|Southern California is the epicenter of fun in the United States this summer. New coasters, shows, parades, experiences and extravaganzas have, or will soon, open in theme parks, zoos and museums all over. While Disney’s publicity machine is churning out lavish television commercials, billboards and newspaper articles about its many new attractions this summer, you may not have heard much or anything at all about what is happening at Six Flags, Knott’s Berry Farm, Universal Studios Hollywood, LEGOLAND, SeaWorld and beyond. We’ve assembled a list of what’s new and not to be missed this summer. Here’s our guide to the top 20 Southern California attractions for summer 2011.
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No one is offering more new attractions this summer than the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim California. With adventures for families, teens and even adults, Disneyland is aiming to capture your travel dollars.
Star Tours: The Adventures Continue – Last year, Disneyland closed its long popular Star Tours attraction to revamp it with modern 3D technology and randomized destinations. Disney promises a new adventure every time you ride. This attraction is a bit bumpy but not too extreme for the vast majority of folks. We rank this attraction the number one must-see for summer 2011. Star Wars lovers, adventure seekers, and anyone who appreciates Disney’s rich themes, will be enthralled with Star Tours 3D.
Tip: use Disney’s Fastpass to secure your place at the front of the line and avoid the likely 2 hour waits.
Soundsational -Disneyland has also launched an all new musical parade which takes a classic approach to the marching, dancing, big float spectaculars that Disney is known for. We rate this parade good for all ages.
Tip: if the park is packed (and it likely will be all summer long) an abundance of terraced parade viewing spots can be found next to It’s a Small World near the back of Fantasyland. Find your viewing spot at least 15 minutes before show time and look for some shade.
Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure - Across the way from Disneyland, California Adventure guests will find a brand new family attraction based upon the hit Disney animated musical, the Little Mermaid. This bright toon-filled ride employs state of the art animated figures and is sure to delight the young ones. This may not be the perfect attraction for teens or those searching for thrills; however, anyone who enjoys Disneyland’s Fantasyland rides will find something new and exciting under the sea.
Tip: Fast Pass is NOT available on the Little Mermaid attraction. Arrive early and be prepared to wait for an hour or more to ride.
What else is new? Disney has also dressed up an older roller coaster in California Adventure and renamed it Goofy’s Sky School. While considered a family friendly Mad Mouse style coaster, those who can’t handle sudden (and sometimes painful) turns and drops will want to stay firmly on the ground. Adults will find thrills of their own at the Disneyland Hotel where a fanciful new Tiki Bar has opened, Trader Sam’s. Ordering certain fancy drinks will make a volcano erupt, a ship sink, or a hurricane blow . . . just ask your server which drinks offer the most bang for your buck. If you haven’t visited the Disneyland Resort in the last few years, you may also enjoy World of Color an extravagant Bellagio-like fountain and laser show on the Paradise Pier lagoon and Toy Story Midway Mania both at Disney California Adventure.
Disneyland is famous not only for Mickey Mouse and the Matterhorn but huge crowds as well. Expect this summer to be a record setter for attendance. And that, unfortunately, calls for some extra planning. The key tips to riding as many attractions as possible:
- Arrive at park opening.
- Obtain Fastpass for your favorite attraction as soon as the park opens for the day (Star Tours Fast Passes have been selling out within an hour or two of park opening).
- Visit Little Mermaid as soon as California Adventure opens (usually an hour or two after Disneyland).
- Keep track of the time that Disney will allow you to obtain your next Fast Pass ticket.
- If you’d like to see World of Color, don’t forget to reserve your spot by picking up a Fast Pass for it early in the day.
If you are looking for the least crowded day of the summer to visit, please read this excellent guide to when will it will be busy at Disneyland.
Disney isn’t the only local theme park rolling out multiple new attractions this summer. Shamu’s home in San Diego is making a big splash as well.
