The coverage of California’s top 10 amusement parks includes a rich history of some of the state’s most famous parks. There are even a few that have gained national and international recognition that has kept them as ultimate vacation destinations for tourists. What makes a good amusement park so popular is the dedication to maintaining its appeal as a source of family fun. While it’s important to keep up with today’s trends, it’s equally important to stick with celebrated traditions that date as far back as the founding of the United States of America. The majority of the parks mentioned in that list didn’t necessarily earn their rank because they followed current trends. They each earned their place by respecting their biggest demographic when it comes to winning over a steady flow of customers. Without people who invest time and money to visit these parks year after year, they would struggle just to keep the doors open. These were lessons some of the parks mentioned learned as they managed to rise above a variety of uncertainties to become the world-class facilities they are today.
Top 10 California Amusement Parks
#10 – Six Flags Discovery Kingdom (Vallejo, California)
In 1968, Marine World was a small zoo belonging to Redwood City, California. It later merged with the fledgling Africa USA that would become Marine World Africa USA. In 1986, the park relocated to a new site in Vallejo, California. Unfortunately, due to financial issues, the ownership of the animal-focused amusement park went to the city of Vallejo in 1996. That same year, Vallejo turned to Premier Parks as the park’s property manager. Now known as Six Flags, what started out strictly as an animal park was expanded to include rides and attractions. Now as an amusement park, this increased the interest of guests to pay Marine World a visit. In 1997, Popeye’s Seaport was introduced as a section loaded with kid-friendly attractions. There was also DinoSphere which offered rides and theatrical productions that kept guests entertained.
Over time, what is now known as Six Flags Discovery Kingdom expanded. Additional rides were brought in, including roller coasters for thrill seekers. Now as a world-class amusement park, this facility features an impressive collection of ten roller coasters, most of which follow a DC Universe theme. Batman: The Ride, Superman: Ultimate Flight, The Flash: Vertical Velocity, and The Joker are the coasters that consistently win the attention of fans who have a need for speed, along with all the loops, twists and turns that go with it. There are also three thrill rides and three water rides that add to the fan appeal of this amusement park. For family-friendlier ride entertainment, there are currently six to choose from.
Six Flags Discovery Kingdom also hasn’t forgotten its roots as an animal-themed park. There are a number of attractions that enable visitors to learn more about their favorite animals. One of the favorites that often wins tourism appeal is Shark Experience. Without getting wet, guests can go underwater through a walkway that allows them to view a variety of sharks. There’s also Jocko, the park’s beloved walrus that give guests an opportunity to come face to face with this incredible creature.
#9 – Pacific Park (Santa Monica)
Located on the Santa Monica Pier, Pacific Park is one of the few amusement parks situated on a Californian oceanfront. Facing the direction of Catalina Island, the Pacific Ocean view from Pacific Park is one of the highlights that bring visitors in from most parts of the world. It is the only park of its kind on the American West Coast that sits on the pier. It is also the region’s only admission-free park to visit. Pacific Park has thirteen rides to entertain its guests, including Pacific Wheel, the world’s first and only solar-powered Ferris wheel. The legacy of Pacific Park began in 1909 as the Santa Monica Municipal Pier.
It was originally designed to carry sewer pipes out beyond the breakers. In 1916, Coney Island’s carousel designer Charles I.D. Looff began to build Pleasure Pier, which was adjacent to the city’s pier. It was designed for the sole purpose of an amusement park. The Santa Monica Looff Hippodrome houses the park’s current carousel and was later marked on the National Register of Historic Places as a landmark in 1987. This is one of Pacific Park’s top draws as a favorite attraction that lures visitors to see it up close instead of just in the movies. For many years, Pacific Park and its pier have been favorite spots for filmmakers to create their stories in the form of movies and television programs.
Now known as Newcomb Pier, Looff’s Pleasure Pier met with the possibility of extinction when the city council made proposals to have it torn down. The idea was to replace it with a resort island in Santa Monica Bay. This prompted activists to step in and save the pier. In 1983, a task force was assigned to fully restore Newcomb Pier. Six years later, the Pier Restoration Corporation opted to turn the pier into an amusement park.
