Designed to Thrill: Welcome to Northern California’s Top Theme Parks

Written by Dusty Sage. Posted in Other Destinations

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , ,


Published on April 05, 2013 at 4:01 am with 30 Comments

Please pardon our pixie dust as MiceChat grows again. Join us in welcoming our newest columnist, Spacepainter. We are delighted to have such a distinguished theme park designer join our crew. While most of these articles will be about Northern California theme parks and amusement parks, there will be a variety of topics and even the occasional road trip. Today, we start with an overview of Northern California’s top parks to get you acquainted.

Southern California is home to some of America’s most beloved, popular and historic theme and amusement parks. However, the Bay Area has enough parks to make any amusement park addict take notice. From family theme parks to heart pumping thrills, NorCal has it all!

Gilroy Gardens (formerly, Bonfante Gardens) is a gem; one of the most beautiful parks I’ve ever been to. Nestled in the heart of garlic country, Gilroy Gardens offers guests the unique one-of-a-kind experience of learning through entertainment. This is a family theme park in its purest form – parents can appreciate the opportunity to take their kids to a theme park without the risk of over-stimulation. Gilroy Gardens is peaceful, serene, wonderfully landscaped and crammed full of rides for kids of all ages.

The park boasts two scenic coasters; Timber Twister and The Quicksilver Express Mine Coaster along with the recently added Splash Gardens water park. The real treasures of this park are its famous Circus Trees, which were originally grown in the 1920s and are, quite honestly, a wonder to behold.

One of many Circus Trees.

Gilroy Gardens is a young park, built in 2001. However, once you walk through its gates you feel as if the park has stood in its present form for decades. The park is currently operated by Cedar Fair and is a peaceful alternative to its more thrilling sister park, California’s Great America. If you have kids and half-a-day to spare, I strongly recommend heading to Gilroy for some quality fun.

If you are looking to have a lot of fun for practically nothing, look no further than the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This admission-free seaside park is the oldest amusement park in California and one of the oldest amusement parks in the country. One can’t help but feel nostalgic walking along the pier; the smell of cotton candy, corn dogs and the beach fill the air and practically everything is covered in blinking lights. The Boardwalk offers a number of great amusement park and carnival-type rides but the parks signature roller coaster, the Giant Dipper is a MUST RIDE for any coaster enthusiast. There is a hokey charm to this park that just can’t be found anywhere else in California, case in point; the Cave Train Adventure.

Sky Glider

One of the best things about this park is that there is so much fun to be had without even opening your wallet – the beach, the boardwalk and the massive arcade are all admission free. During the summer they offer free concerts every Friday night; you might even be lucky enough to catch Blue Oyster Cult, Eddie Money or the Greg Kihn Band during one of their annual performances. In true boardwalk fashion, individual tickets are needed to ride the rides.

The park can get a little crazy during the summer, especially during events like the annual Clam Chowder Cook Off.

Though the park is over a century old, it manages to stay very current. Their management team is keen to take advantage of social networking to heavily promote special events and park updates. The famous Haunted Castle received a complete overhaul a few years back and the dated Cyclone roller coaster is currently being replaced by the new Under Tow.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk is worth the visit, if for nothing more than to take in the beach, night life or ride the historic landmark Looff Carousel.

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom has gone through many name changes since its inception in the late 60’s. It started out in Redwood City as Marine World but was relocated to Vallejo in the 80’s when it merged with Africa USA. Marine World, Africa, USA spent several years as an animal and aquatics park until it was purchased by Six Flags, rides were added and the name was changed again.

The park entrance showcases both coasters and wildlife.

Discovery Kingdom offers guests more variety of animal exhibits and species than any other amusement park in the state. Like SeaWorld, Discovery Kingdom features the usual dolphin, seal and orca shows as well as shows that showcase birds, big cats and elephants. The variety of animals alone is worth the trip but, as we all know, Six Flags is all about thrills. Discovery Kingdom gives guests the opportunity to take in the trademark Six Flagsesque coasters along with the all new SkyScreamer swing ride and SUPERMAN Ultimate Flight.

SUPERMAN Ultimate Flight grand opening.

