Living on the east coast, I always have romantic notions of California. I’ve generally pretty envious of their beautiful weather, palm trees, relaxed lifestyle, gorgeous Southern California beaches, and fabulous family-friendly activities.
While I usually visit the Orlando theme parks, there are some fantastic Southern California theme parks as well. Even if you live closer to the East Coast, I definitely recommend visiting the West Coast to explore the California theme parks.
I’ve had the opportunity to visit several of these theme parks at no cost for review. All opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links. A purchase through one of these links may result in a commission paid to us at no additional cost to you.
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Exploring the Southern California Theme Parks
When visiting the California theme parks, you’ll absolutely have to go back to where it all began. Disneyland Resort in Anaheim California was the first Disney theme park, and it’s so much fun for families.
Attractions at the Disneyland Resort include iconic rides like it’s a small world, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Haunted Mansion. Younger kids will love seeing the Disney characters, as well as the the rides at Fantasyland, including Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Peter Pan, and Alice in Wonderland.
Although the ToonTown in Orlando closed years ago to make way for new Fantasyland, Disneyland California still has a robust ToonTown. Little kids will love the vibrant colors of the ToonTown buildings.
Disneyland also offers shows and parades throughout the day, as well as character interactions, delicious restaurants (and yummy snacks), and fun shops.
Disney California Adventure
The newer of the two Disneyland Resort parks is Disney’s California Adventure. It’s located adjacent to Disneyland Park, and you can easily walk from one park to the other throughout the day.
Disney’s California Adventure offers lots of family-friendly attractions as well, including Toy Story Mania, CarsLand (definitely be sure to visit Radiator Springs Racers), Soarin’ Around the World, and Turtle Talk With Crush. Thrill seekers will definitely want to go on the Incredicoaster (the only ride at Disneyland Resort that goes upside down) and Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout.
When visiting Disneyland, you’ll have the option of several different ticket types. We definitely recommend getting the park hopper on your tickets so you can visit both parks in one day. You’ll also want to download the Disneyland app, and consider purchasing MaxPass.
With MaxPass, you pay a separate fee, but will be able to book your FastPasses on the app in either park. If you time things properly, you can go from park to park and will be able to do many of the rides on your must-do list. You’ll also get any Disney PhotoPass photos that are taken on the day(s) you have MaxPass.
There are three on property Disney hotels located adjacent to the parks. In addition, there are a number of “Good Neighbor” hotels that are located right across the street from the parks. Many of these are chain hotels, and several offer outdoor water parks for guests.
In general, you should plan to spend about 2-3 days at the Disneyland Resort if you’d like to experience most of the attractions on property.
Knott’s Berry Farm
Knott’s Berry Farm, the oldest theme park in California, grew from humble beginnings to a theme park filled with kiddie rides and world-class thrill rides. It’s located in Buena Park, California, which is about 20 minutes from Anaheim. In addition to Knott’s Berry Farm park, there’s also Knott’s Soak City, a water park that is open seasonally. It’s so much more than an amusement park!
Knott’s Berry Farm is home to Camp Snoopy, a part of the park themed after the loveable Peanuts gang. This is definitely most appropriate for younger kids. In addition to rides, you’ll also find character meet and greets as well as shows featuring the characters.
Older kids will absolutely love the thrill rides at Knott’s Berry Farm. There are so many fast coasters that go upside down. My favorite of the rides is the Supreme Scream. This ride climbs up 252 feet in the air. You’ll have a split second to enjoy the gorgeous view before plummeting.
While you are there, you’ll definitely have to visit Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant. It’s located outside the park, so you won’t need a park ticket to visit, and it features a delicious fried chicken entree that comes with biscuits, mashed potatoes, and gravy.
I think you could definitely visit Knott’s Berry Farm in a day. There is an affiliated hotel located adjacent to the park that is extremely convenient, or you could stay in the greater Los Angeles area. I’d probably plan to stay near Disneyland, and drive/Uber in to Knott’s.
When we visited San Diego with our kids a few years ago, the kids absolutely HAD to visit LEGOLAND California. It’s located in Carlsbad, CA, about a half hour from San Diego and an hour from Anaheim.
LEGOLAND California is probably most appropriate for kids up to about 12 years old. The park features rides, LEGO exhibits, shows, and character greetings. There’s also an adjacent water park. If you are just visiting the theme park, you could definitely go for just one day.
There are two LEGO-themed hotels on property – the LEGOLAND Hotel and the LEGOLAND Castle Hotel. These hotels are perfect for a LEGO-lover – they are completely themed in full LEGO!
You’ll also find a SEA LIFE Aquarium on property. You can upgrade your regular LEGOLAND ticket to include SEA LIFE.
SeaWorld San Diego
While I haven’t visited the San Diego version of SeaWorld, I have been to SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Antonio. My kids have always loved our visits to SeaWorld, especially as they have gotten older. The park is filled with fun rides, including lots of thrill rides.
For younger kids, there’s the Sesame Street Bay of Play, which includes three rides that are great for younger kids. Thrill seekers will enjoy one of the newest rides – the Electric Eel Roller Coaster. It’s the tallest coaster in San Diego, and includes drops, twists, and turns. There are also a few water rides, including Journey to Atlantis and Shipwreck Rapids.
SeaWorld San Diego is located along Mission Bay, and is probably an easy one-day trip. If you are staying in the Anaheim area, you can travel down to San Diego for the day, or there are lots of San Diego hotels near SeaWorld. Some of them offer complimentary shuttles to the park. In season, SeaWorld also operates the Aquatica Water Park, which is located in Chula Vista, CA.
Universal Studios Hollywood
This entertainment and movie-themed park is a must-visit for movie lovers. The most popular attractions are the Wizarding World of Harry Potter as well as the World-Famous Studio Tour. There’s also Springfield U.S.A. – home of the Simpsons.
There are several nearby hotels – a few that offer vacation packages with Universal Studios Hollywood.
Although it’s not a theme park, the San Diego Zoo is definitely worth a visit. It gets very busy, so it’s a good idea to arrive early. During our visit, we arrived when it opens and still faced a long line to park and enter the zoo.
Once you choose your ticket type, purchase your ticket, and enter the zoo, you’ll have the option of taking a double-decker bus tour. While this is a great way to explore the zoo and make a game plan for your day, we opted out because it didn’t start until 30 minutes after the zoo opened.
Another option to travel around the zoo is the Skyfari, which runs from one corner of the zoo to another. We used the Skyfari as a way to walk less, but it was also a fun little ride. Admission may be extra, depending on the type of ticket you have.
Of course, as a zoo, there are loads of animal exhibits to see. My kids especially loved the koala exhibit, because we had never seen them before. There’s also dozens of other animals, as well as shows, special exhibits, and more.
Getting to These Southern California Theme Parks
There are quite a few airports that are convenient to these Southern California Theme Parks. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is definitely the largest and most popular, but other smaller airports may be more convenient and even less expensive.
During my recent trip to the LA area, I flew in through the Long Beach Airport (LBG). It’s a very small airport, but is very easy to navigate. There’s also the John Wayne Airport (SNA), which is also centrally located. Other options include the Hollywood Burbank Airport (BUR), Ontario International Airport (ONT), and the San Diego International Airport (SAN). If you are visiting both LA and San Diego, you may consider flying in through one airport and out through another.