When most travelers think of amusement parks in California, Disneyland is usually top of mind. Universal Studios Hollywood or maybe Sea World San Diego also have widespread recognition. Although Southern California certainly has some of the biggest theme park names, the northern half of the state has several major amusement parks worth of a visit as well.
I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for nearly two decades. My family and I have now been to every major San Francisco amusement park (and many minor ones) in Northern California multiple times over the course of these years. We’ve watched them all evolve, adding new attractions and events, changing ownership, and re-theming and re-doing various areas of each parks. We’ve experienced them all with our kids at different ages and stages as well as during various seasons of the year.
Naturally, I have some opinions about which Bay Area amusement parks work best for different kinds of guests!
Whether you are a local looking to take an amusement park day trip or an out-of-towner looking to have a day of fun in between the San Francisco museums and historical attractions, here is everything you need to know to compare and select a Northern California amusement park to visit.
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Major Amusement Parks Near the San Francisco Bay Area
Looking for large scale fun enough to fill an entire day? The Bay Area has four major amusement parks within about an hour and a half drive of the city of San Francisco. They include:
1. Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
- Location: Vallejo, CA
- Distance from San Francisco: 35 miles
- Daily Ticket Price (Advance Online Purchase): $40-70 (Gate price $89.99)
- Attraction Types: Coasters/Thrill Rides, Family Rides, Kiddie Rides, Live Animals
- Characters/IP: Looney Tunes, DC Comics
- Nearby recommended hotel: Hampton Inn Vallejo
Depending on how far your Bay Area knowledge extends back in time, you may know Six Flags Discovery Kingdom by a few different names. The park was originally founded in 1968 in Redwood City on the Peninsula. It was known as Marine World at that time. It merged with another local park Africa USA, and later moved to the location in which it stands today in Vallejo in the East Bay suburbs.
Today, the park most resembles Sea World in San Diego, offering a combination of animal attractions and serious coasters and thrills. The park features four live animal shows: Drench! (dolphins), Seals, Sea Lions & Otters, Odin’s Temple of the Tiger (big cats), and The Wildlife Experience Multi-Species Show (birds, bats, and smaller animals).
The park boasts about a dozen major thrill rides. The top-rated choices are The Joker, a hybrid steel and wooden coaster, and Medusa (my personal favorite for a smooth ride with some epic drops and inversions). Other popular coasters include SUPERMAN Ultimate Flight and BATMAN: The Ride.
There are quite a few attractions for little ones as well. Three sections of the park are geared towards toddlers and younger kids, including Looney Tunes Seaport, Tava’s Jungleland, and Seaside Junction.
In the middle of the thrill spectrum are Discovery Kingdom’s three family coasters. These coasters have no inversions and are perfect for kids building up their courage for the bigger thrills: Cobra, Sidewinder Safari, and Road Runner Express. The result is a surprising number of rides for younger kids at a destination that definitely tends to get more headlines for its thrills.
In 2023, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom is the only theme park in Northern California that offers a Halloween haunt: Fright Fest. If being scared out of your wits is not your speed, the park is increasingly offering other family-friendly seasonal celebrations and events.
See my guide and tips for visiting Six Flags Discovery Kingdom for more information.
2. California’s Great America
- Location: Santa Clara, CA
- Distance from San Francisco: 43 miles
- Daily Ticket Price (Advance Online Purchase): $34.99-$49.99 (Gate price $70)
- Attraction Types: Coasters/Thrill Rides, Family Rides, Kiddie Rides, Water Park
- Characters/IP: Peanuts
- Nearby recommended hotel: Hilton Santa Clara or Santa Clara Marriott
Located a little farther south in the Bay Area is California’s Great America. Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, this park opened in 1976 and was originally owned and operated by Marriott.
Great America has changed hands multiple times in the decades that followed. It was owned and operated by Paramount when I first moved to the Bay Area. Cedar Fair (which also owns Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California) has been at the helm now for the better part of two decades.
The park features a mix of thrill rides, roller coasters, kiddie attractions, and family rides. In warmer summer months, Great America also includes a large and newly-renovated water park section included in the price of admission: South Bay Shores. The water park has multiple body and tube slides, a wave pool, a lazy river, water playgrounds, and more.
