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

Written by Dusty Sage. Posted in 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, editing or speaking about Disney and theme parks worldwide, Dusty stays busy as the Executive Director of both the Walt Disney Birthplace AND the Dick Van Dyke Foundation. He also run's O-Zell Soda (the company originally operated by Walt Disney's father and at which Walt once worked). 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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  • faerla

    When I was growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, Marine World Africa USA was a great park. The animals had huge enclosures and the park did a lot of rescue work with dolphins and other species. Having never been to SoCal, Marine World was my first big park, and I adored it. It was horrifying to see the animals shoved into smaller and smaller enclosures when the rides came in. They also seemed to have a lot of animal deaths within the first few years of the rides- my guess is because of higher stress levels due to the noise and vibrations of the rides. It’s a shame that the welfare of the animals was put behind the need to bring in more money with thrill rides. I love animals and I love theme parks- but they shouldn’t mix! Seaworld seems to do a better job by incorporating just a few rides on the edges of the park, but I hope that’s an area they won’t keep expanding at the risk to their wonderful critters.

  • DisneyDrums

    For the Boardwalk, Cyclone is one of the flat rides. I should know. I’ve got season tickets there. Undertow is replacing the old Hurricane. Please fix that.

  • For the longest time, I was under the impression that Marineworld/Africa USA was the result of two parks merging. In reality, Africa USA was an animal training compound located at the Vazquez rocks near Los Angeles. A number of television shows were shot on the property, including Bonanza and Star Trek. In 1972, Africa USA’s owner, Ralph Heller, purchased Marineworld and added a wildlife park component and “jungle theater,” which Discovery Kingdom still has to this day. He named this new portion of the park after his Southern California preserve. There was also an Africa USA that operated as a Lion Country-type drive-through safari park in Boca Raton, FL from 1953 to 1964, but that park is not related other than by name and types of animals to Heller’s operations.

  • SpectroMan

    I’m still one who prefers MARRIOTT’S Great America, but I’m willing to give it another chance now that CF has stopped neglecting it and investing again. Thanks for the article.

    • Marko50

      At one point CF until recently, CF had no choice but to leave it alone. The 49′s were threating to shut it down – not in so many words, but by their actions. Thankfully, that has been resolved.

  • DuckyDelite

    Thanks for a great article and welcome to the team! Glad to read that some of the NorCal parks are finally getting some much needed attention.

    I also agree it would be great to get some updates on Children’s Fairyland in Oakland. Not having been in many(!) years, I often seem to get items at Fairyland mixed up with items at Happy Hollow. Would be great to see pictures of both and find out if Happy Hollow is still using any old items from Frontier Village.

  • DobbysCloset

    It never occurred to me before that there was civilization (defined as Main Street Disneyland with thrill rides) between Portland and Anaheim…though I knew about the Santa Cruz boardwalk from the movie “The Lost Boys.”

    I would love to see these places on a map so I could imagine the drives between them…

    Thank you so much for giving me a new window on a grey, wet Oregon day.


    • Experiment 626

      Its about an hours drive (without traffic on HWY 17/880 south) from Great America (Santa Clara) to Santa Cruz,Ca.

      From Great America its about 20 minutes to Happy Hollow Park in San Jose.

      Its a 40 minute drive from Great America to Gilroy Gardens taking 101 South.

      Its nice being surrounded by these parks all in a hours drive from my place in Santa Clara,Ca (which is a 10 min drive for me) Hope this gives you an idea the general idea in distance. All these parks are off the major freeways here as well.

  • DisDreamin

    I grew up in Gilroy, CA. You mentioned that Gilroy Gardens is new and started in 2001. It actually has a history that goes even farther back then that. I remember going to Hecker Pass as it was known back then for school trips. It was a picnic park. I vaguely remember a train and then there was a swimming pool and lots of open picnic space along with other park like recreation. Back then it wasn’t open to the public. This was around late 80′s early 90′s.. Schools were allowed and corporate companies could gain access for their employees and their families. Its been a while since I lived there so I have not been there since it was transformed to a public amusement park. It seems like it was an amusement park in the making for many many years!

    • DuckyDelite

      Yep. It was started as a facility/park for employees of Nob Hill Foods by its owner. It was also a commercial nursery, Tree Haven. I went there a few times as a kid with some friend’s families that worked at Nob Hill. I knew there were always plans to add a train and expand the park.

      It you haven’t been to Gilroy Gardens, I highly recommend it. It is a beautiful park and a great way to enjoy an afternoon.

  • Experiment 626

    Ah,home sweet home all these parks are within a short’s so awesome! I do miss frontier village I live right across the street from and we would go every weekend. I haven’t been to Great America since 07′ and maybe 10 years before that. Even before I started going to DL ive never really gotten into that park. its been through so many owners that it’s far from the park I grew up with when it first opened up. But I’d give up all these parks for DL being this close! :-D

    Great write up and thank you for the Bay Area love! peace~

  • Marko50

    Thank you for this column! Much to my surprise I have been to four out of five of these parks at least once, though Gilroy Gardens was Bonfonte at the time. Not sure who CGA was under when I first visited it, but I’ve been to it at least twice under CF. Looking forward to future editions.

  • Courtney Smith

    At the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, Undertow is replacing the old Hurricane coaster, not Cyclone. Cyclone is a spinning ride that remains at the lower end of the park =)

  • partyhare

    This is so awesome! I am visiting 4 of these parks this year. I already went to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom and it was a pretty nice park!
    This article has me excited about Great America and Gilroy Gardens! I already LOVE Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, so no brainer to go there when Undertow opens.

    Thanks for this AWESOME article!