One Ocean – the newest Shamu production comes after an unfortunate mishap involving one of SeaWorld’s Orcas forced changes to the old show. Trainers no longer enter the water with the whales. Rather, Shamu performs his classic tricks with the trainers on stage and around the stadium. To add a bit of excitement, water fountains have been added around the pool and state of the art video screens are used as a backdrop. Of course, the show is set to an inspirational musical score. New name and stage aside, this is classic Shamu fun for the whole family.
Tip: The Shamu stadium is huge, but fills up quickly. Don’t get left behind or trapped in the most sunny spot, arrive at the stadium 20 to 30 minutes before show time for the best seats. Better yet, see the earliest show of the day or one in the evening when temperatures are more moderate.
Turtle Reef and Riptide Rescue - Sea Turtles are long-lived and majestic animals. The new Turtle Reef gives kids the chance to observe these stately animals up close and learn their interesting secrets. Then, just outside the aquarium, you can board lifeboats for a crazy mixed up ride on the new Riptide Rescue (which is really just a minimally themed, but fun, carnival ride).
Animal Connections – SeaWorld was recently sold by the Anheuser Busch company. As a result, the world famous Clydesdale Horses have been removed from the park. In their place, a new mini-zoo has been added to the enormous paddock area.
Summer Nights – From June 18th to August 28th, SeaWorld stays open late and offers unique nighttime entertainment, including fireworks. Shamu rocks the night away (literally), a Cirque style show is performed nightly, the Sea Lion show is performed with a new theme and spectacular new fireworks light up the night sky.
What Else? If you’ve got young ones, don’t miss the simple but kid-friendly Sesame Street Bay of Play. Big Bird and the gang are there to interact with the kiddos and Sesame themed carnival rides abound. As you navigate the park, you might find yourself blocked by construction walls. SeaWorld is in the progress of building a smooth new coaster called Manta which will take to the air in the summer for 2012.
Tip: If you are looking for delicious dining, we recommend the Shipwreck Reef Cafe which serves up fresh grilled meats and delicious desserts. Best of all, seating is scenic with views of the Shipwreck Rapids water ride snaking around and below the restaurant. This is a magical dining spot the kids will love.
Tip: SeaWorld is one of those parks which can get very hot on a sunny day. Take advantage of the later hours and special entertainment offered during the Summer Nights promotion to keep your family happy and cool (if you think the kids can stay awake until 9pm).
Another park with bold ambitions this summer is Six Flags Magic Mountain. You’ll find 3 new-ish coaster thrills this year and a park that has been freshly painted and significantly spruced up. This isn’t the the Six Flags of dark urban legend, but rather an increasingly friendly park to families (especially with tweens and teens).
Green Lantern: First Flight - One of the most inventive attractions of summer is Green Lantern. It doesn’t look like any coaster you’ve seen before. This is really Six Flags at its twisted steel best. However, you’ll need to wait a bit longer because this attraction has been pushed back to a July opening.
Superman: Escape from Krypton – This is actually a pre-existing ride which has been enhanced by turning the vehicles around backwards. Interestingly, it makes this attraction a much better experience. Now you’ll launch into the air backwards as you watch the station and the rest of Six Flags grow smaller and smaller before your very eyes. Then the whole world comes rushing back as you race toward the fortress of solitude with the wind in your face. It is well worth the long waits.
Roadrunner Express - Kids will love this simple new coaster themed to the Roadrunner cartoons. If this ride feels familiar, that’s because it is the same track layout as Disneyland’s Gadget Go Coaster. Truly a kiddie coaster, but a much appreciated change of pace for those families looking for adventures for their younger members.
Knott’s is a unique park with a split personality. Half of the park is an old time western themed family friendly area with lots of great shopping and a world famous fried chicken dinner! The other half of Knott’s is an extreme thrill park with tons of exposed steel and adrenalin pumping action.
Windseeker - New for this summer is, Windseeker, a high flying swing attraction which will whirl you 301 feet in the air. If that has you shaking in your boots, the family friendly side of Knott’s is preparing all sorts of Snoopy related activities including a night-time dancing light spectacular and an ice show staring the beloved Peanuts characters. Something for everyone this year.