The top rated thrill ride in the park is RailBlazer, a single rail coaster where riders straddle the rail. Also a major draw is Gold Striker, one of the best modern wooden coasters in America. Flight Deck (formerly known as Top Gun) and Patriot are sought-after coaster credits as well.
For younger kids, a large section in the middle of the park called Planet Snoopy is the place to be and where my family has spent a lot of our time in recent years. This area has over a dozen attractions, several of which only younger kids can ride. Snoopy and other Peanuts characters regularly put on shows and come out for meet and greets as well.
The park has invested heavily into seasonal family-friendly events for both Halloween and the Christmas/winter holidays. I have attended both Tricks and Treats during the fall months and WinterFest with my family and can attest that they are a step above what regional theme park celebrations usually deliver. So definitely consider this park outside of the traditional summer season.
The park has unfortunately been in the headlines of late because of the news that Cedar Fair sold the land on which the park is located. This sale could potentially pave the way to a complete and permanent closure, although that is likely to be many years from now and with several years’ notice at least. That said, my family plans to go regularly while we still can, even as we cross our fingers for a long term solution!
See my guide and tips for visiting California’s Great America for more information.
3. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
- Location: Santa Cruz, CA
- Distance from San Francisco: 75 miles
- Daily Ticket Price (Advance Online Purchase): No admission charged (Unlimited ride wristband $39.95 – $69.95)
- Attraction Types: Coasters/Thrill Rides, Family Rides, Kiddie Rides
- Characters/IP: Splash the Pelican (Independent)
- Nearby recommended hotel: Carousel Beach Inn
The oldest amusement park in the greater Bay Area is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in the city of Santa Cruz. The park was founded in 1907 when seaside amusements were all the rage. While many of these parks shuttered long ago, the Boardwalk has been one of the few to stand the test of time more than a century later.
Unlike other major theme parks in Northern California, there is no admission fee to enter the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Instead, the attractions themselves charge admission. Guests can purchase season passes, single day unlimited wristbands, or pay a la carte by the ride. This setup makes it a park you can definitely do on the cheap, or for a shorter visit without having to stay all day to “get your money’s worth.”
There are only a couple of coasters in the park, but the most famous certainly is The Giant Dipper. This historic wooden coaster will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year and is the oldest coaster in the state of California and also one of the oldest in the world.
The park also has a number of thrill rides, but they are more of the state fair kind (designed to make you as dizzy as possible).
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk also has a wide variety of family rides and kiddie attractions. My son and I are huge fans of another historic attraction at the Beach Boardwalk, the Cave Train. This supremely weird and wacky themed dark ride full of animatronic cavemen opened in 1961. It was designed by the same company that worked with Disney on at least a half dozen opening day Disneyland attractions, including the equally weird Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
The paid attractions are only part of what guests can do at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Many guests hit the adjacent beach itself for free fun in the sun. There are numerous food vendors selling artery-clogging fair food like giant corn dogs and fried Twinkies as well as midway games galore. The destination also has bowling, mini-golf, an arcade, and a laser maze.
Santa Cruz is an extremely popular destination for visitors from all over the northern part of the state when the weather is nice. As a result, the traffic getting in and out on the small highway (CA-17) to the city can be pretty brutal. If you can go on a summer weekday or at least arrive very early on peak weekends and holidays, you can dodge traffic and have an easier time with parking.
4. Gilroy Gardens
- Location: Gilroy, CA
- Distance from San Francisco: 80 miles
- Daily Ticket Price (Advance Online Purchase): $35-$50
- Attraction Types: Family Rides, Kiddie Rides, Water Park
- Characters/IP: Gil the Garlic Guy (Independent)
- Nearby recommended hotel: Hilton Garden Inn Gilroy
Located about a half hour due of San Jose in the small town of Gilroy is probably the least known of the four major amusement parks in the Bay Area, Gilroy Gardens. Our family has been singing the praises of Gilroy Gardens from the rooftops for the better part of a decade now. We discovered it when our now 14 year old was a toddler and realized then what a hidden theme park gem it is. We were season passholders for several years when our kids were younger.
