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Travel Guide to California

theme parks

The Fun Starts Here

Smiles abound for the young and young-at-heart
at California’s theme parks

By Matt Villano

AMUSEMENT PARKS

Europeans started the concept of amusement parks centuries ago with fairs and pleasure gardens created for people’s recreation. The world’s oldest amusement park is Bakken, just north of Copenhagen, Denmark, which opened in 1583. The oldest theme park in the United States is Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari (called Santa Claus Land from its opening in 1946 until 1984) in Santa Claus, Indiana. California’s theme parks date from 1950.

Diversions are as plentiful as sunshine in California. One of the most popular outlets: original theme parks. These attractions are meccas to amusement, each focusing rides and exhibits around different concepts such as fairies, film, plastic blocks, sea life and an inimitable mouse. Most of the parks are situated in the southern part of the state (where the weather is generally warmer), but the granddaddy of them all is up north.

Universal Studios Hollywood

This film-themed park got its formal start in the 1960s when walk-throughs of Universal Studios soundstages and sets were expanded to include peeks at actual production. Over the years, the studio added a tram to shuttle visitors through the back lot; this tram remains the best way to experience stunt demonstrations and staged events (such as an encounter with the shark from Jaws).

Among the amusement thrills, find SuperNintendo World, which opened recently, located in a newly expanded area of the park. It features the Mario Kart: Browser’s Challenge ride, Browser’s Castle and the Toadstool Cafe.  Power-Up Bands, wearable wristbands, sync with Universal Studios Hollywood’s free downloadable app to enhance the many interactive elements within the land. 

The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash is a dark ride. Take on the role of a stray puppy in search of a forever home as you’re whisked around New York City meeting animated figures from the Secret Life of Pets movies along the way. Continued favorites are Jurassic World — The Ride and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, complete with a replica of Hogwarts castle and a recreation of the shops of Hogsmeade. This section is home to two rides: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and Flight of the Hippogriff.

The park is divided into two areas connected by escalators: the Upper and Lower lots. Transformers: The Ride 3-D is on the Lower Lot. Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, a 3-D simulator ride, and Super Silly Fun Land, an outdoor family-friendly playground, are on the upper lot.

Children’s Fairyland

Believe it or not, the first theme park in the U.S. to cater to families with young children was Children’s Fairyland, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theme park on the shores of Lake Merritt in Oakland. The place opened in 1950 (original admission started between 9 and 14 cents), making it the first official theme park in California, as well. According to some, it was one of Walt Disney’s inspir-ations for the eponymous park he created five years later.

Today, Fairyland includes small rides such as a mini Ferris wheel and carousels, and life-sized sets depicting scenes from timeless storybooks (The Old Lady in the Shoe and The Alice in Wonderland Tunnel are two favorites). The theme park also is home to the Storybook Puppet Theater, which opened in 1956. A number of the country’s most famous puppeteers got their start here, including a teenager by the name of Frank Oznowicz. You likely know him as Frank Oz.

Disneyland

California’s most famous theme park opened in 1955 with one hotel. Since the 1990s it has grown exponentially, adding a new theme park—Disney California Adventure, a shopping district—Downtown Disney, as well as additional hotels. 

There’s even a reimagining of Mickey’s Toontown, including CenTOONial Park and a dreaming tree. Guests can also board Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway with Goofy as the engineer on a madcap, out-of-control cartoon adventure.

The newest themed area or “land” is Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Be part of a six-person crew on “Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run” where you walk through a full-sized replica of the Millennium Falcon and then climb into the cockpit where Hondo Ohnaka leads a secret mission to steal coaxium for the Resistance. Each person has a role assignment—a pilot, gunner or engineer. “Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance” is a massive, multi-platform attraction, unlike anything else at Disneyland. Captured guests are in an epic battle between the First Order and the Resistance, boarding an Imperial Star Destroyer with animatronic storm-troopers and Kylo Ren. A team of Resistance fighters with Rey and BB-8 are there to help you escape. 

Also added to the mix is a Marvel-themed land, Avengers Campus, which recently opened at Disney California Adventure with an interactive 3-D ride, including other attractions like Spider-Man—WEB Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure.

Knott’s Berry Farm

Knott’s Berry Farm began in the 1920s as a family-run roadside berry stand. With a growing number of visitors, other shops and attractions were added; and, over the years, it transformed into a 160-acre amusement park. Now owned by Cedar Fair, this destination includes thrilling rides, shows, restaurants and attractions in four themed areas: Ghost Town, Fiesta Village, The Boardwalk and Camp Snoopy.

Other Bay Area Parks

The San Francisco Bay Area is home to two popular parks: California’s Great America (in Santa Clara) and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom (in Vallejo).

California’s Great America is a top destination for thrill-seekers and families alike and the only amusement park in Northern California that includes a water park with park admission. Visitors can expect a fully restored Carousel Columbia and Celebration Swings as well as a new open air look for American Café, complete with mobile ordering. The park is also known for its rides, which range from scream-inducing like Flight Deck, a roller coaster with one 360-degree loop and a zero-gravity roll to other family-friendly rides.

The vibe at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom is more eclectic. In addition to rides such as the thrilling Medusa roller coaster, BATMAN: The Ride is a world-class 4D Free Fly Coaster that thrusts you into a totally immersive, high-speed Gotham City adventure. Riders flip head-over-heels at least six times along a weightless, tumbling journey with unexpected drops and vertical free-falls. The park also is home to a number of animals, such as giraffes, lions, penguins and Siberian and Bengal tigers.

San Diego Area Parks

San Diego and its surrounding suburbs also comprise a great region for theme parks.

Out near Mission Bay, in San Diego proper, SeaWorld is a sprawling homage to dozens of different species of marine life, including dolphins, sea lions, walruses and beluga whales. Throughout the animal-themed exhibits at SeaWorld San Diego, you’ll learn about the park’s ongoing work in the rescue and rehabilitation of sick, injured and orphaned wildlife—over 40,000 animals spanning a duration of more than 50 years.

A recent addition is Emperor, the tallest, fastest and longest dive coaster in California.  With speeds up to 60 miles per hour through exhilarating loops and a 90 degree plunge, this Emperor penguin-inspired ride is exciting and thrilling.

The 17-acre Sesame Place San Diego theme park which has opened in Chula Vista features shows and 18 Sesame Street-themed rides and exciting water attractions, including the Elmo rocket ship ride and a family-friendly roller coaster. It is a Certified Autisum Center (CAC) and part of the SeaWorld Entertainment family of parks.

In the nearby community of Carlsbad, Legoland is dedicated to tiny plastic bricks (“Legos”). The park incorporates more than 60 rides, shows and attractions, for families with children aged 2 to 12.

Lego Movie World is a theme area which opened in 2021, joining the nine other existing lands of the park and is based on the Lego Movie shows. Queen Waterva’s Carousel and Emmet’s Flying Adventure Ride are two of the newest attractions.  

The new LEGO Ferrari Build and Race features a life-sized LEGO Ferrari F40 for photo ops. Then build your own LEGO Ferrari car. Completed cars are digitally projected on a racetrack featuring obstacles, challenges and a competition for the fastest race time.

Find Your Fantasy

Universal Studios Hollywood universalstudioshollywood.com

Children’s Fairyland fairyland.org

Disneyland disneyland.disney.go.com

California’s Great America cagreatamerica.com

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom sixflags.com/discoverykingdom

Legoland California legoland.com/california

SeaWorld seaworld.com/san-diego

Knott’s Berry Farm knotts.com

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