California’s Great America Theme Park has been a San Francisco Bay Area tradition for over 40 years. The park, which is located in the city of Santa Clara right next to San Jose, has been owned by several different companies in its long history and has evolved and changed quite a bit. My husband (who is from the East Bay) grew up going to Great America, and we finally had the opportunity to take our own kids there this summer.
Great America is probably best known for some of its thrilling coasters. One of the newest coasters, Gold Striker, is consistently ranked as one of the best wooden coasters in the world. Older favorites like Flight Deck (formerly Top Gun), Vortex, Grizzly, and Demon still loom large and make you lose your lunch with the best of them.
With that thrill ride reputation, many families with younger kids don’t pay Great America much mind as a destination for little ones. I must admit that I hadn’t until this year when my daughter – who is 7 – was finally interested in some milder coasters. I was invited to a blogger press day and decided to pay Great America a visit with my entire family: my husband, my daughter (age 7), and my toddler son (age 2.5).
The bottom line? Great America has a ton to offer families with younger children, even toddlers. Both of my children had a full day of adventure and didn’t even get to ride or see it all. Here’s what you need to know about visiting California’s Great America with kids.
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The Best Rides for Younger Kids at California’s Great America
If you have little ones, make a beeline for Planet Snoopy and plan to spend much of your day here. Planet Snoopy is a large section of the park designed just for younger kids and themed with Peanuts characters that your kids likely already know and love. If it has been a few years since you’ve been to Great America, you might remember this area as featuring Nickelodeon characters several years ago, but the re-theming works much better in my opinion. Plus, the area is significantly expanded meaning there’s lots more to do.
Planet Snoopy has 13 rides, a splash pad, a playground/climbing structure, and quite a few character meet and greets scattered throughout the area. There are also two show stages where you can catch Peanuts characters in action.
One thing that parents should be aware of is that a few Planet Snoopy rides do have height minimums. Younger toddlers won’t be tall enough for all of them. For a few of them, 36 inches is the magic number to be able to ride. My son (who was 2 years, 9 months during our visit) only just made the cut. There were several other rides he wasn’t yet tall enough for, but they weren’t really ones he was begging to ride, so those were a non-issue. Also be aware that you will need to accompany smaller kids on several of these rides. You can check all the height rules for Planet Snoopy here.
Other Rides Great for Younger Kids at Great America
Although Planet Snoopy has the bulk of kid-friendly rides, there are a few others scattered through the park that families shouldn’t miss. I’d especially recommend:
- Carousel Columbia: The world’s tallest double-decker carousel is a can’t-miss. You’ll spot it as you enter the park, but lines are never long, so I’d recommend saving it for mid-day when lines are longer for other attractions in the park.
- Delta Flyer/Eagle’s Flight: This skyway ride offers great views of the entire park and is also a great way to skip out on some walking. You need to be able to fold up strollers to ride, so bring the umbrella stroller or plan on a round trip if you have little ones.
“Starter” Thrill Rides for Kids
If you have kids who have a need for speed, Great America offers quite a few starter thrill rides even if your kids aren’t tall enough for the biggest coasters. For kids looking for some mild thrills, the Woodstock Express coaster in the Planet Snoopy section of the park is a good start. With a height minimum of only 40 inches, many kids may be tall enough to ride at age 3 or 4.
My 7 year old was also ready to graduate to a “real” coaster, and we found Psycho Mouse to be just the right fit to take it to the next level. Psycho Mouse has a 44 inch height minimum and doesn’t go upside down or do anything crazier than a few speedy (but admittedly big) drops. My daughter is a big fan of Goofy’s Sky School at Disneyland, and this crazy mouse coaster is quite similar.
Finally, I’d also recommend the newest attraction at Great America, Mass Effect: New Earth, for some introductory thrills. This attraction is a 4D screen-based motion simulator (similar to Star Tours in Disney parks). With a height minimum of only 44 inches, most kids would be tall enough to ride at age 5 or so.
Boomerang Bay Water Park
One of the best features of California’s Great America for families is that a full water park is included within the park and is included in the price of theme park admission. The water park offers everything from a wave pool to a lazy river to some serious water slide choices. I also found it nice to see that there are life jackets of a variety of sizes available to borrow for free all over Boomerang Bay. We brought my son’s Puddle Jumper flotation device with us since it is compact and he is familiar with it, but it was nice there was a backup available too!
For families with younger kids, here are the Boomerang Bay water park features I’d recommend:
- Jackaroo Landing: Think of it like a water playground – slides, climbing structure and splash buckets galore. My 7 year old didn’t want to leave. It’s too crazy for toddlers to go into unassisted, so I’d recommend it for kids about ages 4-10.
