California is filled with amusement everywhere you turn: the bustling streets of Hollywood, the sandy beaches of Santa Monica, and all the whale-watching opportunities in Northern California. There’s something for every type of traveler, regardless of what your interests are.
As for the kids – the opportunities are endless. I’m a San Diego, California, local writer with plenty of experience exploring amusement parks throughout my 20-something years living in the Golden State. As your go-to local guide here at Miss Tourist, it’s my job to recommend only the best of the best. So, here are the best theme parks in California!
Throughout this post, I’ll be sharing tips and tricks along the way to make your experience that much more enjoyable. Plus, how to get the best deals, where to eat, and more.
Let’s get started and find the best amusement parks in California!! 🎢
- If you are in a hurry
- 1. Try the magical Disneyland & California Adventure
- 2. Uncover California history at Knott’s Berry Farm
- 3. Visit the thrill capital: Six Flags Magic Mountain
- 4. Take a stroll through Universal Studios Hollywood
- 5. Bring the kids to LEGOLAND California
- 6. Admire marine life up close at SeaWorld San Diego
- 7. Take a trip to the world-famous San Diego Zoo
- 8. Take a ride on the world’s only solar-powered Ferris wheel
- 9. Ride on the iconic California wooden roller coasters
- 10. Visit the oldest theme park in California
- 11. Animal attractions and rides at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
- 12. Uncover the unknown California’s Great America
- FAQs about the best theme parks in California
If you are in a hurry
Most of these amusement and theme parks are going to require you to buy tickets! I recommend booking them in advance to avoid waiting in line at the door (and in most cases, you end up saving $$ by booking beforehand).
Here are the main things to book in advance:
And here’s a map of all the best theme parks in California!
1. Try the magical Disneyland & California Adventure
Where dreams are made of! Disneyland and California Adventure are 2 of my favorite theme parks in California!
Disneyland is a magical place for kids where a lifetime of memories are made. I’ve been to Disneyland and California Adventure plenty of times throughout my life, and I can confidently say that each time only got better.
If you’re visiting Southern California with your family or kids, these parks are a great place to start your amusement park adventures.
The 2 parks are located directly across from each other, so you’ll need to get a Park Hopper ticket to visit both parks.
In my own personal experience, I enjoyed the California Adventure Park much more as an adult and the original Disneyland Park as a child. Take your time to look at some of the best attractions: Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land (California Adventure), Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Frontierland (Disneyland), and Indiana Jones Adventure in Adventureland (Disneyland).
TIP: Be sure to use a crowd calendar to check when it will be busiest (I like this one!) and buy Lightening Lane passes to avoid waiting in long lines. Oh, and download the Disney App for even more perks at the park.
PRICE: from US$104 per person; Park Hopper tickets are + US$65/ticket
2. Uncover California history at Knott’s Berry Farm
The next California amusement park on this list is Knott’s Berry Farm – a fun park in Buena Park known for its history, a plethora of theme parks, rides, games, and thousands of visitors per year!
Knott’s Berry Farm started in the 1920s as a small roadside berry stand and grew into what it is today. The park allows families and kids to uncover every part of California’s roots with its unique theme parks: Old West Ghost Town, Fiesta Village, The Boardwalk, and Camp Snoopy.
In the summer, I really love the Calico River Rapids, where there’s a 50/50 chance of getting completely soaked. It’s more of a fun adventure than a lazy river experience. The Timber Mountain Log Ride is a little more thrilling if you’re up for the challenge.
Check out Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant for lunch! The restaurant has old roots dating back to the early 1930s, run by Mrs. Knott herself and her children. The fried chicken recipe is still the original recipe that is used today! You’ll need to reserve your spot in advance because it’s highly popular and gets pretty busy. They’re open from 11 AM to 9 PM daily, so it’s great for both lunch and dinner.
PRICE: US$83 per person
3. Visit the thrill capital: Six Flags Magic Mountain
This is the most recent amusement park I’ve visited in California with my little cousin, and I can proudly say I enjoyed every single ride as an adult, and he enjoyed every second as a young teen. Six Flags Magic Mountain is truly for everyone!
Six Flags Magic Mountain is one of the best California theme parks to enjoy thrilling roller coasters! It’s known as the “Thrill Capital of the World,” with its 20 world-class roller coasters, more than any theme park in the entire world.
My most recent experience here was during the summer, so it was incredibly hot. The park is located about 1 hour east of the coast, so you don’t get too much of the cool ocean breeze during the day.
