Performances take place within an enormous simulated lagoon, where you’ll be seated with other guests at one of six “ships”. Each one is led by a fearless pirate who, along with dozens of actors, singers, and stunt performers, takes you on a rollicking adventure on and around a meticulously detailed full-size replica of a classic 18th-century Spanish galleon (complete with 12-metre masts, cannon blasts, and lots of fiery pyrotechnics).
Choose from the current main shows, like the year-round “Legend of the Loch Ness Monster”—which involves a princess, buried treasure, and the mythic creature—or the seasonal shows “Vampirates” and “Pirates Take Christmas.” Each show stars the Evil Captain Sebastian, and comes with its own interactive plotline: Guests, including kids, can join the fun as volunteers, assisting their pirates with challenges around the arena, from hoisting sails to battling ferocious sea dragons or rescuing Mr. and Mrs. Claus. Or go to the later-evening Teatro Martini, the variety show for adults with live music, comedy, and acrobatics, which takes its inspiration from vaudeville and burlesque.
It’s swashbuckling good fun, plus it includes a full-course dinner. The typical “feast” includes roast chicken, shrimp skewers, salads, and a tres leches cake drizzled with chocolate; there are also vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options, along with kids’ meals with chicken nuggets and mac ’n’ cheese. There’s a cash bar for adult beverages, and opportunities to upgrade your experience to include seating (plus swag) in the front three rows.
Join the fantasy of the Middle Ages—a time of chivalrous knights, fair maidens, and dazzling swordplay—at this high-spirited indoor attraction. 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, spirited competitions, and tomfoolery. Each show ends with a knight being crowned champion of the jousting festivities.
Insider tip: Arrive early; seating is first-come, first serve, and close-up seats can add to the fun.
This combo amusement-water park aims to make every age find a way to have fun. Older kids and adventure seekers can head for Gold Striker, the tallest and fastest wooden roller coaster in Northern California, with high-speed twists, turns, and drops at your-gonna-scream speeds of up to 54 miles/87 kilometres per hour. There’s also Flight Deck, a jet coaster that includes zero-gravity barrel rolls (probably best to do this one before lunch), and The Demon, including two 360-degree loops.
Once you have used up every ounce of adrenaline, or if you have little ones who want a tamer experience, take in the low-key rides in Planet Snoopy, with tot-friendly rides and attractions.
When summer temperatures rise, head over to Boomerang Bay, a 13-acre/5-hectare complex with a swimming lagoon, a long and lazy river for inner tube lounging, a wave pool, and poolside cabanas for rent.
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.
An appealing throwback to the classic coastal amusement parks of days gone by, this SoCal attraction makes add-on when visiting 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 popular place to rent bikes or take a scenic harbor tour with Hornblower Cruises.
For little kids who are just getting used to rides—and for families who want a bite-size theme park visit—Adventure City is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser, with its small coasters, a 1946 carousel, and a create-your-own train layout. Most rides at the Anaheim theme park are geared to the 120cm-and-under set, so little ones will definitely feel like this is a place is for them.
The park gets creative with those rides, though. At the photo-op-magnet Rescue 911, kids can try on real firefighter helmets and jackets, board little vehicles, and then respond to silly-style emergency calls from the dispatcher. A few rides are great for kids who are growing into bigger thrills, like the 13.5m-drop tower called the Drop Zone, or the 12m-high Rewind Racers, which is the country’s first forward-and-reverse–style family coaster.
There are numerous attractions beyond rides, too. Go to the petting farm to interact 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 kids scale the six-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 conveniences, like single- and double-stroller rentals at the park entrance. One of the biggest family perks, though, is the low-key admission price: just $19 for adults and kids ages 1 and up, and $15 for seniors.