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A Guide to the 21 Best Theme Parks in California

Published:

by Julienne Fajardo

A view of Pacific Park at Santa Monica Pier during sunset.
Photo by Andriy Blokhin on Adobe Stock

Looking for the best theme parks in California? Whether you’re headed to Northern or Southern California, the state always has plenty to offer. You’ll find theme parks of every variety, from some of the biggest thrill rides and recreational activities you can do with the entire family. 

 

In this article, we won’t just be listing the top California theme parks. We’ll also look at which ones suit the kind of trip you’re planning. Let us guide you in choosing the best parks that everyone in your group would enjoy.

Theme Parks in Southern California

1. Disneyland Park – Anaheim, California

Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland Park in Southern California.

Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels

First opened in 1955, Disneyland Park is an icon and is considered to be one of the best amusement parks in the US. It is loved by visitors from all over the world thanks to the unique attractions housed within it. 

 

Disneyland Park’s gem is Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, where you’ll get to see some of the film’s beloved characters, revel in the amazingly accurate set design and even ride the Star Wars: Millennium Falcon – Smuggler’s Run. If you’re looking for the best things to do in Anaheim, don’t skip this one!

 

Best Time to Visit: The park isn’t as crowded from mid-January to mid-March, and from mid-September through mid-November. 

2. Legoland California Resort – Carlsbad, California

Front entrance at Legoland, one of the best kid friendly theme parks in California.

Photo from Legoland.com

Legoland California Resort is one of the most-visited amusement parks on this list. It currently houses a water park, a Sea Life Aquarium, and 11 different themed parks. For guests who want to stay over for a few days, there are two on-site hotels to accommodate you as well!

 

Kids and kids-at-heart have plenty of spaces to explore. Our recommendation? The Lego Movie World. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like living in Bricksburg, this is your opportunity. You’ll get to enjoy Lego-themed food, take photos with your favorite characters, and ride Emmet’s Flying Adventure Ride!

 

Best Time to Visit: For great outdoor weather, springtime is the best time to go! 

3. Six Flags Magic Mountain – Santa Clarita, California

Thrilling rollercoaster ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain

Photo by Jeremy Thompson on Flickr

When people think of top California theme parks, Six Flags Magic Mountain will always be on that list. This 262-acre amusement park has some of the biggest and fastest roller coasters, including Full Throttle and Batman: The Ride. 

 

There are a total of 11 theme parks, including Metropolis which is inspired by the Justice League of the DC Comic Universe. Fans of the comics and the films will surely love the interactive ride Justice League: Battle for Metropolis, where they’ll encounter and “fight” some of the series’ main villains! 

 

Best Time to Visit: The park is open daily starting the end of March, but we suggest going during the weekdays so it’s less crowded.

4. Universal Studios Hollywood – Los Angeles, California

Universal Studios is one of the most family friendly theme parks in California.

Photo by masbebet christianto on Pixabay

At Universal Studios Hollywood, you can experience movie magic first hand. It is one of the most popular and the oldest active film studios to date. It caters to both families and thrill-seeking individuals alike, making it one of the most visited amusement parks in California.

 

The Upper Lot is where you’ll find Streets of the World, which has many themed locations, but it’s the Wizarding World of Harry Potter that really draws guests from around the world to visit.

 

Best Time to Visit: January, February, and November are known to be the “quieter” months. If you want shorter lines, plan your visit during Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

5. Knott’s Berry Farm – Buena Park, California

A view of the biggest and tallest rides at Knott’s Berry Farm in Orange County, California.

Photo from Knotts.com

Many would agree that Knott’s Berry Farm is one of the best theme parks in California. It is well-known for its annual Seasons of Fun events, such as the Boysenberry Food Festival in the Spring, and Knott’s Scary Farm on Halloween. The park is home to Camp Snoopy, which is a Peanuts-themed attraction that fans of the popular cartoon will certainly enjoy. It has a total of 15 different rides, including the popular roller coaster Sierra Sidewinder!

 

This California amusement park has around 40 different attractions in total, including the Butterfield Stagecoach that will take you on a tour of the park’s various areas easily.