If you’re coming during the weekend, I recommend investing in skip-the-line tickets to make the most out of your day here. The lines for each ride can waste so much time (I’ve waited in line for over an hour before). It usually isn’t as busy during the weekdays, so it’s not as necessary then.
Whenever you go, plan ahead! Buy your tickets in advance to save $$, and download the Six Flags app and stay updated on all the latest information. Plus, be sure to take advantage of the mobile food ordering feature to avoid waiting in long lines.
Here are 2 of the most thrilling (and my favorite) rides at Six Flags Magic Mountain:
- X^2 – This is the most intense and popular ride in Six Flags… 360-degree rotating chairs, 200 feet (61 meters) up in the air at 76 mph (122 kph) – what more do I need to say?
- Full Throttle – This has to be the most thrilling ride at Six Flags because there’s absolutely no mercy the second it starts. In fact, the attendants there don’t even warn you that it’s going to start, so you’re quite literally being thrown *full throttle* into the ride.
PRO TIP: Don’t bring a big backpack! You’ll need to leave your bags behind each time you go on a ride. So, only bring a small fanny pack and avoid carrying important belongings. I’ve never had a bad experience or things stolen here before but better safe than sorry!
PRICE: from US$60 per person
4. Take a stroll through Universal Studios Hollywood
Universal Studios Hollywood is another popular theme park in California, bringing popular characters to life! There are a plethora of theme parks and characters here that every kid is going to love absolutely.
From Super Nintendo World to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter for the older kids and visiting SpongeBob, Hello Kitty, and Barney for the younger kids, Universal Studios Hollywood is hands down one of the best California theme parks.
Here’s some more info on my favorite parks:
- Jurassic World – There’s an elaborate jungle made to look exactly like the jungle in Jurassic World! Kids can come face-to-face with dinosaurs here!
- The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – This Harry Potter theme park is everything you could ever imagine and more. There’s plenty of room and things to see here for all the Hufflepuff and Gryffindor kids (and parents). For adults, I recommend stopping by to try the Butterbeer!
- Super Nintendo World – This is the newest theme park in Universal Studios Hollywood, with fun, kid-friendly attractions! Nintendo is a classic, bringing back memories and the feeling of nostalgia for parents and new experiences for the children. A double win for the entire family!
Don’t miss out on the world-famous Studio Tour – it’s my absolute favorite tour in Universal Studios and is included with your admission! You get an inside look at how Hollywood movies are made through a tour of a real-life Hollywood studio.
PRICE: from US$127/person for adults, US$122/person for ages 3 – 17
5. Bring the kids to LEGOLAND California
LEGOLAND California in Carlsbad, is the best theme park in California for young kids! There are plenty of gentle rides that are tested and claimed to be kid-friendly and safe, built for children ages 2 to 12 years old. The kiddie park has over 60 rides, attractions, shows, and other activities to enjoy, so come early in the morning and prep for a long day of fun with the kids!
Here is a list of all the rides and attractions that you can take advantage of. There are a couple of ways to make the most out of your LEGOLAND California experience:
- Book your tickets online ahead of time! The gate price is always a little higher. Plus, you’ll have to wait in line at the gate, which is another hassle that you don’t want to go through in the mornings with the kids.
- Download the Mobile App for ride wait times, show times, dining options, the latest deals, updates, and more. The app keeps you in the loop, and it’s seriously a lifesaver.
- There’s one more perk to starting early: every morning, a child is randomly selected to help their costume character open the gates to the park! If you’re chosen, you get to roam around the park for an hour before the majority of rides actually open. (How fun is that?!)
PRO TIP: If you want to stay at a hotel nearby, consider staying at the Grand Pacific Palisades Resort! This family-friendly hotel is right across the street from LEGOLAND, California, where kids can splash around the interactive pool after a long day at the park.
PRICE: from US$90 per person
6. Admire marine life up close at SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego is another major amusement park in Southern California worth visiting. The marine park offers up-close and personal encounters with marine life, shows, exhibits, and more that is going to blow away the kids. I spent many summers here as a kid with my family’s annual passes.
The best ways to maximize your time are similar to most theme parks in California: buy your tickets in advance, download the Mobile App for savings and park updates, start your day early, and be aware of which days you choose to go on! Weekends are always busier, and weekdays are less crowded.
My favorite ride at SeaWorld San Diego as a kid was the Journey to Atlantis ride… I came to SeaWorld almost every day for the summer, and my favorite part of the amusement park was this ride. It was always the highlight of my day!
Of course, there are plenty of shows at SeaWorld that you absolutely can’t miss:
- Dolphin Adventures – This is where friendly bottlenose dolphins put on a show and splash around with the SeaWorld team! This is so much fun for kids and families to watch. (Be cautious of the splash zone in the front!)
