There’s nothing but fun at California’s theme parks
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.
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 citypass.com.
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.