Southern California’s theme parks rank high among family favorites nationwide. If visiting Disney’s ‘Happiest Place on Earth,’ getting a thrill from Hollywood’s movie magic or just feeling a powerful need for speed on a rad roller coaster is on your itinerary, this is the place.

Some rides may have minimum-height requirements, so let the younger kids know in advance to avoid disappointment and tears.

Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle. Image by HarshLight / CC BY 2.0

Disneyland Park & Disney California Adventure

Topping almost every family’s must-do fun list is Walt Disney’s ‘imagineered’ theme park. All ages of kids, even teens, and the eternally young at heart adore Disneyland, along with next-door Disney California Adventure. You’ll see huge, multi-generational families enjoying the park’s rides and attractions together, from mothers with newborn babes in arms to elderly great-grandparents.

The park aims to be the ‘Happiest Place on Earth,’ an expression coined by Walt Disney himself when it first opened on July 17, 1955. Today, spotless, wholesome Disneyland is still laid out according to Walt’s original plan.

Behind Sleeping Beauty Castle, Fantasyland is your best bet for meeting princesses and other characters in costume. If you only see one attraction in Fantasyland, visit It’s a Small World, a boat ride past hundreds of Audio-Animatronics children from different cultures singing the theme song in an astounding variety of languages.

Pirates of the Caribbean, the longest ride in Disneyland (17 minutes), opened in 1967 and was the first addition to the original park. At the Haunted Mansion, ‘happy haunts’ – spirits and goblins, shades and ghosts – evanesce while you ride the Doom Buggy through web-covered graveyards. Space Mountain, which hurtles you into complete darkness at frightening speed, is one of the USA’s best roller coasters.

For shows, don’t miss Fantasmic, an outdoor extravaganza on Disneyland’s Rivers of America, with its full-size ships, lasers and pyrotechnics. Arrive early to snag the best seats, which are down front by the water.

You can see either Disneyland or Disney California Adventure in a day, but going on all the rides requires at least two days (three if visiting both parks). To minimize wait times, especially in summer, arrive midweek before the gates open and use the Fastpass system, which assigns boarding times for selected attractions. A variety of multiday passes are available. Check the website for discounts and seasonal park hours. Parking is $15. Admission: 1-day pass Disneyland Park or DCA adult/child 3-9yr $80/74, both parks $105/99. 

Universal Studios. Image by Narin BI / CC BY 2.0

Universal Studios Hollywood

One of the world’s oldest and largest continuously operating movie studios, Universal first opened to the public in 1915, when studio head Carl Laemmle invited visitors at a quaint 25¢ each (including a boxed lunch) to watch silent films being made.

Your chances of seeing an actual movie shoot are slim to none at Universal’s current theme park incarnation, yet generations of visitors have had a ball here. Start with the 45-minute narrated Studio Tour aboard a giant, multicar tram that takes you past working soundstages and outdoor sets such as Desperate Housewives. Also prepare to survive a shark attack à la Jaws and an 8.3-magnitude earthquake. It’s hokey but fun.

Among the dozens of other attractions, King Kong in 3-D scares the living daylights, the Simpsons Ride is a motion-simulated romp ‘designed’ by Krusty the Klown, and you can splash down among the dinos of Jurassic Park; while Special Effects Stages illuminate the craft of movie-making.

Allow a full day to see all the attractions, especially in summer. To beat the crowds, invest in the Front of Line Pass ($149). Parking is $12, or arrive via Metro Red Line. Admission: $77/69 over/under 48in.

Six Flags Magic Mountain. Image by Jeremy Thompson / CC BY 2.0

Six Flags Magic Mountain & Hurricane Harbor

Velocity rules at Six Flags Magic Mountain, an amusement park with dozens of baffling ways to go up, down and inside out, fast to faster.

Speed-crazed teens can get their thrills on the 16 bone-chilling roller coasters, including the aptly named Scream, which goes through seven loops, including a zero-gravity roll and a dive loop, with you sitting in a floorless chair. If you’ve got a stomach of steel, don’t miss X2, where cars spin 360 degrees while hurtling forward and plummeting all at once. Many rides have height restrictions ranging from 36in to 58in, but there are tamer rides for the elementary school set, plus shows, parades and concerts for all ages.