- Sea Lion & Otter Spotlight – Learn more about sea lions and otters’ skills and behaviors through this interactive show. Their expert conservationists have plenty of surprises in store for viewers like you to enjoy!
PRICE: from US$70 per person
7. Take a trip to the world-famous San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo is one of the most popular theme parks in San Diego. There are over 14,000 endangered and rare animals, 700 species to uncover, and plenty of animal exhibits covering 100 acres (40 hectares) for you and the kids to walk through.
It’s a HUGE park, and it takes quite a long time to get through everything, so definitely take the Kangaroo Express Bus while you’re here. The bus takes you to the most popular exhibits in the park, giving you a feel of what to expect with the layout.
The last time I was here, I didn’t take the bus tour and ended up walking over 20,000 steps (in sandals). I could almost pass out by the end of the day – don’t do what I did, and enjoy yourself instead! (And with that said, I also recommend wearing comfortable walking shoes).
The Elephant Odyssey is my favorite exhibit to walk through! It’s located right next to the Lion exhibit, which is my second favorite animal to see. Walk through this area first because you don’t want to miss it.
The zoo will start taking away some animals as it approaches closing time (9 PM), so the later you wait, the less likely you will be able to see a few of your favorite animals. The last time I was at the San Diego Zoo, I visited this exhibit last, and the Lion wasn’t there. It was a big bummer!
If you want a more intimate experience, check out the Safari Park adventure! You really get a chance to be up close and personal with wildlife. It’s a rare, once-in-a-lifetime experience I recommend checking out if you’re looking for more adventure!
PRO TIP: San Diego Zoo is located right next to Balboa Park, so it’s the perfect day to explore another one of San Diego’s most popular parks! The zoo actually has free parking available, so walk over to Balboa Park after (or before) embarking on your adventure at the zoo.
PRICE: From US$70 per person
8. Take a ride on the world’s only solar-powered Ferris wheel
Welcome to Santa Monica! Pacific Park at Santa Monica Pier is an oceanfront family theme park filled with dozens of carnival rides, arcade games, and plenty of street performers and entertainment for the entire family to enjoy. Millions of visitors come to Pacific Park every year to get a taste of Pacific Park. Being the only theme park on the West Coast to be sitting on the actual pier itself, it’s worth a visit!
There are a couple of rides that are worth checking out:
- Pacific Wheel – Take a ride on the world’s only solar-powered Ferris wheel! The wheel offers panoramic views sitting at 130 feet (40 km) above Santa Monica Pier. It comes to life at night with over 174,000 energy-powered LED lights!
- West Coaster – This steel roller coaster escalates up to about 55 feet (17 meters) and rides from one end of Santa Monica Pier to the other at about 35 mph (56 kph).
All the rides and games are great for kids of all ages. Parents are also sure to enjoy the fun (especially knowing they can relax on Santa Monica State Beach after). It’s located directly in front of the Pacific Ocean and on a port heading to Santa Catalina Island, so there are quite a few options for what to do after you enjoy the theme park.
PRO TIP: In December, this park offers free holiday events like musical performances, ice skating by the beach, and their annual Polar Bear Plunge. If you plan on coming in the winter, be sure to plan ahead!
PRICE: from US$6/person per ride; from US$40 for unlimited ride wristbands
9. Ride on the iconic California wooden roller coasters
San Diego’s iconic beachfront boardwalk is located on Mission Beach, a 15-minute drive away from downtown San Diego. Belmont Park is one of my personal favorites due to it being a consistent go-to for me.
Belmont Park opened about a century ago (1925) and has been a staple location for visitors and locals to enjoy endless entertainment, carnival games, must-try legendary fair foods, shopping, and a laid-back beach right outside the park.
There are 13 rides ranging from least thrilling to most thrilling – great for kids of all ages! Here are some of my favorites:
- The Big Dipper is the biggest, oldest, and most noticeable ride in Belmont Park. The wooden roller coaster was built in 1925 and stands as a San Diego icon in front of the park.
- The Beach Blaster is a thrill ride that swings and swirls you high in the sky, turning upside down and suspended in your seat. You get pretty dizzy on this one, so I don’t recommend going on a full stomach!
- Liberty Carousel honors San Diego’s past through a series of 12 paintings here that represent its history. Take the little ones on this ride! You really can’t go wrong with a traditional carousel!
Buy a Ride & Play Park Pass that you can utilize for the entire day! You get unlimited rides and attractions, minus the arcade, escapology, go-karts, and midway games.
