The Golden State prides itself on dynamic coastal cities, rugged mountain and desert landscapes, and stunning beaches sweeping across the shoreline of Southern California. For its geographical diversity and plenty of other reasons, travelers flock to the state for vacations of all kinds, from relaxing resort getaways to excursions through California’s natural landmarks and state parks.
Visitors seeking a variety of family-friendly fun are in luck, as California is also known for its plethora of theme parks. Families can select from options associated with the Disney brand, beach town boardwalk parks, and amusement venues that combine the thrill of roller coasters and theme rides with a water park.
If you’re currently in planning mode for your next family vacation, these top California theme parks should be on your radar.
Six Flags Magic Mountain: Valencia
(Courtesy of Six Flags Magic Mountain)
About 35 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, Six Flags Magic Mountain is a family-friendly amusement park with rides and attractions geared to visitors from every age group. The park currently features 19 roller coasters, with a 20th – Wonder Woman Flight of Courage – slated to open in summer 2022 as the world’s longest and tallest single-rail coaster. Other attractions at one of the top theme parks in the U.S. include an array of smaller rides for kids and families, as well as myriad on-site dining and nightly entertainment. The park offers both single-day admission and passes that work all summer long.
For longer visits, consider a stay at the Best Western Valencia Inn or the Courtyard by Marriott Valencia nearby.
Address: 26101 Magic Mountain Parkway, Valencia, CA 91355
Sesame Place San Diego: Chula Vista
Sesame Place San Diego just opened to guests for the first time in early 2022, yet the park is already popular with families who love meeting their favorite Sesame Street characters like Elmo. Spread across 17 acres less than 20 miles from San Diego, Sesame Place San Diego is the only theme park on the West Coast based entirely on the popular show, with its East Coast counterpart situated near Philadelphia. Visitors to the San Diego location will find 18 Sesame Street-themed rides and slides, including a kid-friendly roller coaster, a 500,000-gallon wave pool and a musical play area with interactive features. This theme park is the first in the San Diego area to open as a Certified Autism Center; its focus on accessibility makes it a great amusement option for families seeking certain accommodations.
If you’re planning a visit to Sesame Place and looking for where to stay, an array of San Diego-area hotels are nearby. Family-friendly options include the Hampton Inn & Suites Imperial Beach San Diego and the Holiday Inn Express San Diego South – National City, an IHG hotel.
Address: 2052 Entertainment Circle, Chula Vista, CA 91911
Six Flags Discovery Kingdom: Vallejo
Families will find an endless number of kid-approved things to do and see at this combined amusement and wildlife park in Vallejo, about 30 miles from San Francisco. Six Flags Discovery Kingdom boasts a variety of animal attractions, thrill rides and live entertainment. Children who love wildlife can get to know dolphins at a show, watch tigers swim or stroll through an underwater tunnel to study the sharks, while thrill-seekers can hop on the park’s Batman ride, Dare Devil Chaos Coaster or The Joker – a “maniacal” new coaster.
With so many animals to see, rides to enjoy and food to sample, you may consider a multi-day park visit to experience all Six Flags Discovery Kingdom has to offer. Nearby hotels and resorts include the Courtyard by Marriott Vallejo Napa Valley and the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel and Spa Napa Valley – American Canyon.
Address: 1001 Fairgrounds Drive, Vallejo, CA 94589
San Diego Zoo Safari Park: Escondido
(Courtesy of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance)
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is the perfect place to take animal lovers who want to see creatures like giraffes and elephants up close. This park, located a little more than 30 miles northeast of San Diego and its counterpart zoo, lets you book an array of safaris that focus on different species and work well for different age groups; transportation options range from truck to zip line to balloon. The Roar & Snore Safari for all ages even includes a sleepover experience in the park and lets you get up close and personal with animals going about their nighttime activities. Younger guests to the park will also enjoy riding the carousel, petting goats and exploring the play areas. To stop by the San Diego Zoo after traversing its sister Safari Park, purchase a two-visit pass.
