Southern California’s 10 Best Amusement Parks and Attractions

Apr 11, 2019

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If you have kids, it’s more than likely you’ve been to at least one amusement park, and chances are it may have been in either Orlando or its out-west rival, Southern California. Our family has done all of the Southern California parks and major attractions several times, so here is an overview of the ones we think are the best.

In order to be voted one of our family’s favorite amusement parks or attractions in SoCal, we rated the destination on a five-point scale (with 5 = awesome) for the following attributes:

  1. Variety of entertaining offerings
  2. Thrills and/or rides for all ages
  3. Quality of food
  4. Ease of arrival and getting around
  5. “It” factor

Without further ado, here are some of Southern California’s best amusement parks and attractions:

Related: The Best Credit Cards for Entertainment Spending

San Diego Zoo

The world-famous San Diego Zoo is the granddaddy of American zoos, and is arguably one of the best in the world. The zoo is an innovator of more natural enclosures, and is organized in bio-climactic zones with various species of each region grouped together. Animal shows, up-close viewing opportunities, zookeeper talks and many interactive exhibits keep everyone entertained for hours.

pink flamingos at San Diego Zoo
Vibrant pink flamingos greet visitors when they enter the San Diego Zoo. (Photo courtesy of 2DadsWithBaggage.com)
  • Variety = 3
  • Thrills = 2
  • Food = 4
  • Ease = 4
  • “It” Factor = 4

Admission is $56 for adults, and $46 for kids 3–11.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

The stated mission of the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park is preservation of species and the end of extinction for all living things. Its vast acreage allows animals from similar regions to roam together in enormous expanses of plain, jungle and rocky hillsides. This is a different experience than a regular zoo, with more opportunities to get up close and personal with the animals. Families can even reserve a tent and spend the night here. Plus, this park is home to a long, fast zipline ride that mimics the speed of a cheetah at full sprint. There is also a suspended hot air balloon ride, allowing guests a bird’s-eye view of the animals and surrounding terrain.

feeding giraffe San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Get up close and personal with the animals at San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
  • Variety = 3
  • Thrills = 3
  • Food = 4
  • Ease = 3
  • “It” Factor = 5

Admission is $56 for adults, and $46 for kids 3–11. Here are some other suggestions for kid-friendly activities in San Diego.

SeaWorld San Diego

Now focused on education and study of undersea creatures, SeaWorld San Diego has dedicated itself to combining edu-tainment with thrills. The combination is not a new concept, but SeaWorld does it right with its exhibits, shows and interactive displays. Everything has an ocean theme, even the thrill rides. The Electric Eel is the fastest roller coaster in San Diego, and Return to Atlantis is a combo roller coaster and log ride — complete with sprays of water at the end. There is plenty here to do for the whole family, including a toddler play area called Sesame Street Bay of Play.

Manta Coaster SeaWorld San Diego
The Manta Coaster at SeaWorld San Diego soars over the park. (Photo courtesy of SeaWorld Entertainment Parks)
  • Variety = 3
  • Thrills = 4
  • Food = 2
  • Ease = 4
  • “It” Factor = 3

Admission is $91.99 for adults and $86.99 for kids ages 3–9. Look for online for ticket specials or check UndercoverTourist.com for discounts.

Legoland California

Designed primarily for littles under 10, Legoland California is a playground for kids who like to create things with Legos. A great many things in the park are actually made from Lego bricks, and almost everything is approachable for even the youngest of ages. Park designers did throw in a couple of more thrilling rides to entertain the older end of the spectrum, but even those are pretty tame. Waterslides, play fountains and an adjacent aquarium round out the family entertainment options.

LEGOLAND California main entrance
LEGOLAND California is full of bright colors and fun amusements. (Photo courtesy of LEGOLAND California)
  • Variety = 2
  • Thrills = 2
  • Food = 4
  • Ease = 3
  • “It” Factor = 3

Admission from $89.99 for adults; kids tickets are only about $6 cheaper, but there is a free kid’s offer available in 2019.

Disneyland

There is, and always will be, a certain magic about the birthplace of the Disney empire. Open since 1955 in Anaheim, Disneyland has grown up along with its guests, and now generations have visited over the years to relive their childhood memories and build new ones with their own kids. With so much to offer at a variety of levels, it’s no surprise that Disneyland attracts guests of all ages to the pixie dust of Disney. This is the real thing.

Mad Hatter Tea Cups ride at Disneyland
The blur of the Mad Hatter Tea Cups ride at Disneyland still makes my head spin. (Photo courtesy of 2DadsWithBaggage.com)
  • Variety = 5
  • Thrills = 4
  • Food = 3
  • Ease = 4
  • “It” Factor = 5

One-day ticket prices vary by date, starting at $104 for adults and $98 for kids 3–9. Here are some ways to save on trips to Disney World, but the first two tips work just as well for Disneyland.