Tip: Knott’s has lots of nooks and crannies to be explored. Arrive early and ride the big rides first (lines become unbearable later in the day) then have a nice lunch at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner or the Ghost Town Grill and spend the second half of the day wandering Ghost Town and poking your head into the numerous shops, displays and museums. Cool off on Big Foot Rapids or sit a spell at the Mystery Lodge and at any of a number of western and Indian themed shows. There is much more to Knott’s than most folks realize. You’ll be glad you took the time to explore both personalities of America’s original theme park.
The most famous studio tour in the world doesn’t have much new this year, but that doesn’t make the park any less worthy of visiting this summer. They’ve freshened up their tram tour with a famous new host, Jimmy Fallon, and the park is alive with performances and walk-around characters. Last summer, King Kong returned to the Studio Tour in larger than life 3D. If you missed it then, visit the park this summer now that crowds have died down a bit.
Tip: If you’ve never visited Universal before, you might enjoy the VIP Tour. This all day experience grants you front of line access to all of the attractions and a special guided tour of the studio including a chance to walk around on some of the most famous sets in Hollywood. Plus, you’ll be treated to a gourmet lunch buffet and royal treatment throughout the park and studios. It is one of Southern California’s elite theme park experiences. But it does come at a steep price. Read MiceChat’s review of the studio tour (along with dozens of beautiful photos) here.
This is a tale of two zoos, both run by the same organization. One is world famous for setting the standard for city zoos, the other for turning the concept of a zoo inside out by replicating the wild and keeping the visitors safe behind fences and in special trams and vehicles. While the San Diego Zoo just gets better every year, the Safari Park (formerly known as the Wild Animal Park) is rapidly losing its identity. So, rather than confusing you further with this tale of two San Diego Zoos, we are only going to tell you about the good one found in historic Balboa Park. Once the Safari Park gets back on track, we’ll hopefully be able to add it to our list of recommended attractions in future years.
Panda Trek Habitat – San Diego has been blessed with the birth of several rare Giant Panda cubs over the years. These little puffs of fur have proven so popular that the exhibit has been expanded and expanded again. Once again, the zoo has improved the Panda habitat and welcomes visitors to explore China, home of the beloved Panda.
Night Zoo – From June 25th through September 5, the San Diego Zoo will stay open late (until 9pm) and offer special nighttime entertainment and activities. Visitors will find Chinese acrobats, performers, and a high spirited “Front Street Finale” at the end of the night where every performer in the park gathers together in a fantastic good night celebration.
Tip: You may not think of upscale dining when you think Zoo, but the San Diego Zoo has a remarkable restaurant found in an equally memorable spot, perched high on a hilltop overlooking the zoo. Open from lunch through dinner, Albert’s Restaurant is a fantastic spot to relax with a glass of wine and a delicious meal. One of the best theme park/zoo dining experiences in Southern California.
The park that blocks built has been on a growing binge these last few years. Today, LEGOLAND California is comprised of the original Lego themed park, a colorful water park and a quaint Aquarium facility. That makes LEGOLAND a resort destination in our eyes. While this park was not built with older kids and teens in mind, there is still much charm for parents to enjoy while the little ones usher them around.
New this season are Star Wars additions to Miniland, the newly relaunched Police and Fire Academy, and the Octopus Garden at the Sealife Aquarium.
Aside from the big parks, what else is there to do this summer? Well, far too much for us to list it all for you here, but here are some of our favorites:
???Discovery Science Center
Just a few miles down the 5 freeway from Disneyland is one of Orange County’s best kept secrets, the Discovery Science Center. You may have noticed the big black cube perched on top of a boxy building near the Main Place Mall. Well, inside that building, you’ll find 120 hands-on exhibits, live science shows and a 3D laser show. This is one of the little gems in Southern California that many folks overlook, but if you’ve got kids under age 13, you really should carve a few hours out of your summer to investigate the wonders of science. Discount tickets are available by printing them out at home.