If you prefer to visit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park by day and stay elsewhere at night, consider booking one of many hotels nearby, including the Embassy Suites by Hilton San Diego La Jolla or the San Diego Mission Bay Resort.
Address: 15500 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido, California 92027
Sonoma TrainTown Railroad: Sonoma
The founder of Sonoma TrainTown Railroad once described this one-of-a-kind attraction as a “10-acre elaborate table top railroad, which is outdoors and rideable,” summing up what has been drawing railway enthusiasts and families to this park for more than half a century. In addition to 20-minute trips on a quarter-scale train to visit a tiny town and petting zoo, this dynamic theme park in Sonoma boasts railroad-themed rides such as the Iron Horse Carousel and High Iron Ferris wheel.
Address: 20264 Broadway, Sonoma, CA 95476
Legoland California: Carlsbad
If you’re hoping to find a Lego-themed park with endless opportunities for fun and state-of-the-art amenities, Legoland California is worth checking out. This park in Carlsbad, about 30 miles north of San Diego, immerses kids in the Lego universe with roller coasters, factory tours, themed rides and building experiences galore. Children can climb aboard a pirate ship, dig for dinosaur fossils, practice for their Legoland driver’s license or construct their own Coast Guard boat out of Legos before racing against other watercraft.
Guests who want the full experience of this amusement park can book a stay at the adjacent Legoland California Resort, which has themed rooms and interactive Lego features throughout, as well as nightly entertainment for kids.
Address: 1 Legoland Drive, Carlsbad, CA 92008
SeaWorld San Diego: San Diego
The nearly 200-acre SeaWorld San Diego in the Mission Bay neighborhood of San Diego offers a lot more than educational presentations and interaction with amazing animals like dolphins, beluga whales, harbor seals and orcas; this park also features countless white-knuckle rides and roller coasters to break up the fun. The park’s newest coaster, Emperor – named for Emperor penguins and dubbed the world’s tallest, fastest and longest dive coaster – dangles and drops passengers 90 degrees without a floor. Brave that 14-story vertical drop or check out other popular rides such as the Electric Eel multi-launch coaster, the Shipwreck Rapids water ride and the kid-friendly Tentacle Twirl.
Address: 500 Sea World Drive, San Diego, CA 92109
Disneyland Resort: Anaheim
Disneyland Resort in Anaheim hardly needs an introduction. The original Disney resort is always perfect for families who want to greet beloved characters and relish some rides at the happiest place on Earth. The park itself is stuffed with amazing features, from its character dining experiences to attractions like Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes and the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Fan-favorite thrill rides include Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and the Indiana Jones Adventure, but Disneyland Resort packs in heaps of fun for visitors of all ages.
Address: 1313 Disneyland Drive, Anaheim, CA 92802
Knott’s Berry Farm: Buena Park
Knott’s Berry Farm is worth a visit for family-friendly fun in a theme park that began as a roadside berry stand in the 1920s. Now spanning 160 acres, this amusement destination is home to an array of world-class rides as well as Knott’s Soak City, a water park that features 23 slides, a wave pool and more. The theme park itself is broken up into four areas for different tastes and ages: the Camp Snoopy park and its kid-friendly attractions; the Old West Ghost Town with coasters galore; the Fiesta Village homage to California’s Hispanic heritage; and the Boardwalk area with swing rides, drop rides and other gravity-defying thrills.
If you’re planning a visit, you will definitely want to stay at the Knott’s Berry Farm Hotel located right next to the park. Room options are big enough for families, and the hotel has a large outdoor pool with a kids’ splash zone.
Address: 8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park, CA 90620
Belmont Park: San Diego
San Diego’s Belmont Park is the typical beach boardwalk theme park teeming with rides and activities for everyone in your crew. Fun attractions for the family include the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster, Zero Gravity drop ride, Krazy Kars bumper cars and old-fashioned Tilt-a-Whirl, to name a few. Visitors can also shop the day away at boardwalk boutiques and snack on favorite fair foods such as corn dogs, Dole Whips and grab-and-go tacos.