The future of this park was up in the air when Six Flags filed for bankruptcy. It has since rebounded and it is great to see the company investing some serious dollars into one of their most distinctive parks. Although this park is packed with trill rides like Medusa, Northern California’s most extreme coaster, the best thing about this park is that it has animals. Discovery Kingdom is unique amongst other Six Flags parks, so if you are looking for something a little more than big coasters, this is the place!

California’s Great America is my home park; I know the place like the back of my hand. Situated in the heart of Silicon Valley, this park has been a Bay Area staple for nearly 40 years. From its early days as a Marriot park to its many years with Paramount, Great America has always delivered world-class thrills, exceptional shows and family fun. With the addition of the much anticipated Gold Striker roller coaster, several new shows and its expanded Halloween HAUNT, Great America is gearing up for an incredible 2013 season.

Carousel Columbia – Tallest Carousel in the World.

Like Knott’s Berry Farm, its adopted sister park to the south, Great America showcases the Peanuts characters in a variety of shows and attractions. With 8 unique live shows Great America has the largest entertainment department of any amusement park in California, perfect for families looking to take a break from walking. Summertime is a breeze at Great America; admission to its water park, Boomerang Bay, is free with park admission.

Cedar Fair has finally decided to invest a serious amount of capital into Great America and management is using it for the much needed beautification of the park. Several buildings and rides have kicked off 2013 with brand new paint jobs, most noticeably Carousel Columbia, the world’s largest double-decker carousel. It is refreshing to see park management finally taking notice of the previously neglected asphalt, roofing shingles, wood rot and peeling paint that has plagued the park since it’s acquisition by Cedar Fair.

Happiness is…Snoopy returns for a second season this year!

If one takes into account the free water park, fantastic shows and great rides it’s easy to see how much California’s Great America has to offer amusement park buffs! I’ll be covering Great America in more detail in later posts so all you Bay Area coaster fanatics better get ready!

Happy Hollow Park & Zoo is perhaps one of the most unique theme parks in California. The park is owned and operated by the City of San Jose and is part of the greater Kelly Park which includes a Japanese koi pond and the massive San Jose Historical Society park. Happy Hollow was a publicly funded park when it was built in the late 50’s and remains so to this day.

Happy Hollow Front Gate

Happy Hollow started life as a fairytale-themed park and in 1967 a zoo was added. The park has remained an icon of the City of San Jose and in 2008, after 46 years, Happy Hollow began a $72 million renovation. The original fairy tale themeing was replaced by a more contemporary theme of conservation throughout the park. Happy Hollow is not only one of the “greenest” parks in the country; it is also home to a wide variety of endangered species and strives to educate guests on the importance of conservation and environmental responsibility.

Many new attractions like the Keep-Around-Carousel and The Pacific Fruit Express roller coaster were added during the renovation while favorites like the beloved Danny the Dragon Ride and Puppet Theater remain. Even though it’s one of the oldest theme parks in California it still manages to stay relevant, hosting several special events like their night-time Hoot & Howl; complete with cocktails, gourmet food and live entertainment.

Hoot & Howl 2012

Happy Hollow holds a special place in my heart, just as I’m sure it does in the hearts of many Bay Area residents. This is a wonderful place to bring your kids and for them to bring their kids. There are no big thrills here, just a since of belonging, exploration and fun…a place where anyone can feel at home.

I hope all you MiceChatters enjoyed this look into some of NorCal’s best parks, you can look forward to much more in-depth updates in the future!

About Dusty Sage

Dusty is the founder and CEO of When he's not visiting theme parks and writing and editing articles about Disney and theme parks worldwide, Dusty is busy saving the Walt Disney Birthplace in Chicago and speaking at various theme park and communications events. If you've got news or photos to share with the MiceChat community, or would like to book Dusty for an upcoming event, please contact [email protected]

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  • eicarr

    Much needed!!! With Disney’s family here at the winery and museum and Disney studios like Pixar and Lucasfilm, this is a great idea expanding coverage within the state a little further.

    The new haunted castle at Santa Cruz is the most fun dark ride outside of Disneyland!! I laugh and have fun every time I ride the multilevel experience.

    And the cute slow rides and scenery at Gilroy Gardens makes it the under appreciated underdog of California parks that I root for.

    I wish Frontier Village was still on this list though. :(

    • El Bandolero

      Frontier Village was the best; I barely, barely remember that one, but remember loving it!

