There’s noth­ing but fun at Cal­i­for­nia’s theme parks

Travel Guide to California - - CONTENTS - BY MATT VILLANO

Not Just for Kids


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. Each of the parks is worth a closer look.

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). In 2016 the park opened its most an­tic­i­pated at­trac­tion ever: The Wizard­ing World of Harry Pot­ter, com­plete with a replica of Hog­warts cas­tle and a recre­ation of the shops of Hogsmeade. The of­fi­cial stu­dio tour com­mem­o­rated its 50th an­niver­sary in 2015 with the open­ing of a new grand fi­nale dubbed Fast & Fu­ri­ous: Su­per­charged.

The rest of the park is di­vided into two ar­eas con­nected by es­ca­la­tor: the Up­per and Lower lots. Trans­form­ers: The Ride 3-D is a fan-fa­vorite on the Lower Lot. On the Up­per Lot, De­spi­ca­ble Me Min­ion May­hem, a 3-D sim­u­la­tor ride, and Su­per Silly Fun Land, an out­door fam­ily-friendly play­ground, both opened in April 2014.

Chil­dren’s Fairy­land

Be­lieve it or not, the first theme park in the U.S. to cater to fam­i­lies with young kids was Chil­dren’s Fairy­land, a blink-and-you’llmiss-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 in­spi­ra­tions for the epony­mous park he cre­ated five years later.

To­day, Fairy­land in­cludes small rides such as a mini Fer­ris wheel and carousels, and life­sized sets de­pict­ing scenes from time­less sto­ry­books (Pinoc­chio’s cas­tle and the Humpty Dumpty wall 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 Frances Oznow­icz. You likely know him as Frank Oz.


If the lov­able (and life-sized) Mickey Mouse and friends don’t pique your in­ter­est and at­ten­tion at Cal­i­for­nia’s most fa­mous theme park, surely the rides will. The park, which opened in 1955, fea­tures rides for all ages, in­clud­ing some of the most bal­ly­hooed roller coast­ers any­where in the state (one fa­vorite is Space Moun­tain, which speeds along al­most en­tirely in the dark).

Over­all, Dis­ney­land is di­vided into eight themed ar­eas, or “lands.” Some of these ar­eas fo­cus on ac­tual his­tory: Fron­tier­land recre­ates the set­ting of the Amer­i­can fron­tier, while Main Street U.S.A. is pat­terned after a small Mid­west­ern town (many be­lieve Walt Dis­ney got his in­spi­ra­tion from his own boy­hood town of Marce­line, Mis­souri).

The park opened with one ho­tel, but since the 1990s it has grown ex­po­nen­tially, adding a new theme park (Dis­ney’s Cal­i­for­nia Adventure), a shop­ping district (Down­town Dis­ney) and two ad­di­tional ho­tels. One of the new­est at­trac­tions, Cars Land, was in­spired by the Cars movies, and opened in June 2012. In 2017 the park will wel­come Star Wars Land, and will con­vert the Twi­light Zone Tower of Ter­ror into a ride aligned with the Guardians of the Gal­axy brand.

Other Bay Area Parks

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

Great Amer­ica, next to the new Levi’s Sta­dium, is all about rides. Di­ver­sions range from scream-in­duc­ing (Flight Deck, a roller coaster, has one 360-de­gree loop and a ze­ro­grav­ity roll) to fam­ily-friendly (the Carousel Co­lum­bia is the world’s tallest dou­bledecker carousel). In 2015, the park ex­panded the Planet Snoopy kids area and added three new at­trac­tions, in­clud­ing two new rac­ing rides. Pa­triot, the park’s first floor­less roller coaster, is ex­pected to de­but in 2017.

The vibe at Discovery King­dom is more eclec­tic. In ad­di­tion to rides such as the Me­dusa roller coaster and Skyscreamer (a swing ride), the park also is home to a num­ber of an­i­mals, in­clud­ing Jocko the wal­rus, who starred in the 2004 movie, 50 First Dates, and Bran­don the retic­u­lated gi­raffe, who was named after San Fran­cisco Gi­ants slug­ger, Bran­don Belt. In 2015, park of­fi­cials added the Dare Devil Chaos Coaster, a roller coaster that takes pas­sen­gers up­side­down in both for­ward and back­ward di­rec­tions. In 2017, the park ex­pects to add a Won­der Woman-themed swing ride.

San Diego Area Parks

San Diego and its sur­round­ing sub­urbs also com­prise a great re­gion for theme parks; two fam­ily fa­vorites are Sea­world and Le­goland Cal­i­for­nia.

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, po­lar bears and bel­uga whales. It also is one of only two places in the world where em­peror pen­guins are kept in cap­tiv­ity. In late 2016 Sea­world re­or­ga­nized its en­ter­tain­ment pro­gram to fo­cus more squarely on ed­u­ca­tion. This means no more an­i­mal shows, which has kept con­ser­va­tion groups happy.

In the nearby com­mu­nity of Carls­bad, Le­goland is ded­i­cated to tiny plas­tic bricks (dubbed “Le­gos”), and boasts mind-bog­gling Lego repli­cas of fa­mous ar­chi­tec­tural icons (the Statue of Lib­erty and the Taj Ma­hal among them) as well as dio­ra­mas of seven ar­eas of the U.S. The park in­cor­po­rates rides and eater­ies, and is home to the Model Shop, the head­quar­ters for the park’s 10 mas­ter builders (a win­dow al­lows guests to wit­ness these pro­fes­sion­als at work). In the sum­mer of 2013, the park also opened a ho­tel; the lobby has a gi­ant pit of Le­gos with which chil­dren can play. There also are two tremen­dous on-site wa­ter parks.


Once you’ve de­cided where to go, try CITYPASS for sav­ing some money: In South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, it knocks as much as one third off the price of ad­mis­sion to Dis­ney­land, Dis­ney Cal­i­for­nia Adventure Park, Le­goland and Sea­world. The South­ern Cal­i­for­nia CITYPASS in­cludes back-and-forth ad­mis­sion to both Dis­ney­land Park and Dis­ney Cal­i­for­nia Adventure Park for any three days dur­ing a 14-day pe­riod and al­lows you to skip the main-en­trance ticket lines. The San Fran­cisco CITYPASS in­cludes a 3-Day Cable Car and Muni Bus Pass­port and saves 42 per­cent off ad­mis­sion for at­trac­tions such as the Cal­i­for­nia Academy of Sciences, Ex­plorato­rium, de Young Mu­seum and Aquar­ium of the Bay. The pass is valid for nine days. Buy your CITYPASS at any of the above at­trac­tions or on­line at

CHIL­DREN’S FAIRY­LAND at Lake Mer­ritt, Oak­land, above; Dis­ney char­ac­ters and the Dis­ney­land band, right; Kung Fu Panda, be­low; roller coaster Me­dusa, the long­est and high­est coaster in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia at Six Flags Discovery King­dom, Vallejo, bot­tom;...

RIDE at Cal­i­for­nia’s Great Amer­ica, Santa Clara, right.

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