If you’re visiting California to experience some of the country’s most incredible theme parks, you’re spoiled for choice. All along the coast, you’ll find parks of all stripes that you, your friends, or your family can enjoy together. Relaxed outdoor adventures, kiddie rides galore, or exhilarating thrill rides — California delivers it all.
With so many different attractions, narrowing down the best theme parks in California to visit isn’t an easy task. Though “theme park” and “amusement park” are often used interchangeably, there is a difference worth noting: Theme parks are, well, themed, while amusement parks are more generalized parks with a variety of attractions, rides, and food.
Here, I’ve split fun theme parks and amusement parks in California by region starting with my home base, San Diego.
Tip: If visiting multiple California theme parks, consider the California Explorer Pass which allows you to visit 3, 4, or 5 major parks over the course of 30 days.
Best Theme Parks in San Diego
Head just south of Anaheim and you’ll discover the wonderful world of amusement parks in San Diego. Between the animal exhibits and the roller coasters, you and your family will get your theme park fill in no time.
SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego is special in that it features both animals and amusement park attractions. Here you can touch a real stingray one minute and fly by on a roller coaster the next. This park provides educational opportunities for children to view sea life up close and learn about different species, as well as tons of rides, play areas, and live performances. After visiting amazing marine exhibits like the Shark Encounter, climb aboard the Journey to Atlantis and flume ride and prepare for some water action. I have quite a bit of advice for saving money on tickets and dining.
LEGOLAND California Resort
Though technically located in Carlsbad, LEGOLAND is just 35 miles north of San Diego. Many families who visit San Diego make a special trip to this park. Dedicated entirely to the famous building blocks, the parks invites your family to admire the intricate mini LEGO worlds designed to look exactly like famous cities. This park is ideal for little ones as most rides and attractions are geared toward younger kids but overall it’s best for ages 2–12. When it comes time to purchase tickets, get a deal with my tips to find discounted rates to the park. Planning to stay awhile? Don’t miss out on a chance to stay at the LEGOLAND hotel.
Belmont Park is a historic amusement park located along the boardwalk in Mission Beach. After spending the day at the beach, venture here for a ride on the famous Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster. Brave the spinning Beach Blaster and soar along on the zipline. Between the laser tag, mini-golf, and arcade games, it’s easy to lose track of time at this iconic oceanfront park. But before you leave, be sure to order a round of Dole Whip frozen desserts — you won’t be disappointed. Also, check out my picks for the top things to do at Belmont Park
Best Theme Parks in Orange County
The Anaheim area of Southern California is a mecca for theme parks. Whether you’re looking to meet your favorite Disney characters or get a behind-the-scenes look of popular film sets, you’ll find it all these incredible parks.
When it comes to fun amusement parks in California, you know Disneyland is at the very top of the list. Whether your kid is experiencing it all for the first time or you’re visiting for the nostalgia of your own childhood, this park is where the magic happens.
The first of the two parks at the resort, Disneyland is celebrated the world over for its nine themed lands, where you can meet Disney royalty and venture on classic rides inspired by your favorite films. Explore everything there is to do in this comprehensive guide for the whole family.
Disney California Adventure
Disney California Adventure opened in 2001. This newer park features eight themed lands of its own, many of which are designed after real California locations, such as Grizzly Peak and Pacific Wharf. Just like Disneyland, you and your family will have the opportunity to meet your favorite characters, hop on the rides, and catch some spectacular live shows.
While you’re here, take a spin on Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land and be sure to catch Frozen: Live at the Hyperion. Single park and Park Hopper tickets are an investment but thankfully you can save on Disneyland tickets that are two days in length or longer.
Knott’s Berry Farm
Knott’s Berry Farm is actually located in neighboring Buena Park, but it’s just seven miles northeast of Disneyland. This theme park has several areas, such as Camp Snoopy, where you’ll find the kiddie-focused rides and attractions, and the Boardwalk, which features games and sports.
Knott’s Berry Farm rides offer a nice mix for every age, from the heart-racing Montezooma’s Revenge roller coaster to the Wheeler Dealer Bumper Cars. While you’re here, don’t forget about Knott’s Soak City Waterpark just next door.
Best Amusement Parks in Los Angeles
As for the best amusement parks in California, some may have themed areas, but for the most part these parks focus on the fun factor. From arcade games to roller coasters, these parks know how to do it up right.