Aquarium Of The Pacific
The Long Beach Aquarium can be a beautifully peaceful temple to the wonder of the sea. It can also be a madhouse of humanity on busy days. Arrive early or late but avoid the busy middle of the day during the summer and holidays. However, we DO recommend that you go. There is a reason the Aquarium gets so busy, and that’s because it truly is a wonderful and rewarding experience. We are listing it here for another reason as well, a fantastic ticket deal.
Tip: For just $30, you can buy a combo ticket for both the Aquarium AND the Los Angeles Zoo. Now that’s a bargain. Two days of educational family fun for just $15 a day. For those who haven’t been to the Los Angeles Zoo in a while, you’ll be shocked at how much it has changed for the better. Don’t pass on this great ticket deal.
The Queen Mary
Just around the corner from the Long Beach Aquarium is the Queen Mary. Visiting this classic ocean liner is like taking a step back in time. While the old queen of the sea is now docked for good, you can visit her many museums, shops, restaurants and even take a tour. Some of you may even enjoy the creepy side of the ship with a tour into the spirit world. New is the “Paranormal Spirit Box” which invites you to a nightly seance aboard the ship. You can also enjoy a “Spirit Walk” tour and even dine with the spirits. If you want to cavort with ghosts, you can’t do better than the Queen Mary.
High in the Hollywood Hills, the Getty Center is a modern beacon to the spirit of Los Angeles. The Getty is one part art gallery, one part modern gardens and one part bargain family activity. There is NO FEE to enter the gallery (parking is $15 per car). Whether you make a day of visiting the Getty’s many galleries and gardens or take the monorail ride to the top of the hill just to catch the beautiful view of the city, you’ll be glad you stopped to enjoy one of the city’s top attractions.
Tip: Just down the road from the Getty Center is sister gallery the Getty Villa which offers sweeping views of Malibu Beach and a stunning collection of classical Greek and Roman art. You can find more information about both galleries here.
Huntington Library and Gardens
One of our favorite spots in the city is the Huntington Library and Gardens located near Pasadena in San Marino. Like the Getty, the Huntington is as known for its gardens as it is for its art (Blue Boy and Pinkie are housed here). Photographers will delight in some of the most visually impressive vistas and gardens to be found in Los Angeles.
Pirates Dinner Adventure
This unique, interactive, pirate-theme dinner show is located in Buena Park near Knott’s Berry Farm and Medieval Times dinner show. A Spanish Galleon is set afloat in a 250,000 gallon lagoon. A classic story of good versus evil all served with dinner of course.
Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament
Dinner and a show on a historical scale. Knights jousting on horseback in a European style castle right there in Buena Park. This attraction is a birthday favorite for a reason. For those who love classic kitschy themed entertainment, Medieval Times is a real treat.
Bowers and Bowers Kids Museum
One of Southern California’s finest museums and Orange County’s largest, the Bowers Museum promotes human understanding through art. Its state-of- the-art facilities enable the Bowers to present world-class exhibitions from the greatest museums in the world.
La Brea Tar Pits and LACMA
Everyone has heard of the La Brea Tar Pits, but have you actually visited? Located on Wilshire Blvd in Hancock Park, L.A. This is the site of prehistoric animals that literally got stuck in the tar some 40,000 years ago. These and many other artifacts are on display in the Page Museum. Over 600 species of insects, reptiles, plants, birds and mammals have been found in this area. It is also a lovely spot to stroll around in an urban oasis. As s bonus, the fantastic Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is located immediately next to the Tar Pits and this summer from May 29th through October 31st, you can enjoy a special Tim Burton exhibit at the LACMA.
Santa Ana Zoo
This tiny 20 acre zoo is a simple escape for kids. With a petting zoo, playground, and Zoofari Express miniature train, the zoo is a low key and easy little getaway for the family. This zoo is the perfect size for small children and is built to be kid friendly. It is also pocket book friendly with among the most reasonable admission prices ($8 for adults and $5 for kids).
The Little Theme Park for little kids; rides, petting zoo, children’s theater, puppet shows and a train ride. Perfect for young children who aren’t quite ready for big kid rides. This is another affordable alternative to the big parks for young families – just $14.95 per person with no parking fees.