Doing so did more than simply return the pier back to its former glory. It breathed new life into what’s now Santa Monica’s pride and joy. Adding to the appeal of Pacific Park is the Santa Monica West Coaster, a steel coaster that challenged thrillseekers to enjoy the ride. It’s this particular amusement park ride that often finds itself part of a movie set. It was also featured in 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V by Rockstar Games.
Pacific Park is a small amusement park, measuring two acres in size. In addition to free admission, individual rides are also free. This park makes some of its money from hosting special events from its Seaside Pavillion. It also earns from its collection of food outlets, midway games, and gift shops. What makes Pacific Park so appealing is the affordability of an amusement park that continues to be a major win for its local community. The oceanfront scenery also adds to its charm, which is partly why Hollywood seems to like filming it so much.
#8 – Legoland California Resort (Carlsbad)
The world of Legoland California Resort in Carlsbad, California, first welcomed visitors on March 20, 1999. This themed amusement park with an aquarium was the first built outside of Europe. Overall it was the third. There are over sixty rides at the park that include four roller coaster rides for thrillseekers and eight water rides. Situated on over one hundred acres of land, Legoland California Resort has eight different regions, each with its own theme that include Fun Town, a kid-friendly section that gives them access to rides that simulate what adults typically drive such as aircraft, automobiles, boats, and elevators. Castle Hill, as a region, features a medieval theme that includes one of Legoland’s biggest attractions, The Dragon.
It is a family-friendly steel roller coaster that takes riders through the castle. The second coaster in the park is Technic Coaster, which is situated in Imagination Zone. As an amusement park, Legoland has wowed over a million visitors per year that have mostly shared rave reviews. When the infamous toy brand from Denmark opted to bring Lego to life in the form of amusement parks, it started a trend that now has eleven amusement parks and twenty-four Legoland Discovery Centers.
#7 – Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (Santa Cruz)
Situated on the oceanfront of Santa Cruz, California, is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This is the state’s oldest surviving amusement park and is one of the few parks along the West Coast shorelines of the United States. The history of this amusement park begins in 1907, four years after the City of Santa Cruz gave the thumbs up to build commercial complexes along the city’s coast.
The first building to be constructed was 1904’s Neptune Casino, then the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Going into the 1920s, Prohibition gave the site’s casino cause to undergo a name change to Cocoanut Grove. Between the 1930s and the 1940s, this was a hot spot that featured some of the biggest musical acts at the time. Today, Cocoanut Grove serves as a venue for guests who look upon Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk as the perfect place to host different events.
Today, the amusement park is regarded as a California Historical Landmark. Since 2007, with the exception of 2015, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has won Amusement Today‘s Best Seaside Amusement Park Award on an annual basis. The beach is accessible to the public and there are no admission fees. There are, however, fees charged to access the parking lot when the rides are open. Access to the rides is either by ticket purchases or passes.
One of the highlights of Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk as an amusement park is the Giant Dipper, a historic wooden roller coaster that replaced the Thompson’s Scenic Railway in 1924. It only took forty-seven days to build and it still stands today. Together with 1911’s Looff Carousel, it has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark since 1987. This is also an award-winning coaster that has so far thrilled well over sixty million riders.
#6 – SeaWorld San Diego (San Diego)
SeaWorld San Diego is one of the Californian city’s pride and joy as an amusement park. On March 21, 1964, four graduates from the University of California pitched in together to build a marine zoological park along the shore of San Diego’s Mission Bay. Situated on over twenty acres of land, SeaWorld San Diego didn’t take long to grow into one of the state’s biggest and best amusement parks currently operating. As a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, SeaWorld San Diego also serves as a marine animal rehabilitation center. This is more than just an amusement park. It, along with its neighbor, Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, offers marine-related education opportunities to visitors. Guests are able to enjoy themselves and receive an education at the same time.
The popularity of SeaWorld San Diego sees about four million visitors per year. From every part of the world, they come to see the marine animals. Since this is an amusement park, it also features a collection of rides and other attractions that keep the guests entertained. There are five roller coasters and two water rides that range from kid-friendly to death-defying thrills. However, the main attraction that makes SeaWorld San Diego so great as an amusement park is the animals. Between exhibits and shows, visitors have access to dolphins, sea lions, seals, a variety of whales, and more.
