The Best Amusement Parks in California

Disney California Adventure Park is the newer sibling to the original Disneyland, one of California's most iconic theme parks
Disney California Adventure Park is the newer sibling to the original Disneyland, one of California's most iconic theme parks | © Jeffrey Whyte / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Kalena McElroy
9 April 2021

Long after it lured the 49ers in search of gold, California is still all about the rush – particularly if you’re into the crazy coasters found in the amusement parks. Some offer white-knuckle rides; others, while less frenziedly exhilarating, still promise a holiday high. From the wild water thrills of Splash Mountain in Disneyland to nostalgic big dippers and the Halloween-themed Knott’s Scary Farm, there’s never a dull moment at the finest theme parks in California.

Knott's Berry Farm

Amusement Park
Map View
Entrance to Knott's Berry Farm, Buena Park, Orange County, near Los Angeles, California, USA
© Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo
Where once stood a demure berry farm and fruit stand, now there’s this 160-acre (65ha) wild child, which opened in the 1920s and counts today among the most-visited amusement parks in North America. Knott’s Berry Farm is in Buena Park, not far from Disneyland, with 10 rollercoasters stealing the limelight among the Western-themed attractions and shows. As it has since 1972, the park draws adoring crowds with an annual Halloween event, Knott’s Scary Farm, for which it is converted into a nightmarish vision of haunted houses, spooky mazes and monsters lurking in every corner.

Disneyland Park

Park
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Children and young-at-heart adults lap up the magic oozing from the original Disneyland Park in Anaheim. With world-class dining, year-round special events including Pixar Fest and spectacular shows, there’s something to enjoy however old you are. In the summer, you can cool off on Splash Mountain or journey under the sea on the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. Other iconic attractions have been in operation for six decades. Look out for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Peter Pan’s Flight and the Jungle Cruise – now a live-action movie – and Snow White’s Scary Adventures.

Universal Studios Hollywood

Amusement Park
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Universal Globe at the entrance to Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal City, Los Angeles, California, USA
© Peter Schickert / Alamy Stock Photo
Cinema buffs love this legend, handily close to Hollywood. Universal Studios brings together motion-simulator rides, live shows and exhilarating 3D attractions that honor some of the most famous movies the production company has ever made. Feel the chill of London on a scorching Southern California day at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And join the ever-popular Studio Tour to discover what goes on behind the scenes of a blockbuster: aboard a tram, you’ll pass sets and props from blockbusters including Jaws and Psycho, as well as the hit TV series Desperate Housewives.

Six Flags Magic Mountain

Amusement Park
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Valencia, California, USA, 2020. Aerial view of Six Flags Magic Mountain Valencia theme park reopens to the public and being closed due to COVID-19
© Robert Schwemmer / Alamy Stock Photo
In the outer northern suburbs of Los Angeles, amusement park Six Flags Magic Mountain delivers over 260 acres (105ha) of uncut adrenaline. Comic-book fans love the superhero theme and rides featuring their favorite characters, including Batman, Green Lantern and Superman. Push your limits on the rollercoasters – 19 of them, including the world’s fastest stand-up (Riddler’s Revenge) and longest hybrid (Twisted Colossus). The DC Superheroes Drop of Doom VR is strictly for the fearless: strap on VR headsets for a 360-degree view of Superman and Wonder Woman fighting Lex Luthor before plunging down the West Coast’s highest drop tower.

Disney California Adventure Park

Amusement Park
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Close to the entrance of Disneyland is its younger-sibling park California Adventure. Eight different lands spotlight all-time favorite Disney and Pixar characters, from Cars and Toy Story to The Little Mermaid, The Incredibles and A Bug’s Life. Feeling bold? Join the Guardians of the Galaxy crew on the accelerated drop-tower experience Mission: Breakout!, which in 2017 replaced the old Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride. While Disneyland has the fireworks show, each night at California Adventure the lake comes to life for The World of Color, a spectacle of water and light.

California's Great America

Amusement Park
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In Santa Clara, an hour south of San Francisco, this Bay Area amusement park is a hit among devotees, particularly on hot summer days – you can hop over to cool off at South Bay Shores water park before returning to work your way through the attractions. There are more than 50, from old-school carousels to high-speed rollercoasters. A thrillseeker’s favorite is the Gold Striker: “Where the Gold Rush meets an adrenaline rush.” Opened in 2013, rising to just over 108ft (33m) and hitting speeds of nearly 54mph (87kph), it’s the tallest, fastest wooden coaster in Northern California.

LEGOLAND

Amusement Park
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Los Angeles, California, USA. 6th Aug, 2015. The Legoland Hotel at Legoland in Carlsbad, California. The three-story, 250-room hotel is located at the entrance of Legoland California theme park. © Ringo Chiu/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News
© ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
Why have a weekend in Carlsbad, north of San Diego? If you’re a fan of the world’s most famous interlocking toy bricks, it’ll soon click into place: the city is home to LEGOLAND California Resort, which comprises an aquarium and water park as well as the brand’s signature theme park. As you’d expect, rides are aimed mostly at younger children, but there’s plenty to entertain adults: among the impressive constructions is a mini-me Las Vegas Strip and six scenes from the Star Wars franchise, the building of which involved more than 1.5m bricks. Whatever age you are, don’t miss the tour of the LEGO factory to discover how the whole phenomenon began, and how the bricks are made.

Aquatica San Diego

Amusement Park
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Give your flippers full immersion at Aquatica San Diego. Ride the Walhalla Wave on a raft big enough for the whole family, and then sail down the Woohoo Falls alone through the dark tunnel waterslide. The little guppies will love splashing in the Slippity Dippity waterfall area while you lay back and cruise the 1,250ft (380m) Loggerhead Lane lazy river.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Natural Feature, Architectural Landmark
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Activity along the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California. Image shot 08/2011. Exact date unknown.
© Charles de Candolle / Alamy Stock Photo
Sure, the most new-fangled theme parks today are amazing – but there’s no substitute for the old-school fun to be had at places such as Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Historic landmark rides to give you butterflies include the Giant Dipper and Looff Carousel; surrounding them are two dozen carnival games sure to bring back nostalgic memories. Other attractions include a laser maze, fright walk, arcade, miniature golf and a bowling alley, but if you’re like us, you’ll spend all day trying to win yourself a giant stuffed animal at the ring toss booth.

Adventure City

Amusement Park
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In the shadow of Anaheim’s major theme parks sits Adventure City, an amusement park delivering twice the fun at half the price – and with a fraction of the crowds. Despite an ambience that’s perfectly suited to little ones, family-friendly Adventure City doesn’t stint on the magic or the thrills and spills. A 45ft (14m) tower drop gives kids a bird’s-eye view of the park – they can plan the day’s agenda based on what they see, from the petting farm and mini Ferris wheel to the carousel, train and rock wall.

Nick Dauk contributed additional reporting to this article.

These recommendations were updated on April 9, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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