 

Best time to Visit: The park sees fewer visitors during the months of February, September, and October. Weekdays are your best bet if you want shorter lines than usual.

6. Disney California Adventure Park – Anaheim, California

People lining up in the gates of Disney California Adventure Park is one of the must-see amusement parks in California.

Photo by Gela Del Rosario on Pexels

Located inside Disneyland Resort is DCA or the Disney California Adventure Park. The California Adventure map is divided into different areas, including Grizzly Peak, which is designed to mimic the look of a typical National Park in California. This is where you’ll find the camp-themed attraction Redwood Creek Challenge Trail, which offers experiences such as rock climbing, zip-lining, and rope bridges.

 

Aside from themed attractions, the park has plenty of rides, such as Radiator Springs Racers, for visitors of all ages to enjoy. Always look for discount tickets to make the most of your experience.

 

Best Time to Visit: Like other Disney parks, the best time to visit is from mid-January to mid-March, and from mid-September through mid-November. 

7. Seaworld San Diego – San Diego, California

Guests enjoying the Manta roller coaster at SeaWorld San Diego.

Photo byJeremy Thompson on Flickr

For a fun and educational trip, SeaWorld San Diego is one of the best amusement parks in California with an Oceanarium, a Marine Mammal Park, and an outside aquarium as the main attractions. Because of its central location, you should be able to easily find nearby AirBnB rentals in San Diego as well. 

 

SeaWorld San Diego is home to various marine life, including dolphins, seals, and sea lions, killer whales, and many others. Aside from the exhibits, the park also has 11 different rides for guests to enjoy. 

 

Best Time to Visit: To make the most of the exhibits and activities, we recommend visiting during the cooler months of late January to February. Do make sure you ask about Seaworld reservations as well.

8. San Diego Zoo – Balboa Park, San Diego, California

People walking past Australian Outback Exhibit at San Diego Zoo

Photo by Virginia Hill on Flickr

The San Diego Zoo is home to over 12,000 animals and is one of the most visited zoos in the United States. There are 14 different exhibits to visit, including the snow leopards and red pandas at the Asian Passage! The Outback is where the park’s adorable Koalas reside. Get an eye-level view of the largest koala colony as they perch on the eucalyptus trees. A play structure is even installed in the area to get the kids to practice their climbing skills mimicking the koalas’ movements.

 

It may not be what you’d expect from amusement parks in California, but the zoo also offers exciting family-friendly rides. We’re sure toddlers and even kids-at-heart will love the Skyfari Aerial Tram and the Guided Bus Tour. It’s definitely one of the top things to do in San Diego.

 

Best Time to Visit: To avoid big crowds, choose to go on a non-holiday weekday. 

9. San Diego Zoo Safari Park – San Pasqual Valley, San Diego, California

The Safari ride passing through the giraffe exhibit at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Photo from SDZSafariPark.org

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park isn’t just one of the largest theme parks in California, it is also the home of some endangered animals from various continents. Here you’ll find rarely seen animals such as antelopes and rhinos. 

 

One of San Diego Zoo’s most popular attractions is the Africa Rocks exhibit, which highlights the beauty of Africa and the diversity of its fauna. The exhibit includes African penguins, lemurs, dwarf crocodiles, and leopards to mention a few. The park also has rides, such as the African Tram, that even the little ones can ride.

 

Best Time to Visit: Since most of the shows are scheduled during the morning, it’s best to arrive as early as possible. 

10. Knott’s Soak City Water Park – Buena Park, California

A set of winding tube slides at Knott’s Soak City!

Photo from Visit Buena Park Official Website

Buena Park in Orange County is home to some of the most sought-after amusement parks in California. Knott’s Soak City is one of the best water parks in the state. Located east of the famous Knott’s Berry Farm, you’ll find plenty of activities and amenities fit for various ages.

 

The water park covers 13 acres and houses 23 different water slides. There are also dedicated children’s areas for toddlers, such as Gremmie’s Lagoon. Perhaps the attraction that draws the most visitors would be Tidal Wave Bay, which delivers four-foot crests and plenty of thrills for those who brave its waters.

 

Best Time to Visit: Soak City opens mid-May through September. It opens at ten in the morning and closes at around seven at night. We suggest going early to avoid lines and too much heat from the sun.