On hot summer days, little ones might be more in their element next door at Six Flags Hurricane Harbor, a jungle-themed 22-acre water park with a tropical lagoon, churning wave pools and wicked high-speed slides.

Check the website for discounts. If you don’t have your own transport, look for organized tour flyers in hotels. Parking is $15. Admission: adult/child under 4ft $62/37 (Magic Mountain); adult/child under 4ft $35/25 (Hurricane Harbor).

Knott's Berry Farm's Ghostrider roller coaster. Image by ParkThoughts / CC BY 2.0

Knott’s Berry Farm

They drop off kids by the busload at this Old West–themed park. Knott’s is smaller and less frenetic than the Disneyland parks, but it can be fun, especially for roller coaster fanatics, young teens and kids who love the Peanuts gang.

The park opened in 1940 when Mr Knott’s boysenberries (a blackberry-raspberry hybrid) and Mrs Knott’s fried-chicken dinners attracted crowds of local farmhands. Mr Knott built an imitation ghost town to keep them entertained. Eventually they hired local carnival rides and charged admission. Mrs Knott kept frying chicken but the rides and Old West buildings became the main attraction.

Today the park keeps the Old West theme alive with shows and demonstrations at Ghost Town, but it’s the thrill rides that draw the crowds. Nearby, the suspended, inverted Silver Bullet screams through a corkscrew, a double spiral and an outside loop. The Xcelerator is a ’50s-themed roller coaster that blasts you from 0mph to 82mph in only 2.3 seconds. One of the tallest wooden roller coasters in the world – and the largest attraction in the park’s history – is the 118ft-tall GhostRider, in which riders climb into ‘mining cars’ for a thrilling journey.

Camp Snoopy is a kiddie wonderland populated by the Peanuts characters and family-friendly rides.

Opening hours vary seasonally so call ahead or check online. Also check the website for the latest discounts; some can be substantial. Parking costs $14. Admission: adult/child 3-11yr & senior $57/25.

Legoland California. Image by wiredforlego / CC BY-SA 2.0

Legoland California

Modeled loosely after the original in Denmark, Legoland California is a low-key fantasy environment built on our love for joinable plastic blocks. Geared toward younger kids, expect to spend most of the day here.

In the Land of Adventure area of the park, a 16ft Pharaoh made from 300,000-plus Legos guards the new Lost Kingdom Adventure. Inside, families can laser-blast targets from a moving car. A longtime highlight includes Miniland, where the skylines of major metropolitan cities have been spectacularly re-created entirely of Legos. Elsewhere, many activities are geared specifically to kids, such as face painting, boat rides and scaled-down roller coasters. Combination passes are available to the adjacent water park and aquarium.

From I-5, take the Legoland/Cannon Rd and follow the signs. From downtown Carlsbad or downtown San Diego, take the Coaster to the Carlsbad Village Station and hop on bus 344 straight to the park. Parking costs $12. Admission: adult/child $69/59.

Panda and cub at San Diego Zoo. Image by Supermac1961 / CC BY 2.0

San Diego Zoo & Safari Park

If it slithers, crawls, stomps, swims, leaps or flies, chances are you’ll find it at California’s best and biggest zoo. Since opening in 1916, the San Diego Zoo has pioneered ways to house and display animals that mimic their natural habitat, leading to a revolution in zoo design.

Today, the zoo is home to thousands of animals representing 800-plus species in a beautifully landscaped setting. Perennial favorite Polar Bear Plunge wows crowds with up-close, underwater views of the bears through thick glass walls. Other hotspots are Elephant Odyssey and Panda Canyon. The koalas in the Outback have proved so popular that Australians may be surprised to find them an unofficial symbol of San Diego.

At Discovery Outpost, youngsters can pet small critters and watch animal shows. Visitors of all ages will enjoy viewing ‘zoo babies,’ the park’s newest arrivals.

Arrive early, when the animals are most active. There’s a large, free parking lot off Park Blvd that starts filling fast right at opening time. Admission: adult/child with guided bus tour & aerial tram ride $40/30.

If enjoying an extended stay in San Diego, head to the Safari Park in Escondido, where you can take a safari-style tram tour through an ‘open-range’ zoo. Combination tickets with the San Diego Zoo are $76/56. Parking costs $10.

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