Gilroy Gardens is a park themed around the agriculture of the region. Gilroy is best known for its garlic, although farms in the area produce a multitude of crops: strawberries, artichokes, cherries, bell peppers, and much more. These fruits and vegetables make creative appearances in the park, sometimes as unique ride vehicles and also as the park’s adorable mascot – a giant head of garlic named Gil.
You won’t find any crazy coasters here, making this park a better fit for younger kids. That said, there are enough mild thrills and family-friendly fun that my oldest enjoyed visiting it until she was approaching middle school. We will be visiting again with my son this year at age 9 (4th grade).
The landscaping in the park is meticulously maintained, giving even Disney a run for its money. The highlight to look out for are the park’s circus trees. These creations are the result of some tree-grafting wizardry that will leave you in awe and also scratching your head.
In addition to rides, Gilroy Gardens also has a large splash pad and water playground, Water Oasis. There are no major water slides or wave pools here, but it’s certainly more than enough to cool off in summer months. It’s also a safer option for non-swimmers than traditional water parks.
The park has been independently owned for much of its history, but was managed from 2006-2022 by Cedar Fair, the same company that owns and operates California’s Great America. Although Cedar Fair no longer plays a management role in the park, there are still connections that remain.
For example, pass holders of certain Great America season passes (Gold and above) also get included admission into Gilroy Gardens. And you’ll spot Fast Lane signage, the name of Cedar Fair parks’ cut-the-line pass that is also offered at Gilroy Gardens.
See my guide and tips for visiting Gilroy Gardens for more information.
Smaller Scale San Francisco & Northern California Amusement Parks
While four major amusement parks are certainly enough to fill a summer of fun and then some, there are multiple smaller scale amusement parks in Northern California too. Some of these may be closer to home for certain locals and easier to experience if you have only a few hours of time.
Favorites that we’ve enjoyed over the years include:
1. Children’s Fairyland (Oakland, CA)
Located in downtown Oakland on the shores of Lake Merritt, Children’s Fairyland was founded in 1950. It was one of several amusement parks that Walt Disney toured in the 1950s that inspired what was to become Disneyland. You’ll spot familiar fairytale story characters there, from Snow White to Tweedle Dee.
There are a lots of areas for free play and exploration including an Alice in Wonderland life size card maze and a Peter Pan pirate ship playground. Children’s Fairyland also has a couple of very small scale attractions like a carousel, mini ferris wheel, and train (the Jolly Trolly).
The park is also well-known for its quality puppet shows and its holiday celebration featuring Black Santa.
The park is open year round on weekends (Friday through Sunday), daily in summer, and on select weekdays other times of year. Admission is a value at $16 for all visitors ages 1-100. Parking is $2 for up to 2 hours on weekdays (or $10 daily) or $5 on Saturday and Sunday. Note that adults are only admitted with child accompaniment!
2. Sonoma Train Town (Sonoma, CA)
Northern California is home to a number of train rides and historic railroad sites. But there is only one train-themed amusement park in the state: Train Town!
Located in the city of Sonoma, the park caters to families with young kids and is an easy extra stop for a couple of hours on wine country getaways with kids. The main attraction in Train Town is a 20 minute ride aboard a quarter gauge railway. The park also includes a small coaster, carousel, ferris wheel, and airplane spinner.
Train Town is open year round on Saturdays and Sundays and daily in summer. Admission and parking are free; rides can be purchased individually or with ticket bundles.
3. Happy Hollow Park & Zoo (San Jose, CA)
Happy Hollow is a younger kid focused amusement park created in a similar style as Children’s Fairyland. It has a handful of kiddie attractions like a frog hopper, carousel, and family coaster along with a puppet theater.
Additionally, the park also has a variety of animal inhabitants, from lemurs to an American alligator. Happy Hollow is owned and operated by the San Jose Parks and Recreation department.
General admission is $18 for ages 2+, with advance reservations available and recommended. Daily parking is $10.
4. Pixieland (Concord, CA)
Another fun amusement park for the littles is the East Bay’s Pixieland in Concord. The park has many of the same attractions you’ll find at Happy Hollow or Train Town – a frog hopper, train, a small coaster, tea cups, etc.