Universal Studios Hollywood
Perhaps one of the most unique theme parks on this list, Universal Studios Hollywood invites you to tour one of the world’s most famous film studios. Broken into two areas, the Upper Lot and Lower Lot, this park currently includes multiple rides and seven shows based on your favorite movies.
After taking the iconic Studio Tour, go for an adventure on the new Jurassic World – The Ride, and don’t miss the opportunity to explore The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can try to tour Universal Studios and Warner Bros. Studios in one day.
Six Flags Magic Mountain
Six Flags Magic Mountain is one of the best theme parks in Los Angeles. If you’re in the mood for some roller-coaster action, then this park is where you belong. Home to 19 roller coasters, it features more coasters than any other amusement park in the world.
You’ll come across mild, junior coasters and extreme roller coaster with maximum intensity ratings. Wooden coasters? Inverted coasters? Yes, this park has it all. Check out all eleven themed areas of the park, from the Screampunk District to Samurai Summit.
Fondly referred to as the Coney Island of the West Coast, Pacific Park brings all kinds of fun to the Santa Monica Pier. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, this amusement park boasts 12 rides, games, and plenty of fair food.
Take a spin on the world’s only solar-powered Ferris wheel and soak in the scenic coastal views, or get your adrenaline pumping on the West Coaster, the oceanfront steel roller coaster. Between the spinny rides and iconic arcade games, this beachfront amusement park offers fun long after the sun goes down.
Best Theme Parks in Central/Northern California
Continue north to visit these outstanding fun theme parks in Northern California and one in Santa Cruz along the central coast.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Amusement Park
Sunshine, ocean views, rides, and games — what more could you ask for? The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has it all. If you’re venturing here with teens, hold on tight and ride the dizzy-inducing Fireball or the Giant Dipper wooden coaster. But if younger kids are joining, there’s plenty for them to do, as well.
They’ll love the playful Bugly the Whale ride and the Bouncin’ Buggies. In between rides, don’t forget to check out the boardwalk games (the Dime Toss and the Balloon Bust are favorites). Your family just may come home with some prizes in tow.
Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
Six Flags Discovery Kingdom is another one of Northern California’s claims to fame around theme parks. This amazing park sports a fun animal theme — many rides are creatively named after animals, and you can spend time with animals at themed exhibits. If you’re in search of a thrill, get your kicks on rides such as Tazmanian Devil and the Hammerhead Shark. Have little ones in tow? Hop on the Monkey Business teacups or the Thrilla Gorilla caterpillar ride. Don’t miss the animal attractions, from Stingray Bay to Alligator Isle.
If you have little ones in your crew, treat them to a day at Funderland Park in Sacramento. Geared toward the younger crowd, this kiddie park features easy-going rides, like the spinning Crazy Cups and the Squirrely Whirl Swings. Climb aboard the Funderland Train and let your kiddos sit in the driver’s seat on the Backyard Buggies. Admission to the park is free, but you need to purchase tickets for each ride.
California’s Great America
Southern California may have more parks than Northern California, but the Bay Area stands out as a destination for amusement parks with California’s Great America. Located in Santa Clara, this amusement park will keep everyone in your group busy.
If you’re in the mood for a thrill, step right up to RailBlazer, a brand-new, single-track steel roller coaster, or go for The Grizzly, a classic wooden coaster. Prefer something a little calmer? Make a splash on the Whitewater Falls flume ride or take to the sky on the Celebration Swings. There is even a water park and little kids will love Planet Snoopy.
Get ready for a magical experience at Children’s Fairyland, where storybooks come alive. This enchanting attraction in Oakland is perfect for sparking your little ones’ imaginations as they explore sets from their favorite fairy tales.
Best for children eight years and younger, the park features areas like The Alice and Wonderland Tunnel, the Jack and Jill Hill, and Peter Rabbit’s Garden. You’ll find rides, gardens, and live-animal exhibits, too.
Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park
At the wonderful world of Gilroy Gardens, everything is plant-themed. The theme park in Gilroy has six themed garden areas, including Claudia’s Garden and the Monarch Garden, in addition to more than 40 rides. Many of the rides are inspired by the region’s agricultural ties, such as the Mushroom Swing and the Garlic Twirl. Spend an afternoon appreciating Mother Nature, and don’t miss the uniquely-shaped Circus Trees — you’ll definitely want some pictures.
These are 15 of the best theme parks in California, but I’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to the many parks to explore in our great state.
Tip: Halloween at California theme parks is a great time to plan a visit because they all become spookier and more festive.