There used to be a time, if you were talking about the best amusements parks in California, that automatically meant the best in the world. Times have changed. These days there are amazing theme parks all over the globe, so now that former claim is open to much debate. However, there are good reasons that California will forever be linked with amazing amusement parks. These can be found below.
Whether you're into atmosphere, charm, roller coasters, or movie magic, the Golden State has something for you. I'm going to start by listing California's top tier amusement parks; the A-list, the cream of the crop. These are the quintessential parks that gave California its reputation in the industry, and are the ones you're most likely to know about already. That's not to say that you should avoid the parks that didn't make this category. Not at all. Some of these will provide a whole lot of fun and often have the added benefits of being less expensive and/or less crowded. It's just that the iconic parks are in a class by themselves.
The 6 amusement parks below are listed in order of annual attendance (highest to lowest). It is worth noting that every single one of these is among the top twenty most-visited parks in North America.
How could Disneyland in Anaheim not be first? This, the original Disneyland (not Walt Disney World Resort in Florida), was the only theme park designed and built under the direct supervision of Walt Disney. It defined what a theme park should be, and remains the one to which all other amusement parks compare themselves. The Disney brand is a juggernaut of movies, characters, attractions, merchandise, imagination, professionalism, and attention to detail centered on the guest experience. This reputation is well-earned. If you've never been to Disneyland, you should go at least once. But before you do, be sure to read our Guide to Disneyland to help you get the most out of your visit.
Located next door to Disneyland, Disney California Adventure is basically a theme park dedicated to the Golden State. And I do mean right next door, as the land it was built on used to be Disneyland's parking lot. Certainly this fortuitous location contributes to the fact that California Adventure is consistently the second most visited of all the amusements parks in California. However, don't assume this is the only draw. This park has a lot to brag about in its own right. Even though it boasts some can't miss attractions, it is often less crowded than its more famous sibling, which could mean more value for the admission price. But don't worry: Disney offers park hopper tickets, so you don't have to choose one over the other.
There are now a few Universal Theme Parks around the world, with more planned in the future, but Universal Studios Hollywood remains unique. It is the only Universal location that is actually a working studio, as in real movies and television shows are produced here on a daily basis. That's because it started out as a movie studio first (in 1915), and then added a theme park later. Consequently, it is the only Universal park to offer a Studio Tour - roughly an hour long tram tour of its backlot that is different every time, depending on what is being filmed. You might even see a celebrity or two.
True, the Hollywood location doesn't have a "Wizarding World of Harry Potter" yet, but one is currently under construction and scheduled to open here in 2016. Until then, you can find out all about Universal Studios Hollywood and its many current attractions.
There are a few rides here including a couple of water flume rides, an Artic flight simulation ride, and a surprsingly fast roller coaster called Manta. There are also great sea life exhibits and aquariums as well, that feature turtles, penguins, dolphins, and an amazing underwater viewing tunnel that lets you basically walk through a shart tank. However, make no mistake: SeaWorld is all about the shows, and dolphins, orcas, and sea lions are the main stars. If you happen to find yourself in the San Diego area, and prefer shows and exhibits to rides, you might want to give it a try. If on the other hand, you have to have thrill rides, you can give this one a pass.
Knott's Berry Farm is a classic California amusement park with a lot of history and character. At first glance its theme seems to be that of an Old West ghost town, but it is so much more than that. Frankly Knott's doesn't seem to fit into a single category. There's stagecoach and train rides sure, but there are also modern thrill rides, a Roaring Twenties boardwalk, a Mexican-themed village, and Camp Snoopy for kids. Besides its unique character, I think Knotts' other great selling point is its value. There are many quality rides and attractions here for an admission price that is usually well under half of what it costs to get into Disneyland.
At California Vacations Now, you can read more about Knott's Berry Farm and discover all the great attractions it has to offer.
Do you like roller coasters? Thrill rides? I mean, really like them? Then why aren't you at Six Flags Magic Mountain right now? This is the park for roller coasters - 18 of them to be exact - more than any amusement park in the world. But don't think that quantity has taken the place of quality here. Magic Mountain's coasters are some of the most intense on the planet. One ride, Full Throttle, is both the world's fastest vertical looping coaster and boasts the world's tallest vertical loop at 160 feet (49m). Another of the park's coasters, Goliath, has an opening drop of 255 feet (78m). Extreme enough for you?
This is a fun infographic we created showing the most visited amusement parks in California with some unusual facts about each. You can click on it to see a larger version. Enjoy!
Here's some more great California theme parks to consider if you find yourself in their vicinity. These may not be on the same level as the six iconic amusement parks listed above, but they still offer a great time and won't hurt your wallet as badly. These are listed in no particular order...
Soak City is a nice little California water park with a wide variety of fun-in-the-sun activities. Whether you're into lazy rivers, fast water slides, surfing on man-made waves, water gun fights, or just relaxing under a cabana, Soak City has you covered. Of course another thing it has going for it is its location. It is very close to both Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm and other enticing southern California attractions, which makes it a great alternative if you find yourself in the mood for something different. With an admission cost usually around $30, you should really give it a try if you find yourself in the area this summer.
When I was a kid I loved legos. I remember it made me sad that I couldn't visit Legoland... because at that time there was only one Legloand and it was in Denmark! Well, times have changed. Now if you find yourself in the San Diego area, you can visit a real Legoland. This a great amusement park for kids, especially if they're ten or under. Keep in mind, the emphasis is on exploration, so there aren't really any worthy shows here, just some fun rides and amazing displays. However, this Legoland location also offers a separate water park and an aquarium for which you can buy tickets.
Wait, another water park? Yes, I know I already listed Soak City, so that begs the question: which one is better? Well... this one (I was never good at bandying words). Raging Waters is over 3 times bigger, contains almost double the number of water slides, and is only fractionally more expensive. So why mention the other one at all? Because it is more centrally located to other major attaractions, and therefore the one you are more likely to be closer to when visiting southern Califiornia. However, if you do happen to find yourself anywhere close to San Dimas in the summertime and like heart-stopping water slides, don't miss Raging Waters.
Every amusement park I've mentioned so far is in southern California. This one is actually located in the San Francisco Bay Area, so it provides a viable amusement park option if you are planning to visit the northern part of the state. So what's here? A little (actually make that "a lot") of everything. There are 12 thrill rides (including Medusa, a roller coaster that features a 128 foot vertical loop), 11 family rides, 22 kids rides, as well as a wide variety of animal and marine life exhibits and shows. Six Flags Discovery Kingdom tickets run between $45 and $65 depending on when you decide to go.
Not on the same level as the parks listed above, these vary greatly in quality. However they can still offer a good time if you find yourself nearby.