Pixieland usually only open on weekends. Admission and parking are free, and each ride charges 1-3 tickets (available for sale in packs).
5. Funderland (Sacramento, CA)
Funderland is yet another small scale Northern California amusement park that caters to families with toddlers and young kids. It has nearly a dozen rides, including a dragon kiddie coaster, spinning airplanes, tea cups, train, carousel, and more.
Funderland is in the same city park as the Sacramento Zoo and the tiny but beloved Fairytale Town which has some of the same kinds of fairy tale themed sets and play areas as Fairyland in Oakland. So it’s possible to do all three Sacramento attractions on a visit for a full day of fun.
Related: Things to do in Sacramento with Kids
General admission tickets to Funderland (which include unlimited rides) cost $22 for kids at least 34 inches tall (up through age 17), $18 for adults 18-59 and $10 for seniors 60+. Parking is free. The park is usually open Wednesday to Sunday in warmer months, but the schedule varies quite a bit from month-to-month so check the website in advance.
Best of the Best Northern California & Bay Area Amusement Parks
Having trouble deciding which San Francisco amusement park is right for your family? Here are the theme parks I recommend depending on the ages of your kids, interests, budget, season, and more!
- Best Northern California Amusement Park for Toddlers & Preschoolers: Gilroy Gardens
- Best Northern California Amusement Park for Teens: Six Flags Discovery Kingdom or California’s Great America
- Best Northern California Amusement Park on a Tight Budget: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
- Best Northern California Amusement Park for Halloween Scares: Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
- Best Northern California Amusement Park for the Holiday Season: California’s Great America
Frequently Asked Questions About San Francisco Amusement Parks
How can I save money on tickets to Bay Area amusement parks?
There are a number of ways to save admission to many of the major theme parks in Northern California. Generally speaking, most offer season passes which usually allow repeat visitors to break even in just 2-3 visits.
Some parks offer flash sales at slower times of year or reduced admission on weekdays. Always, always look to buy in advance online as well, as gate prices tend to be very inflated.
Also note that some theme parks have special discounts to increase affordability for guests receiving SNAP, EBT, and similar benefits (like the Fairyland for All program).
One of my favorite little known savings hacks for Bay Area amusement park enthusiasts is the Go City Explorer Pass offered in San Francisco. The two day version of this pass currently costs $74 for adults and $58 for kids and could be used for one admission each to both Six Flags Discovery Kingdom and California’s Great America in a 60 day window.
Even at the cheapest advance online purchase rate for Discovery Kingdom ($40) and California’s Great America ($34.99), you’ll come out ahead – especially if you have kids in your party. And for summer and weekend visits when those parks both can cost $50+ even when you snag the best available advance purchase deal, you’ll come out way ahead.
Look for more specifics on savings for each park in the individual articles linked above for many of the listed parks.
How many amusement parks are there in Northern California?
There are four major amusement parks in Northern California within a 90 mile radius of the city of San Francisco. Those are California’s Great America, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and Gilroy Gardens. But there are numerous smaller amusement parks and family fun centers around the San Francisco Bay Area as well.
What’s the closest amusement park to San Francisco?
Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo is the closest amusement park to the city of San Francisco, located about 35 miles from San Francisco City Hall. Depending on traffic and whether you are starting from other locations within the city of San Francisco, California’s Great America in Santa Clara is not much farther. It’s located 43 miles from San Francisco City Hall.
What are the best water parks near San Francisco?
I’ve covered only amusement parks in this guide, some of which have water parks in addition to rides and coasters. These include South Bay Shores at California’s Great America and Water Oasis at Gilroy Gardens. But there are several standalone water parks in the Bay Area too!
The largest of those are Six Flags Hurricane Harbor in Concord and Raging Waters in San Jose. New to the Bay Area within the last few years is Great Wolf Lodge in Manteca, CA which is a hotel with a massive indoor water park (day passes are available on many dates, but most guests stay the night).
There are also several smaller water parks often associated with aquatic centers. These include Aqua Adventure in Fremont and The Wave in Dublin. See more details about Bay Area water parks on the 510 Families blog.