#5 – Six Flags Magic Mountain (Valencia)
On May 29, 1971, Magic Mountain opened up its amusement park in Valencia, California, before it was purchased by Six Flags in 1979. Now as Six Flags Magic Mountain, this amusement park has twenty roller coasters to its name. No other amusement park in the world has as many roller coasters as they do, making this the “it” place to go for fans of these infamous track rides. Currently, the newest edition to Magic Mountain is the 2022 opening of Wonder Woman: Flight of Courage.
When founder Sea World Inc. founder George Millay was on the hunt for property in Los Angeles County to build a theme park, he approached the Newhall Land and Farming Company as he knew they had undeveloped land sitting in the new town known as Valencia. This began a partnership that would build an amusement park on over two hundred acres of land. In the beginning, the park had permission to use the Loony Toons characters from Warner Brothers. After the first year, Magic Mountain switched to using trolls as the amusement park’s official mascots until 1985.
Six Flags Magic Mountain was the first park in the world to feature a modern 360-degree steel looping coaster. It opened in 1976 as Great American Revolution. As the scenery surrounding the track evolved, so did the roller coaster’s excitement rating. Today, it’s known as The New Revolution. Another iconic rollercoaster was the Colossus. In 1968, it was introduced as the world’s fastest dual-tracked wooden coaster but there were performance issues that had it undergo a series of upgrades in order to make it a smoother ride. In 2015, it was rebranded as Twisted Colossus after undergoing additional retrofits in order to comply with ride safety standards.
At the moment, there are eleven themed areas that make Six Flags Magic Mountain what it is. This very popular amusement park features DC Universe, a world of its own that hosts a collection of rides and attractions from some of its most popular comic book characters. On average, about three million people visit Valencia’s best hot spot each year.
#4 – Knott’s Berry Farm (Buena Park)
Sitting on fifty-seven acres of land in Buena Park, California, is Knott’s Berry Farm. The humble beginnings of this world-class amusement park began with Walter and Cordelia Knott when they settled at the site in 1920. The park started off as a farm that had a roadside berry stand on California’s State Highway 39. Over time, it expanded to become a facility that featured a replicated ghost town and a modernized amusement park. On average, over four million visitors come to Knott’s Berry Farm every year.
There are over forty rides that include roller coasters, family rides, thrill rides, and water rides. After the death of the park’s founders, their children continued to own and operate Knott’s Berry Farm until 1997. The food specialty business that began Knott’s legacy was sold to ConAgra Inc. in 1995 before that company sold to The J.M. Smucker Company in 2008. In 1997, the amusement park was sold to Cedar Fair. At one point, Disney did stake an interest in Knott’s Berry Farm as it wanted to amalgamate it into its Disneyland Resort. However, the family refused as they were concerned Knott’s Berry Farm would lose its trademark identity.
As soon as Knott’s Berry Farm became the property of Cedar Fair, the inclusion of amusement park rides marked a new era for what used to be run as a family business. However, the identity of Knott’s Berry Farm remains intact. The most popular ride at the amusement park is Timber Mountain Log Ride. In total, Knott’s has four themed areas that make this park so popular. Aside from Ghost Town, there is Fiesta Village, The Boardwalk, and Camp Snoopy. Camp Snoopy was designed with the beloved Peanuts character in mind. Snoopy has been the official mascot of Knott’s Berry Farm since 1983.
He, along with the rest of the Peanuts gang, has entertained families throughout most of the amusement parks owned and operated by Cedar Fair. Situated in Knott’s Berry Farm is the state-designated landmark, Old Maizeland School. Also known as Rivera School, this was an 1868 structure that was built in Pico Rivera, California by James C. Shugg before it was moved to a farm in 1896 and used as a storage shed. In 1950, it was seen as a historical building and moved again, this time to the Rivera School District Grounds and restored as a museum.
The attempt to give this old school the recognition it deserved failed and it was put up for sale. Walter and Cordelia Knott purchased the school as the couple began to turn their farm into an amusement park. Today, the old school displays insects and reptiles as Express Outpost.
#3 – Disney California Adventure Park (Anaheim)
Located at the Disneyland Resort is Disney California Adventure Park. This is one of many amusement parks belonging to The Walt Disney Company. This was designed as a reflection of what sums up California as a state. It opened its doors for the first time on February 8, 2001, and was the second park belonging to Disneyland Resort. The first was Disneyland Park, which was designed in 1964.
