Best theme parks in California

From young children stepping through the gates for the first time donning a “First Visit” button to roller coaster enthusiasts looking to add a few more rides to their coaster count, California’s theme parks have something for everyone. Many are clustered in sunny Southern California, but you’ll also find some gems as you head north.

This list is hardly exhaustive, but it should give you an idea of the variety California’s theme parks have to offer. During your next visit to the Golden State, add one or two of these theme parks to your list for an exciting day of rides, characters and a whole lot of laughs.



Location: Anaheim

Cost: Tickets start at $104 plus tax for a one-day ticket for adults and $98 for children ages 3 to 9. Children ages 2 and under are free.

Highlights: Whether you are charmed by classic Disney attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, or you prefer the magic of a galaxy far, far away, all of your favorite characters and stories are on display at Disneyland. Disneyland spans about 500 acres, including two theme parks — Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure — and three on-site hotels.

Younger kids will enjoy the outdoor play spaces, Mickey and Minnie meet-and-greets and kid-friendly rides in the recently refurbished Mickey’s Toontown. Older kids can team up with their favorite Marvel superheroes at Avengers Campus or join the Resistance at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

If you time your trip right, you can visit during one of Disneyland’s annual festivals or special events, like the after-hours Oogie Boogie Bash at Halloween or the park’s festive holiday celebrations.

Knott’s Berry Farm


Location: Buena Park

Cost: A one-day ticket starts at $60 plus tax. Children 2 and younger can enter the park for free.

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Highlights: Knott’s Berry Farm has a unique history that is still represented in the park today. Knott’s began as a berry farm (hence the name) in the early 1900s, eventually adding attractions like a train ride and a ghost town to keep customers coming through the gates. You can still ride the Calico Railroad and visit the park’s Calico Ghost Town today, but Knott’s now has four themed lands with a mix of family-friendly rides and thrilling coasters. Foodies will want to visit during the park’s annual Boysenberry Festival, when you can get pretty much any food or drink you can think of with a boysenberry twist.

Legoland California


Location: Carlsbad

Cost: A one-day ticket starts at $89. Children ages 2 and younger get in free.

Highlights: Lego may advertise its kits as being designed for kids ages 4 through 99, but Legoland California theme park was built just for kids. The park’s rides, activities and play areas were made specifically for kids ages 2 through 12, including a few not-so-scary roller coasters and interactive rides like a submarine treasure hunt, a driving school and an Egyptian treasure hunt. Legoland is also home to the Sea Life Aquarium and the Legoland Water Park, though you’ll likely need multiple days to do all three. Legoland’s two on-site hotels also have immersive Lego theming and fun surprises like an in-room scavenger hunt and nightly entertainment.

Universal Studios Hollywood


Location: Hollywood

Cost: A one-day ticket starts at $109. Children 2 years or younger can enter for free.

Highlights: Imagine flying over Hogwarts with Harry, Ron and Hermione. Or being caught in a fierce standoff between a Tyrannosaurus rex and an Indominus rex. Or joining Mario and Luigi to face off against Bowser in a Mario Kart race. You can do it all — and much more — at Universal Studios Hollywood. Not only can you join your favorite movie and video game characters on their adventures, but you can also see how movies are made on the behind-the-scenes Studio Tour, the park’s longest-running attraction. The Studio Tour takes guests through 13 city blocks of sets and special effects from blockbuster films like “Jaws,” “Jurassic World,” “Psycho” and more. If you visit during the Halloween season, you can experience a darker side of Universal during Halloween Horror Nights. The separately ticketed after-hours event includes terrifying haunted houses and a spooky version of the world-famous Studio Tour.

Related: The best hotels near Universal Studios Hollywood

Sesame Place San Diego


Location: San Diego

Cost: A one-day ticket starts at $63. Children under 3 can enter for free.

Highlights: If your preschooler can’t stop watching “Sesame Street,” they can visit the real thing at Sesame Place San Diego. You won’t find any wild coasters or towering drop rides here, just colorful characters, family-friendly rides and a life-sized, interactive version of the famous 123 Sesame Street (you can knock on Oscar the Grouch’s trash can or ring Bert and Ernie’s doorbell for a surprise). Be sure to pack your swimsuits because there are water attractions like slides, a wave pool, a splash playground and a lazy river located around the park. If your kids can’t get enough of their favorite fuzzy characters, you can also start your day at breakfast with Elmo and his friends.

Children’s Fairyland


Location: Oakland

Cost: A one-day ticket starts at $16. Guests under the age of 1 are free.

Highlights: Children’s Fairyland is one of the country’s oldest themed attractions, predating Disneyland by five years. Children’s Fairyland may have even provided a bit of inspiration for Disneyland. The storybook-themed park has life-sized sets from favorite childhood tales like “Alice in Wonderland, “Peter Pan” and more. There are also pint-sized attractions like a Ferris wheel and a merry-go-round. When you visit Children’s Fairyland, you can pay $3 for a “Magic Key” that unlocks musical surprises at the storybook sets throughout the park.

SeaWorld San Diego


Location: San Diego

Cost: A one-day ticket starts at $68. Children ages 2 and under are free.

Highlights: SeaWorld San Diego is more than a theme park. Yes, it has the tallest, fastest and longest dive coaster in California and the fastest and longest straddle coaster on the West Coast. However, it also serves as a research, rescue and education facility for dozens of species of fish, marine mammals, birds, amphibians and more. You can see many of these animals throughout the park, but you can really get up close and personal by reserving a tour. SeaWorld offers a variety of tours, including a Rescue Tour, that allow you to learn what it takes to care for these creatures and what you can do to help ensure their safety in the wild. SeaWorld San Diego’s new Ultimate VIP Tour lets you enjoy the park’s rides with skip-the-line access and customizable animal encounters based on who you want to see most.

Gilroy Gardens


Location: Gilroy

Cost: A one-day ticket is $50. Kids under 3 are free.

Highlights: When Gilroy Gardens claims to be the park where “fun grows on trees,” they aren’t just being clever. This park is known for its “circus trees.” The branches and trunks of these real trees were purposely shaped and bent as they grew to create whimsical natural wonders. You can still see them throughout the park, and there’s even a replica circus tree play structure in the water park. The park also has more than 40 family-friendly rides and attractions — some, like the Artichoke Dip and the Garlic Twirl, incorporate the park’s horticultural theme.

Bottom line

Whether you seek thrills or rides the whole family can enjoy, you won’t have any problem finding a theme park in California that feels like it was made just for you. Also, with so many theme parks to choose from, you probably won’t have to travel far to find what you are looking for.

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