By Matt Villano, on August 14, 2015

5 best theme parks in Northern California

What would family travel be without theme parks? The laughs! The screams! The thrills! The chills! These destinations are some of the only places where families are guaranteed to have fun. Even if your kids aren’t big enough for rides, parks always offer something that will keep little ones smiling.

Residents of San Francisco often suffer from what I like to call theme-park envy. The two most iconic parks—Disneyland® and LEGOLAND® California—are located in the southern part of the state. Thankfully, for those of us within a two-hour drive of the Bay Area, there are smaller alternatives that are just as fun.


It might be hard to believe, but the first theme park in the United States to cater to families with young kids was Children’s Fairyland, an intimate affair on the shores of Lake Merritt in Oakland. The place opened in 1950, making it the first official theme park in California. According to some, it was one of Walt Disney’s inspirations for that park to the south he created five years later.

Today, Fairyland includes a bunch of child-size rides like a mini Ferris wheel and carousels, as well as life-size sets depicting scenes from timeless storybooks (Pinocchio’s castle and the Humpty Dumpty wall are two favorites). The theme park is also home to the Storybook Puppet Theater, which opened in 1956. A number of the country’s most famous puppeteers got their start here, including a teenager by the name of Frank Oznowicz. You likely know him as Frank Oz.

Fairytale Town

Timeless storybooks are also the theme behind Fairytale Town, a small-but-fun toddler-oriented destination inside William Land Park in Sacramento. All told, the circa-1959 park boasts 25 playsets based on different nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and each of the playsets is different. The Crooked Mile, for instance, comprises a 1/8-mile-long trail that kids and parents can follow; Farmer Brown’s Barn is home to three blind mice (yes, really).

One of my favorite things about Fairytale Town is how interactive the exhibits are; kids can climb on or play in just about everything. It’s like the place is a glorified playground. Sure, it’s in need of a makeover (most of the “rides” are original, which means they are made of metal instead of more modern materials such as plastic). But for my kids—ages six and four right now—the playground motif is the perfect vibe.

California’s Great America

Great America, next to the new Levi’s® Stadium in Santa Clara, is geared toward bigger kids, and it’s all about the rides. The Flight Deck, a roller coaster, has one 360-degree loop and a zero-gravity roll. The Gold Striker—the tallest and fastest wooden roller coaster in Northern California—climbs over 108 feet and sends passengers shooting at freeway speeds of up to 54 mph. Look hard enough and you’ll find some rides for smaller kids: The Carousel Columbia is the world’s tallest double-decker carousel, and it’s a ton of fun.

Viewfinder Tip: If you’re visiting San Francisco for an extended family trip, consider purchasing a CityPASS to save on admission to museums.

Discovery Kingdom

The scene at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo is eclectic. In the summer of 2015, park officials added Dare Devil Chaos Coaster, a roller coaster that takes passengers upside down in both forward and backward directions. The park also offers the Medusa roller coaster and SkyScreamer (a swing ride). Perhaps most unpredictably, Discovery Kingdom is home to a number of animals, including Jocko the walrus, who starred in the 2004 movie 50 First Dates, and Brandon the reticulated giraffe, who was named after San Francisco Giants slugger Brandon Belt.

Safari West

Did someone say animals? No list of NorCal theme parks would be complete without a mention of Safari West, an animal theme park in Santa Rosa (which is near my home in northern Sonoma County). Today the park comprises 400 acres and is home to more than 900 different animals representing 90 species. Visitors tour the park in special double-decker jeeps; each tour takes about three hours. The park also has about two dozen cabins in which guests can spend the night; my wife and I did this back in 2014 and loved falling asleep to the sound of flamingoes and watching cavorting giraffes while we sipped our morning coffee.

Considering the herds of human animals you might encounter on a crowded day at those Southern California parks, this experience is infinitely more civilized.

What are the go-to theme parks near you?