PARK PASS PRICE: US$60/person if you’re over 48 in (122 cm), US$55/person if you’re under 48 in (122 cm).
10. Visit the oldest theme park in California
Santa Cruz is a small beach town with the oldest amusement park in California: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk! It’s another classic seaside family theme park located on a sandy beach.
It has about 40 rides and attractions, including another world-famous wooden roller coaster called the Giant Dipper! They are quite similar, but I’ve found that the Santa Cruz roller coaster is a little more thrilling than the Giant Dipper in Belmont Park. There’s also the 1911 Looff Carousel which has also become a historical figure within the park.
Outside the older rides, there are other thrill rides, kiddie rides, mini golf, arcade games, laser tag, bowling, and more for the entire family to enjoy. The hours for each attraction vary, so check online beforehand. There are also free events held every single day! From outdoor movies to live concerts and entertainment, the park offers it all. Check here for the schedule before visiting!
PRICE: from US$40 per person
11. Animal attractions and rides at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
Six Flags Discovery Kingdom is the thrill capital of Northern California! Lucky for you, there are 2 different Six Flags locations to visit in California, at arm’s reach whether you’re in Southern California or Northern California! So if you’re visiting San Francisco and want a day of thrilling rides, check this one out!
Many rides here are exactly the same as the ones in Six Flags Magic Mountain, but here are more worth checking out:
- BATMAN The Ride – A world-class roller coaster that takes you through a Gotham City adventure! You’ll be twisting and tumbling with tons of drops that will catch you off guard. It’s a thrill ride for older kids!
- SUPERMAN Ultimate Fight – This 150-foot (46 meters) tall roller coaster drops to “hyper-sonic speeds most humans have never known.”
There are also a few animal attractions like an Animal Nursery, Alligator Isle, and Backstage Safari. This is quite different in comparison to the Six Flags in Southern California – a huge plus and a 2-in-1 kind of experience!
Don’t forget to download the Six Flags Mobile App while you’re here for the most helpful information, mobile ordering, and saving the most $$ in the long run.
PRICE: from US$45 per person
12. Uncover the unknown California’s Great America
California’s Great America in Santa Clara is a park originally opened in 1976 with over 40 rides and fun attractions. It’s near the San Jose area, so if you’re visiting California and staying nearby, it’s worth taking a drive to California’s Great America for a day of thrill and adventure!
This amusement park has yet another famous wooden roller coaster: the Gold Striker. It has a 174-foot (53 meters) tunnel that is known as the longest in the world to be featured on the first drop. It’s also the “tallest and fastest wooden roller coaster in Northern California.”
While you’re in California’s Great America, walk through the South Bay Shores water park, Planet Snoopy, and the 60+ roller coasters. Don’t worry, the water park admission is included in your admission to California’s Great America. Make sure to buy your tickets in advance and check online here for the latest live entertainment and events.
PRO TIP: Book the GoCity Pass for an even better rate on 2 or more attractions. This is my new favorite thing to do in big cities and major parks!
PASS PRICE: from US$60 per person
|👪 Family-friendly score:
|🎡 Best amusement parks:
|San Diego Zoo and Disneyland
|🎢 Best rides:
|Six Flags Magic Mountain
|👧 Best attraction for kids:
FAQs about the best theme parks in California
😁 What is the #1 most popular theme park in California?
The #1 most popular and best theme parks in California are Disneyland Park and its sister park, Disney California Adventure.
🎢 Which theme park in California has the most thrilling roller coasters?
The theme park in California with the most thrill rides is Six Flags Magic Mountain. It’s not called the “Thrill Capital of the World” for no reason!
🎡 What is the biggest theme park in California?
The biggest theme park in California is Universal Studios Hollywood, at 425 acres (172 hectares).
🏰 How many Disney parks are in California?
There are 2 Disney parks in California: Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park.
Phew, that was a ride! 🎢
I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing it! It’s hard to narrow down and choose the best theme parks in California since our state is filled with them, but these top 12 made the list because they’re just that great.
My favorites from this list have to be Belmont Park and Six Flags Magic Mountain. I picked Belmont Park as my first favorite theme park because it made my younger self so happy, and I still enjoy coming here occasionally. Six Flags Magic Mountain is next as a favorite because it’s fresh in my mind, and I seriously had a blast. I could go over and over again and never get tired of the rides there.
One thing to keep in mind here is that you should always get your tickets and passes ahead of time to avoid skyrocketing prices.
If you plan on visiting any of these amusement parks listed, let me know in the comments below!! I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have, as well. 💗
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