11. Aquatica San Diego – San Diego, California

Three kids soaking in the pool at the Aquatica San Diego, a must-visit California water theme park.

Photo from Aquatica San Diego’s Official Facebook

There’s a great selection of water theme parks in California, but Aquatica San Diego is unique in that it has a beachside resort vibe that everyone will appreciate. The waterpark has both body slides and raft slides, which vary in height and number of loops depending on the thrill level you seek.

 

They also have an expansive lazy river where guests would be able to relax and take in some of the park’s l colorful sights. Even kids can get in on the fun because the park provides three different play areas, with slides and water activities, just for them!

 

Best Time to Visit: The park is set to re-open in March 2022, so we suggest getting an early-season pass for California theme parks long before you plan on going. As with most waterparks, it is best to arrive early during weekdays. Weekends, especially during holidays, tend to be crowded.

 

Theme Parks in Northern California

12. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk – Santa Cruz, California

Aerial view of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Photo from Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Official Facebook

For an amusement park that has something for every preference, visit Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. You’ll be able to enjoy the beach, thrilling rides, and various free entertainment along its stretch. 

 

Aside from having plenty of great food, some of the Boardwalk’s most popular attractions include The Plunge, where you’ll find a miniature golf course and arcade games. If you’re up for some laser tag, the Casino Fun Center should also be included in your stop! It’s one of the best things to do in Santa Cruz, California.

 

Best Time to Visit: There are fewer tourists from September through November so best to plan your visit during those months.

13. Six Flags Discovery Kingdom – Vallejo, California

Mosaic animal sculptures at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom

Photo by Jeremy Thompson on Flickr

If you’re looking for more kid-friendly theme parks in California, add Six Flags Discovery Kingdom to your list. This animal-themed amusement park in California boasts numerous attractions, including four different thrill rides. Families with kids need not worry because there are three areas specifically meant for younger children inside the park.

 

For young and old explorers alike, Discovery Kingdom also offers attractions such as Shark Experience, a popular attraction that features a walk-through underwater tunnel and viewing gallery that allows visitors to observe different shark species. It is a unique experience that will bring you up close and personal with these beautiful apex predators!

 

Best Time to Visit: The park tends to be busy daily, but there is a noticeably lighter crowd during Memorial Day weekend. 

14. Adventure City – Stanton, California

Crazy Bus Ride in Adventure City.

Photo from Adventurecity.com

Adventure City may not be at the top of California theme parks guide lists, but it is definitely the perfect theme park for young kids and kids-at-heart. The park is home to two vintage rides, the Adventure City Express Train which dates back to 1938, and the Carousel, which was first built in 1946. 

 

Among their most popular thrill rides are Drop Zone and Rewind Racers. The latter is a unique shuttle coaster that can go forwards and backward much to the thrill of its riders! It is the first of its kind in North America.

 

Best Time to Visit: Park visitors tend to peak during the summer months so planning your visit ahead of time is your best option for lighter crowds.

15. Gilroy Gardens – Gilroy, California

Onion Mascots of Gilroy Gardens, one of the best plant-themed family theme parks in California.

Photo from Gilroy Gardens Official Facebook

With 40 different plant-themed rides and attractions, you should certainly add Gilroy Gardens to your list. Aside from the enchanting Circus Trees, toddlers and young children would be able to enjoy exciting rides such as Quicksilver Express and Panoramic Wheel.

 

If you get tired of the rides, there are also water play areas where you can cool down. Small children would certainly enjoy the Oak Park Playground and the Water Oasis. It is one of the most unique and best amusement parks in the US.

 

Best Time to Visit: April and June are the most ideal months since you can expect warm temps and not-too sunny weather. 

16. Children’s Fairyland – Oakland, California

Entrance to Children’s Fairyland, one of the most whimsical amusement parks in California.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

If you want a taste of old-fashioned, but still very entertaining amusement parks in California, then include Children’s Fairyland in your stop. Built back in the 1950s, the 10-acre storybook-themed park houses small rides perfect for young kids. 

 

Apart from the usual theme park fare, their Open Storybook Puppet Theatre will captivate your little ones. The park also has a decades-long tradition of putting on live shows and other theatre productions.