Learn more about Disneyland here: 

Disney California Adventure Park

Just across the plaza from Disneyland, Disney California Adventure Park is a newer collection of some of the empire’s more recent successes. Cars Land is a perennial favorite, and Bugs Land offers attractions and rides for the little ones. A recently reimagined Pixar Pier is home to a high-speed roller coaster themed with The Incredibles characters, plus precarious Ferris wheel and myriad other rides and carnival activities are sure to keep the family entertained for hours. (Our kids love to ride the Guardians of the Galaxy, with a scary set of free-falls I am still trying to get over!) If your kids are foodies, you may want to align your trip with the park’s food and wine festival.

entrance to Cars land Disney California Adventure Park
Cars Land at Disney California Adventure Park brings the Cars movies to life. (Photo courtesy of 2DadsWithBaggage.com)
  • Variety = 5
  • Thrills = 4
  • Food = 4
  • Ease = 4
  • “It” Factor = 3

One-day ticket prices vary by date, starting at $104 for adults and $98 for kids 3–9. If you want to visit both Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, you can look into a Park Hopper ticket to visit both in one day or there are currently three-day ticket specials to both parks (one park per day) from $70 per day.

Universal Studios Hollywood

With an appropriately Hollywood theme, Universal Studios Hollywood is the successful combination of amusement park and movie studio tour. With working soundstages still on-site, there is an air of authenticity beyond Universal’s thrilling rides — and the rides here are certainly thrilling. From Revenge of the Mummy to Jurassic Park, there are plenty of chances to set your adrenaline racing. Harry Potter World is an absolute must-visit, hands down. Leave time for the actual studio tour, which is also very entertaining and a welcome chance to sit down after all that action.

Simpsons ride at Universal Studios Hollywood
The Simpsons Ride at Universal Studios Hollywood makes you laugh before you are even inside. (Photo courtesy of 2DadsWithBaggage.com)
  • Variety = 4
  • Thrills = 4
  • Food = 2
  • Ease = 3
  • “It” Factor = 4

One-day ticket prices vary by date, starting at $109 for adults and $103 for kids 3–9. If you live in California, a California Neighbor Pass valid for unlimited visits select dates might be a better deal at just $149 for nine months.

Warner Bros. Studio Tour

No amusement park rides here, but there are definitely the thrills associated with the chance to see famous actors at work. The Warner Bros. lot is a working studio, bustling with activity and a number of projects filming at any given time. The Warner Bros. Studio Tour is extremely well done, with bus rides through studio backlots and street scenes guests will recognize from many films and TV shows. There are many walking portions as well, where we visited the studio prop warehouse, a mock New York City neighborhood, Central Perk from my favorite TV show “Friends,” and even the soundstage where they shoot “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” When we visited, they were shooting scenes for the TV show “Pretty Little Liars,” and our girls freaked!

backlot tour Warner Bros. Studios Hollywood
On the Warner Bros Studio backlot, our tour took us to the soundstage where “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” is televised. (Photo courtesy of 2DadsWithBaggage.com)
  • Variety = 2
  • Thrills = 3
  • Food = 2
  • Ease = 4
  • “It” Factor = 4

Tours start at $54 for SoCal residents, $69 for adult nonresidents and $59 for kids 8–12.

Six Flags Magic Mountain

Arguably the only pure amusement park on this list, Six Flags Magic Mountain is for the real thrill seekers who enjoy hanging upside down, high speeds, stomach-dropping spirals and loop-de-loops. This is the place for extremes, and rides like the Twisted Colossus and Batman The Ride do not disappoint. Yes, there are plenty of activities for the little ones, too, but make no mistake — Magic Mountain is best enjoyed by people ages 12 to maybe 30. After that, adults may be too aware of their spinning heads to get right back on a ride like my kids do. Every single time. Thank goodness they are old enough to go by themselves now!

Scream rollercoaster ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain
The Scream ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain makes you do just that! (Photo courtesy of Six Flags Magic Mountain)
  • Variety = 3
  • Thrills = 5
  • Food = 2
  • Ease = 3
  • “It” Factor = 3

One-day general admission tickets walk-up tickets start at $89.99 for adults and $59.99 for kids under 48 inches tall. Kids 2 and under are free. However, you can usually score better details online. Right now a season pass valid at all Six Flags Parks and Hurricane Harbor is just $89.99.

Knott’s Berry Farm

Knott’s Berry Farm is a world-renowned theme park built from the humblest of beginnings. What started as a small berry farm soon began to grow into a family theme park destination thanks to famous fried chicken dinners, boysenberries and an Old West Ghost Town. Near Disneyland but without the same crowds (and arguably without the “magic”), Knott’s Berry Farm now boasts world-class roller coasters and thrill rides. Disneyland has Mickey, but Knott’s has Snoopy. It’s definitely worth a try, and our kids really like it here.

Ghost Rider ride at Knott
The Ghost Rider at Knott’s Berry Farm is an old-style wooden roller coaster with all the scary creaks and groans.
  • Variety = 3
  • Thrills = 4
  • Food = 4
  • Ease = 3
  • “It” Factor = 3

Admission from $64 for adults and $54 for kids 3-11.

Bottom Line

It’s really hard to choose a winner among the best amusement parks in Southern California because there are some very strong offerings throughout the area. If we judged by our family’s own rating system, then the winner would be Disneyland, with a close second spot taken by Disney California Adventure Park. However, these are just the best based on our family’s ratings and preferences. Also remember that there are ways to use Chase Ultimate Rewards points and Citi ThankYou points for tickets to many of these attractions via their online travel sites.

Which Southern California amusement park comes out on top for your family?

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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