Disney California Adventure Park was originally supposed to be WestCOT. After the success of Florida’s Walt Disney World and EPCOT, there was a desire to install a Californian version. When this amusement park opened to the public in 2001, Disney had guest attendance expectations that were never met. As a result, it was back to the drawing board that would include the installation of new attractions, rides and shows in an attempt to win over greater tourism appeal.
From 2007 until 2012, Disney embarked on a major facelift that would turn this fledgling amusement park into what it is today. From 2012 until the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily ceased operations, Disney California Adventure Park saw at least seven million visitors visit the facility annually. Guests staying at Disneyland Resort are privy to the best of two worlds as Disney fans. While Disneyland continues as the “it” destination dedicated to the legacy Disney Studios has laid out, Disney California Adventure Park focuses on the cultural influence that has made the state of California so great.
Among the highlights of this amusement park are Buena Vista Street, Cars Land, and the recently completed Avengers Campus. There are five additional themed areas inside the park that include Grizzly Peak, Hollywood Land, Pacific Wharf, Paradise Gardens, and Pixar Pier. Disney California Adventure Park is a world-class facility that has established itself as one of the most beautifully laid-out facilities of its kind.
#2 – Disneyland (Anaheim)
The first theme park opened by The Walt Disney Company was Disneyland. Situated in Anaheim, California, it became accessible to the general public in 1955 and has since become the very epitome of what makes an amusement park great. Since its opening, Disneyland experienced a series of expansions and upgrades that would include New Orleans Square, Bear County, Mickey’s Toontown, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, and Disney California Adventure Park. No other themed amusement park in the world has measured up to Disneyland when it comes to sharing success stories. Millions of visitors from all over the world flock to this iconic amusement park. If it wasn’t for Disneyland, Florida’s Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom never would have come into existence.
Disneyland is the primary example of what makes an amusement park become a world-class facility to visit. Sitting on over one hundred acres of land, there are nine themed sections within the park that each have their own identity. When the park first opened, it had Main Street, U.S.A., Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland. New Orleans Square became the park’s sixth region in 1966 and was followed by Bear County in 1972. Since then, Bear County has been renamed to Critter County. In 1993, Mickey’s Toontown graced Disneyland with its presence, then Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in 2019.
No other amusement park in the world has captured the interest of people like Disneyland. Even as political and social trends continue to pose challenges, Disneyland has always managed to prevail as an amusement park, as well as an entertainment giant. As a whole, Disney has learned to adapt to what’s been the impossible attempt to please everybody. Since 1955, Disneyland has been at the very top as the main reason why most families from every corner of the globe pay the state of California a visit as tourists.
#1 – Universal Studios Hollywood (Universal City)
Situated in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles County, California, is Universal Studios Hollywood. First, it started off as a film studio in 1912 before it would install and opened its own amusement park in 1964. Nearly three-quarters of the site sits on unincorporated land currently referred to as Universal City. The rest of it sits within the city limits of Los Angeles. This is one of the oldest Hollywood film studios still in use. It is also among the most famous. Tourists who come to visit Southern California almost always have Universal Studios Hollywood as a “must-see” attraction. It was the first of many Universal Studios Theme Parks that would make its impact as a global tourist destination. With so many amenities, Universal Studios Hollywood virtually caters to tourists as a one-stop shop when it comes to family entertainment.
Split into two different areas, Universal Studios Hollywood shares a connection known as the Starway. This is a series of escalators that have this amusement park features a Lower lot and an Upper lot. Between these two levels, the amusement park hosts a series of rides, shows, and other attractions that can easily keep visitors entertained for hours. The Lower lot’s main features include Jurassic World: The Ride, Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride, Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge, and Transformers: The Ride 3D.
The extensive use of special effects and augmented reality technology has made the smaller of the two lots of Universal Studio Hollywood so popular among thrillseekers. Meanwhile, the Upper lot has been designed to focus on family-based fun that includes an entrance pathway known as Universal Boulevard. The Art Deco design serves as a reflection of Old Hollywood. Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular and DreamWorks Theatre are situated here. Other main attractions at the Upper lot include King Fu Panda Adventure and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Top 10 California Amusement Parks article published on BigCityReview.com© 2023
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