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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.