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!