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Photograph: Courtesy Christian Thompson/Disneyland Resort

The best amusement parks in California for fun and thrills

The best amusement parks in California for high-flying thrills, out-of-this-world adventure and child-like wonderment

Written by
Garrick Ramirez
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The best amusement parks in California draw thrill-seekers from around the world, and it’s not just Disneyland rides that bring the crowds. The variety and quality of amusement parks on offer in the Golden State rivals anywhere else on the planet, meaning both residents and visitors get to enjoy endless theme park fun under a nearly year-round sun.

While California offers plenty of conventional visitor attractions, cultural thrills and culinary delights, it’s awfully tempting to just hop from one amusement park to the next, all the while enjoying an extended break from the real world. Maybe you’re the kind of person who never wants to grow up, or perhaps you have some little ones to entertain—there’s a park for you. Just remember to avoid peak times, major holidays and busy weekends, or you might end up spending too much time in lines.

In addition to yo-ho-ho-ing with the Pirates of the Caribbean, you can cast spells at Hogwarts and soar high above the Pacific on a beachfront Ferris wheel. Plus, adrenaline junkies will find scores of coasters packed with gut-churning loops, plummets, and gravity-defying inversions. Whether you’re looking to catch a few Gs or simply snap a few mouse-ear selfies, here’s where to get your thrills at the best amusement parks in California. In fact, make a weekend of it with a stay at one of the best hotels in California conveniently located nearby.

RECOMMENDED: The best things to do in California

Best amusement parks in California

What is it? Still, the happiest place on Earth.

Why go? Likely the only 1955 pop-culture attraction that still draws massive crowds, Disneyland delights first timers and regulars with a mix of the new and classic, from the movie-inspired Indiana Jones Adventure to the Pirates of Caribbean which yielded five films and counting. Plus, the hilariously corny jokes of The Jungle Cruise (temporarily closed for a revamp) and the technicolor modernism of It’s a Small World never get old. For something more modern, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge offers a gleefully satisfying stroll through a galaxy far, far away. 

What is it? Disneyland’s neighboring park that’s actually preferred by locals (hint: it serves alcohol).

Why go? While it may seem like a blatant money grab by Disney, the separate-ticketed California Adventure offers a refreshing complement to its older sibling across the way. Spread over 72 acres, the California-themed park mimics the state’s natural and cultural landscape with a 1930s-era Hollywood Land, the thrill ride-packed Pixar Pier, and the national park inspired Grizzly Peak. Plus, “Cars” fans already know about the red-rock recreation of Radiator Springs with Lightning McQueen and pals. The park’s latest attraction, The Incredibles-themed Incredicoaster, sends Baby Jack-Jack fans soaring on a looping coaster ride adorned with models of the red-clad super family. Cap your day’s adventures with a classic cocktail at the Art Deco-tinged Carthay Circle Lounge.

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What is it? A chance to cavort with the Minions, flee toothy velociraptors, and guzzle butterbeer in Hogsmeade Village.

Why go? What started out as a behind-the-scenes peek at a working backlot now offers movie buffs an immersive extension of their favorite big screen flicks and TV shows. Lately, the park has eschewed the IRL thrills of leaping mechanical Jaws sharks and stunt men plunging from burning buildings—experienced on what is now called the Studio Tour—for motion-simulated rides set in themed surroundings. You can knock back a Flaming Moe and giant spinkles donut in The Simpsons-themed Springfield, or battle the evil Voldemort in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The new Jurassic World ride takes you back to a time when dinosaurs ruled the world—and thrill seekers enjoyed getting splashed—aboard an exhilarating flume ride with menacing raptors and a 84-foot plunge.

What is it? This 1907 seaside amusement park dishes up nostalgia and timeless fun.

Why go? Plunked on the sandy shores of Santa Cruz’s Main Beach, this open-air park is crammed with thrill rides, midway games, and ooey-gooey treats. Don’t miss a kitschy-creepy ride through the Haunted Castle or a white-knuckle plunge on the 1924 Giant Dipper, a National Historic Landmark with killer views of Monterey Bay and speeds up to 46 mph. During summer, the Boardwalk hosts free concerts and movies on the beach, kicking off each season with “The Lost Boys” whose teen vampires made the Boardwalk their regular haunt.

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What is it? Get in touch with your inner master builder at this wondrous temple to everyone’s favorite plastic brick.

