Northern CA Amusement Parks and Water Parks

All right, so not every kid wants to spend a week’s worth of vacation time checking out educational exhibits. For some families, theme vacations mean theme parks — complete with all the stomach-turning rides and junk food that can be packed into the hours between sunrise and sunset.

Northern California has quite a lot to offer in the theme park department, especially if you include water parks in your plans during the warmer summer months. Here’s a look at some of the bigger attraction-filled destinations for thrill-seekers of all ages.

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom

1001 Fairgrounds Dr, Vallejo, CA 94589

Anyone who is a theme park fan knows the name Six Flags. Discovery Kingdom is like many other Six Flags parks across the United States, featuring everything from roller coasters to kid zones where the rides are geared toward the tiniest of tots.

If your kids are the teenage variety, then you’ll want to get in line to ride Medusa, which is billed as “the tallest, fastest, longest, and most technologically advanced roller coaster in northern California.” There’s no floor beneath your feet as you twist and turn down 3,500 feet of track, including seven inversions. Make sure you do this ride before eating that chili dog for lunch.

Smaller children will enjoy no-size-requirement rides such as the Road Runner Express “roller coaster” as well as the Bertie the Bus ride that swings into the air. There are also kids’ games in special sections of the park that are geared toward the younger set. For a complete list of rides and other attractions, go to

Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park

3050 Hecker Pass Hwy, Gilroy, CA 95020

The Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park, near San Jose, claims to be the state’s only “horticultural theme park.” That’s right: There are multiple gardens mixed in with the rides for thrill-seekers of all ages, all designed to foster an appreciation of the natural world as well as humanity’s ability to shape it.

A lot of the rides at this park are geared toward families with young children, including boat rides around gardens, a Ferris wheel, a carousel, and paddleboats. Older children who want thrills and spills will be a little out of their element here compared with a larger park like Six Flags.

Gilroy Gardens hosts special events such as camp-out nights and educational days, as well as “build-your-own-field-trips” complete with at-home activities that will keep your vacation going long after the traveling is done. Learn more at the park’s official Web site,

To make the most of a visit to Gilroy Gardens, put it on your must-visit list and then wait to choose your day of attendance based on your vacation week’s weather report. A lot of the attractions and exhibits incorporate the great outdoors, including some of the rides. Rainy days are always kind of the pits at theme parks, and that’s especially true for this one.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

400 Beach St, Santa Cruz, CA 95060

This amusement-filled boardwalk was covered in Chapter 11, which noted that it’s one of just two seaside amusement parks still standing on the entire West Coast. As with Gilroy Gardens, the rides here tend to be smaller and older — more suited to families with young children than for teenagers who want to do loop-de-loops until they get bloody noses and headaches. Still, the offerings are full of timeless fun, which is of course why the boardwalk rides have lured tourists continually for more than a century. Details about attractions and exhibits are online at

Due to its amazing rides, deep heritage, and scenic beach setting, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is now California’s longest living amusement park and is widely regarded as the world’s best seaside park. Aside from the obvious rides, their beach is one you should not miss – it is wide and sandy, and you may see dolphins, sea lions, and otters swimming offshore. You might even see some whales if you’re lucky. They have an indoor arcade area with a variety of games, including the all-time fave laser tag. The food is worth trying, with options such as chocolate-covered bacon, deep-fried Twinkies, and unique corn dogs made from a family recipe. Who says amusement parks and beaches don’t go together?

Tahoe Amusement Park

2401 Lake Tahoe Blvd. South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150

Much like the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and Gilroy Gardens, the Tahoe Amusement Park in South Lake Tahoe is designed for family fun, particularly including younger children. It’s open from May through October, and admission is free. However, you have to buy tickets to get on the rides, much as you would at a local or county fair. Some of the rides you can expect to find here include the Tilt-aWhirl, a carousel, a miniature train, and go-karts. The park doesn’t have a Web site, but you can learn more by calling (530) 541-1300.

The Island Waterpark

6099 W Barstow Ave, Fresno, CA 93723

The folks in Fresno don’t have the roller coasters you’ll find elsewhere, but they do know how to stay cool with a smile during the summer months at the Island Waterpark. Although it has a miniature golf course and an arcade, this park’s main attractions are designed to leave you soaking wet — which is a good way to be after any Memorial Day weekend, when the park opens for the season every year.

Rides at the Island Waterpark include five different water slides, a lazy river, and a wave pool. There are about a dozen different rides and attractions in total, making this a smaller park compared with some of the larger theme parks discussed earlier in this chapter. For a complete list of rides, a park map, and additional information, go to

Many of the water slides at the Island Waterpark have height requirements. If your child is shorter than forty-two inches, she will not be allowed on some of the attractions. Also, every child age three and younger — whether potty-trained or not — is required to wear a swim diaper inside the park. Leave your boogie boards and inner tubes at home, though. They’re not allowed inside the park gates.

Raging Waters

Raging Waters Sacramento, 1600 Exposition Blvd, Sacramento, CA 95815

Raging Waters San Jose, 2333 S White Rd, San Jose, CA 95148

There are two Raging Waters locations in northern California: Sacramento and San Jose. The Sacramento venue has more than two dozen rides and attractions for all ages, while the park in San Jose offers about half as much to do. At both parks, you’ll find slides, lazy rivers, and more, all designed to keep you cool and wet during the hot and dry summer months. You can look for special pricing when buying tickets online at The Web site also has links to park maps, age and height restrictions, and additional information.

Final Word

Visit any one of these amusement parks if you’re looking for a thrilling experience or a family looking for unforgettable, fun moments to spend together. These water and amusement parks are unquestionably one of the best ways to spend your vacation in California, so get lost in the fairgrounds and let the slides, roller coasters and attractions speak for themselves.

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