 

Best Time to Visit: Visiting at the earliest time possible will allow you to enjoy the park with fewer crowds. The park gets crowded during the holidays because of seasonal attractions and activities.

17. California’s Great America – Santa Clara, California

Carousel Columbia at Great America, one of the most iconic theme parks in Northern California.

Photo from CAGreatAmerica.com

If you want a unique experience from roller coaster theme parks in California, head on over to California Great America. The most popular among the different Great America rides is their wooden roller coaster, Gold Striker. 

 

The thrill rides certainly won’t disappoint adrenaline junkies. Plunge down the 20 stories tall Drop Tower at 3.5 seconds speed—giving you the most dizzying but exhilarating experience yet. Some of their themed areas include Orleans Place, which will transport you to the gorgeous French Quarter of New Orleans in Louisiana. For returning visitors, note that their Log Flume ride has since been closed.

 

Best Time to Visit: The park opens in mid-May and we suggest going during the weekdays to avoid big crowds. Sundays are also less crowded.

18. Belmont Park – San Diego, California

Aerial View of Belmont Park, one of the top theme parks in Northern California.

Photo from Belmontpark.com

Belmont Park is another popular historic landmark. History buffs will certainly get a kick out of learning that many of the original thrill rides from 1925 are still in the park. This includes their famous wooden roller coaster, the Giant Dipper

 

If you’re looking for modern entertainment, the park also has a 7D Theater called Xanadu, a Zip Line, and even a 3-level Sky Ropes obstacle course. Discount tickets for the rides are available so make sure you get those if you are able!

 

Best Time to Visit: Since Belmont Park is open all year round, we suggest visiting on a weekday just as the park opens for the day.

19. Pacific Park – Santa Monica Pier, California

A view of the different attractions and rides at Pacific Park in Santa Monica Pier.

Photo from Pacpark.com

One of the best things about this California amusement park is the fact that it is admission-free. While there are only twelve rides in Pacific Park, they do have a unique solar-powered Ferris Wheel that takes you more or less 85 feet above the water, giving the best panoramic view of the Santa Monica coastline. If you want to extend the fun for days, check in to the best hotels in Santa Monica that are close to the location! 

 

Once you’ve exhausted all the rides and its photo-worthy spots, treat yourself to their selection of arcade games, live shows, and over-the-ocean food establishments. 

 

Best Time to Visit: We suggest going on weekdays, during the later afternoon and early evening.

20. Funderland Amusement Park – Sacramento, California

Chidlren enjoying the Flying Aces ride at Funderland.

Photo by mliu92 on Flickr

Headed to Sacramento, California soon? Funderland Amusement Park may not be one of the biggest theme parks in California, but there are plenty of kiddie-sized rides the little ones will enjoy including trains, cars, and boats! 

 

Get the kids screaming to their heart’s content aboard the  Flying Dragon Roller Coaster, or buckle up on the Backroads Buggies to explore and navigate the park, making for a fun-filled experience. Funderland is also home to two vintage rides, the Classic Carousel and Oscar the Fisher, which have been in the property since it opened in the 1940s.

 

Best Time to Visit: The park is open all days of the week, but you can avoid crowds by planning your visit from Monday to Thursday. 

21. South Bay Shores – Santa Clara, California

One of the thrilling tube slides at South Bay Shores.

Photo from Great America’s Official Facebook

There are many stunning beaches in Santa Clara to choose from, but there’s plenty of fun to be had in South Bay Shores, one of the best water theme parks in California. For one, it provides access to its different amenities that are already included in your Great America ticket! 

 

South Bay Shores has a wave pool, tube slides, a lazy river, and two different raft slides. They also have splash areas for toddlers so no one will miss out on the fun.

 

Best Time to Visit: To avoid getting a sunburn, as well as getting stuck in a huge crowd, time your visit during the early morning. 

Give Theme Parks in California a Visit Soon!

What’s the best thing about theme parks in California? Many of them are located close to each other, making it easy for visitors to travel from one place to another! You can also take advantage of the California city pass to make sure you’re getting the most fun for a good price. We hope our list helps you plan the itinerary for your next visit!