Why go? While you likely have Lego fans in your life, they aren’t building anything like the mind-boggling creations found at this visually striking park in Carlsbad. The park teems with towering feats of Lego ingenuity including spot-on, mini versions of cities such as New York, San Francisco, and the Las Vegas Strip. The Duplo set will enjoy zapping Lego mummies at the Lost Kingdom Adventure, diving for treasure aboard a submarine on Deep Sea Adventure, and feeling wind blow through their hair at the “Lego City 4D-Officer in Pursuit” movie with in-theater effects. Before you hit the bricks, consider a stay at the Legoland Hotel which doubles down on the fun with themed rooms, disco elevators, and a scavenger hunt throughout the property. Just leave the Krazy Glue at home.

What is it? Find face-melting thrill rides and Old West charm at what started as a humble jam stand.

Why go? Once famed for its boysenberry preserves and fried chicken, this Orange County farm stand-turned amusement park packs them in with pulse-pounding thrill rides. GhostRider bills itself as the longest, tallest, and fastest wooden roller coaster on the West Coast, while the popular Xcelerator launches riders from 0 to 84-mph in just over 2 seconds. Don’t miss a stroll through the town’s Ghost Town, an atmospheric recreation of a dusty Old West town with miner-adorned rides including the flume-style Timber Mountain Log Ride, the darkened tunnels of the Calico Mine Ride, and a good soaking on the Calico River Rapids.

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What is it? A park that prides itself on developing extreme, record-breaking roller coasters.

Why go? Sure, you’ll find a smattering of gentle rides and costumed characters for the kiddos, but this Valencia park—located roughly one hour north of Los Angeles—is all about mind-bending roller coasters. The park boasts 20 coasters whose descriptions read like a glossary of cutting-edge coaster terms. Tatsu (temporarily closed) features suspended trains with face-down riders that zip through zero-gravity rolls, horseshoes, pretzel loops, and inline twists, while Full Throttle—the world’s tallest and fastest looping coaster—launches riders up to 70 mph both over and under a record-setting 160-foot loop. The park’s latest, West Coast Racers, promises an airtime-filled, high-speed race between dueling, side-by-side trains.

What is it? A greatest hits of amusement park attractions for the San Francisco Bay Area.

Why go? From carousels to coasters, this all-encompassing park has something for everyone. Big ticket attractions include coasters such as the inverted Flight Deck, the revolutionary single-track RailBlazer, and Gold Striker—the fastest wooden coaster in Northern California—which sends riders plummeting 103 feet into a mineshaft. The under-46 inches crowd will find plenty to enjoy at Planet Snoopy with play zones and adorable car-themed rides. When temps rise, cool down at the adjacent South Bay Shores water park with zippy water slides, splash zones, and relaxing floats on a lazy river.

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What is it? This Vallejo park offers huge coasters, big cats, and Batman.

Why go? 15 miles from Napa Valley’s wine country, you’ll find a different kind of swirling. Like its Six Flags brethren, this park is famed for its adrenaline-fueled thrill rides. Start with Medusa, the park’s long-standing favorite with floorless trains that snake through dive loops, 150-foot drops, and zero-g rolls. A DC Universe section brands coasters with comics as in the Batman The Ride (temporarily closed) which sends riders spinning head-over-heels in wing-style cars. The park quickly switches gears with numerous animal shows and exhibits including a lush butterfly habitat, a lion’s lair, and a dolphin encounter.

What is it? Southern California’s version of Coney Island perched above the blue Pacific.

Why go? Set at the end of the wooden Santa Monica Pier, this waterfront park brims with timeless attractions such as midway games, a buzzing arcade, and carnival rides including an iconic Ferris wheel with sweeping views of the coastline. Don’t miss a spin on the Santa Monica Pier Carousel. Though not officially part of Pacific Park, the historic merry-go-round is housed in the pier’s oldest building, and includes a throwback soda fountain from Soda Jerks which dishes up root beer floats and heaping ice cream sundaes.

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What is it? A Golden Age beachfront amusement park set on San Diego’s sunny shores.

Why go? Steps from San Diego’s Mission Beach, this compact park delights with corn dogs, carnival games, and a classic coaster. Built in 1925—one year after the similarly named version in Santa Cruz—The Giant Dipper sends riders speeding up to 48 mph over its wood-framed drops and turns. Tikiphiles shouldn’t miss a round of mini golf amidst the tropical jungles and steaming volcanoes at Tiki Town Adventure Golf.

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