Address: 3146 Mission Blvd., San Diego, CA 92109
California’s Great America: Santa Clara
For an entertainment opportunity less than 10 miles from San Jose in Santa Clara, California’s Great America offers day and season passes with unlimited visits, so it’s a good choice for a family vacation or for a visit if you live nearby. Either way, this park situated in Silicon Valley offers more than 60 rides ranging from a carousel to a swing ride to roller coasters, as well as live music performances and the on-site South Bay Shores water park. Popular coasters at the park include Demon and Flight Deck, both of which turn passengers upside down as they glide by at lightning-fast speeds.
Address: 4701 Great America Parkway, Santa Clara, CA 95054
Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park: Gilroy
Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park, about 30 miles south of San Jose, offers something fun for everyone, though this destination is definitely geared toward families with smaller kids in tow. Rides and attractions, all designed with the park’s garden theme in mind, include a spinning strawberry ride, a rattlesnake kiddie coaster, a Ferris wheel above the greenhouse and an ornate carousel. This theme park’s majestic gardens showcase flowers, plants and scenery that evoke a time gone by; its small water park features a splash garden, boat rides and small waterslides.
While Gilroy is a small town away from the hustle and bustle of California’s major cities, there are still plenty of places to stay nearby. Hotels less than 5 miles from Gilroy Gardens include Econo Lodge of Gilroy and the Days Inn by Wyndham Gilroy.
Address: 3050 Hecker Pass Highway, Gilroy, CA 95020
Universal Studios Hollywood: Universal City
Universal Studios Hollywood is easily one of the most popular theme parks in California and one of the top things to do on any trip to Los Angeles, given its location just 10 miles from the city and the sheer number of attractions to explore throughout the park. Guests will enjoy embarking on the Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter or hiding from realistic dinosaurs on the Jurassic World ride. Visitors can also spot and interact with characters throughout the park, such as the Simpsons, the Minions or Shrek, or engage with a variety of other entertainment options.
Address: 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, CA 91608
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: Santa Cruz
One of the top things to do in Santa Cruz, this boardwalk and amusement park is perfect for a day trip or a few days of fun. In addition to sampling the roller coasters and rides found at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, visitors can partake in mini golf, laser tag, arcade games and bowling. Thrill-seekers may be pleasantly surprised by the scare factor of the park’s attractions, including the Double Shot drop ride and the Fireball spinning swing ride. Of course, fun fair foods like crepes, pizza and street tacos provide a pleasant aroma throughout the boardwalk for your nose to follow when the time comes for a snack break.
Places to stay less than a mile from this amusement park include the Ocean Pacific Lodge and the Seaway Inn.
Address: 400 Beach St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Castle Park: Riverside
About 50 miles east of Los Angeles, Riverside’s Castle Park offers amusement options to suit every traveler’s style, whether you want to ride some rollers coasters, play a round of mini golf on one of four courses, hit up the arcade or explore the water features at the on-site Buccaneer Cove water park. Castle Park boasts 27 rides for visitors to try, including the kid-friendly Merlin’s Revenge coaster, the mild Dragon Flyer ride that takes guests into flight and the 35-foot-high Screamin’ Demon roller coaster. Performances and events such as a magic show are offered year-round, and you can join in the park’s dance parties all summer long.
There are lots of places to stay nearby if you want to spend a few days enjoying the rides and family-friendly attractions. To stay within a mile of Castle Park, you could book a room at the Days Inn by Wyndham Riverside Tyler Mall or the Riverside Inn & Suites.
Address: 3500 Polk St., Riverside, CA 92505
Pacific Park: Santa Monica
Located on the pier of Santa Monica, the beachfront Pacific Park is another boardwalk theme park jam-packed with things to do and see. You’ll find 12 thrill rides within the park, including an oceanfront roller coaster and the world’s first solar-powered Ferris wheel. Inkie’s Scrambler takes riders through a series of twists and turns as they spin more than 11 revolutions per minute. In between rides, families can play midway games, browse seaside shops, and nosh on favorite snacks like pizza, burgers and funnel cakes.
Address: 380 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica, CA 90401