      Look at this website for some great nostalgia:

  • Eric Davis

    Great new column! I love exploring other theme parks so much! I would love to see more pictures from Gilroy Gardens since it is such a new park, and I would love to see more in-depth photo spreads on all of these parks!

  • Dusty Sage

    We are so pleased to have you here Spacepainter! Wonderful column and we look forward to seeing where you take us next!

  • GadgetHackwrench

    You should write about Children’s Fairyland in Oakland some time! I think all my visits there as a kid paved the way for my love of Disney, and Walt even visited the place in 1950!
    Also, Discovery Kingdom was way better when it was Marine World, Africa USA! I miss the Dinosaur Experience with the giant T-Rex you could see from the freeway :(

  • Gregg Condon

    First off, welcome to the team!!!!

    Secondly, love your brief summaries of the NorCal parks. I absolutely LOVE Gilroy Gardens and Santa Cruz. I’m really looking forward to Gold Striker and am hoping to get to SFDK this year.

    I’ll be up in June for the SF Marathon so hoping to at least get to SF/CGA/Santa Cruz to check out their newest rides.

  • wallaceproject

    I love this article. I am from Northern California and I used to live in San Jose. Happy Hollow Park was literally across the street from my place. I also used to work at Great America, when it was owned and operated by Paramount. I loved working at that park and have been going there for years since I was a kid. It’s good to see the park some much need sprucing up. Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk, another one of my all-time favorite parks, is still a great place to go. Even if I don’t go on the rides that much (if at all) anymore, I still enjoy walking up and down the boardwalk, taking in the atmosphere, and getting some cotton candy and other treats. And Discovery Kingdom is a cool place also. Six Flags always has some of the best coasters ever. I haven’t been to these parks in quite a while, but definitely need to plan a trip or two for these places this year after reading this update. Thanks so much!

  • Stomper622

    Thank you so much for adding a NorCal column!! I’m a season pass holder to Discovery Kingdom and love that park. It’s like Sea World, but with more rides.

    I’m also glad that Great America is also finally getting some love. Gold Striker looks great. I hope to check it out this summer.

  • Mr Ness

    My family had season tickets to Marine World just as the park was beginning the transition from animal park to theme park back in the late 90s. Though I haven’t been in nearly a decade, I’m glad to hear that Six Flags is dedicated to maintaining and improving the animal exhibits.

  • bookwyrm

    Awesome! It’s great to see the parks I grew up with highlighted in such a comprehensive article. I’m thrilled that Gilroy Gardens is in here, too. It’s a truly lovely place to go, even without kids.

  • amanda.collishaw

    Pleasantly surprised to see Happy Hollow on the list; I spent the majority of my childhood there and at Great America. Can’t wait to see more! This made my day.

  • scarymouse

    Excellent! This will be a welcome column. I have and still do live in the Bay Area,I had completely forgot about frontier village…what about Santa’s Village in the Santa Cruz mountains…I remember loving that place too when I was Little. Those places for me was my “Disneyland” and its great to reminisce. Most of these places boomed because of Disney, but just wasn’t financially possible for most to get to the Real Thing…so off to the local park for a fun time. Can’t wait for updates the Bay Area has a lot to offer. Haven’t been to Gilroy yet,but now I want to go. Thanks again.

  • devans

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this column. I’m so happy to see Northern California parks covered, especially smaller parks like Happy Hollow and Gilroy Gardens (my kids LOVE those parks). Here’s a second to GadgetHackwrench’s request to cover Fairyland too, especially since there’s a connection to Disneyland. Thanks!

  • Shark Bait

    Love that you’re covering the Bay Area’s theme parks as well. They’re very much overlooked compared to their brethren in the other part of California. Top Gun remains to be my favorite coaster in the world.

    And yes, Top Gun. I refuse to call it Flight Deck.

  • themur

    Welcome aboard. As a Nor Cal person always nice to see our local parks get a little love!

    You really do need to cover Children’s Fairyland in Oakland. Five years older than Disneyland, it was on one of the many places Walt visited as he was accumulating inspiration for DL. I believe he also hired away Fairyland’s original director Dorthy Manes.

    Certainly no thrills here, and you have to have a kid to get into the park but it remains a lovely gem on the shores or Lake Merritt. Fairlyland was definitely my early introduction to the fun of themed environments!

  • mondo

    I worked at Great America from ’08 -’10. It has been a while since I went to any theme parks in Nor Cal.