- Kookaburra Cay: For younger toddlers, this miniature splash pad next to Jackaroo Landing is the place to be.
- Boomerang Lagoon: A shallow swimming area with a few splash-pad style mushrooms splashing water into the pool. The water depth was just right for my toddler, who could touch the bottom for nearly the whole pool.
- Castaway Creek: A classic lazy river (you’ll need to accompany kids under 42 inches and kids under 48 inches must wear lifejackets).
- Great Barrier Reef: A mild wave pool that is also appropriate for the whole family (it has the same height and lifejacket requirements as Castaway Creek).
Other Essential Logistics & Tips for Visiting Great America with Kids
A huge part of a successful theme park trip with kids is logistics, so you know I made sure to be on the lookout for the best planning advice during my visit. Here are a few more tips and hacks to make your trip to California’s Great America with kids easier, more efficient and ultimately MORE FUN!
- Parent Swap: California’s Great America offers a service similar to Rider Switch at Disney parks. The service isn’t publicized on the theme park’s website, but simply ask at either of the two Guest Services locations to get the passes you need. The passes allow one parent to ride a thrill ride while the other adult waits with younger kids. The second adult then enters through the exit with the kids, where the adults can swap out. The second parent doesn’t need to wait to ride again and instead gets on the next ride vehicle.
- Strollers: Stroller are available to rent at Great America if you find yourself in a pinch, but I highly suggest bringing your own. The park is big enough that you’ll need one with younger kids. We used ours quite a bit with our toddler.
- Food: Great America doesn’t allow outside food, and we found concessions to be quite pricey (for example, a combo that included two medium slices of pizza and 1 soda was $14!). It’s really easy to blow your budget without a little pre-planning. Eat breakfast before you go and budget accordingly for lunch and dinner. If you are really on a tight budget, there are picnic areas outside the parks near the parking lots, so you could run back to your car and grab a cooler to dine there if you need to.
- Baby Amenities: Similar to Disney’s Baby Care Centers, California’s Great America has a private area to change or nurse your baby in the Planet Snoopy area of the park.
- Fast Lane: Like many theme parks, Great America offer a paid service that allows cutting the lines on major thrill rides. It varies in price according to daily demand, but it starts at $53. Unless you are planning to ride a lot of the coasters (which families with young kids likely won’t), I don’t think the expensive service makes sense. A better strategy? Crowds for all rides are very light at park opening (10am on a Saturday when we arrived), so my advice is to ride a few thrill rides first, using Parent Swap if you need to, and then move on to less crowded park areas. For the ultimate hack, you could conceivably purchase Fast Lane for one parent and then use Parent Swap for the second to ride without a wait.
- Parking: If you plan to arrive at park opening (which I recommend to avoid lines), parking spots are close and plentiful. Great America charges $18 per car, but you can save $3 if you pre-purchase online. If you plan to arrive later once the lot is quite full, I’d consider springing for the preferred parking option ($25) to save on walking.
- Lockers: Like the food, lockers are expensive but if you are headed to the water park, you might need to store your stuff so budget accordingly. My family was able to use the basket under our stroller to store larger items like towels and water bottles. We had a minimalist daypack we kept with us on rides and even at the waterpark (one of us was in the water with the kids and the other was with our belongings).
- Changing Rooms: Boomerang Bay is unfortunately short on changing rooms (and most of them are very un-air conditioned and super-humid). I’d recommend wearing a bathing suit under your clothes if you plan to spend most of the day at the water attractions just to avoid a trip to the changing rooms. The rooms do, of course, work in a pinch.
Special Holiday Events for Families
One of the things many local theme parks do well is special holiday events, and Great America is no exception. Halloween has been its speciality the past several years, with two special events: the Great Pumpkin Fest during daytime hours and Halloween Haunt in the evenings. The Great Pumpkin Fest offers trick-or-treating, hay mazes and more for kids 12 and under, and Halloween Haunt is intended to scare the daylights out of teens and adults alike (leave the little ones at home!).
But what I’m really excited about this year is the Christmas season. New this year at Great America is a family-friendly winter holiday event, WinterFest, which runs from November 25 to December 30, 2016 on most weekend days and quite a few weekdays as the holidays draw near. I got a sneak peek at the WinterFest offerings during my visit and the event looks truly amazing. Expect dazzling lights decorating the entire park, an ice-skating rink, live reindeer (to pet!), and holiday character meet-and-greets. So, I guess that means we’ll be headed back to Great America as a family in a few months!
Disclosure: Great America hosted my family for a single day in the park for review purposes and provided a free meal and FastLane passes. As always, all opinions are my own!
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