California theme parks are a must-do for any family holiday to the United States. But how do you know which one is right for you? 

The team at Family Travel took on the extremely difficult task of testing out California’s theme parks. These are the ones we think should be on your list. 

Disneyland Resort California

Disneyland is top of our list. It transformed the town of Anaheim into the “Happiest Place on Earth”. Disneyland is not just a series of thrill rides, it’s a journey into the imagination.

Anaheim with kids
Sleeping Beauty Castle Disneyland is the centerpiece of Fantasyland. Picture: Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort

The biggest attraction here is Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which opened in May 2019. Galaxy’s Edge is set on the fictional planet Batuu. Disney designed Batuu to look and feel exactly like the films but steered away from making it an exact replica of any scene. The result is that it is eerily familiar.

Every single detail inside Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is deliberate and perfect. The paint has worn on the yellow railings on the way up to the Millenium Falcon exposing the metal underneath in imperfect patches. The stamped concrete walls look like they have seen years of battles. In the Cantina, tubes of blue, yellow and purple liquids bubble in glass containers surrounded by industrial metal and piping. If you look closely enough – you can find bullet holes in the walls – signs of previous battles between scum and villainy.

The ‘wow’ moment here comes when you see the huge Millenium Falcon. On Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, guests are divided into teams of six (pilots, gunners and engineers) to take the Millennium Falcon on a smuggling mission. Our tip – be first in the line so you are the pilot.

Star Wars Galaxy's Edge
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California. Picture: Richard Harbaugh/Disney Parks

While Galaxy’s Edge is the newest Los Angeles theme park land, Disneyland has seven more themed lands to explore.

Guests enter Disneyland Park through Main Street. This leads directly to Fantasyland and the famous Sleeping Beauty castle. Make sure you take a photo with the statue of Walt Disney here. Fantasyland is home to the It’s A Small World ride, the King Arthur Carrousel, the Alice in Wonderland ride, Casey Jr Circus Train, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Mr Toad’s Wild Ride, Peter Pan’s Flight, Pinocchio’s Daring Journey and the Storybookland Canal Boats. Yep – that’s a lot. You can also attend storytelling sessions and watch the big band.

The  Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland California. Picture: Disney
The Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland California. Picture: Disney

Adventureland has Tarzan’s Treehouse, Jungle Cruise and the Indiana Jones ride. Critter Country has Splash Mountain, Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes and the Adventures of Winnie the Pooh – where you can ride in a honey pot. In Fronteirland, you’ll find the super-fun Big Thunder Mountain Railroad rollercoaster, ther Mark Twain Riverboat, the Pirates’ Lair on Tom Sawyer Island and the Sailing Ship Columbia. New Orleans Square is home to the Haunted Mansion and the Pirates of the Carribean ride. It’s also a great spot to stop and watch the evening fireworks.

Disneyland is in Anaheim California (about 30 minutes from LAX). You can catch the Disney Express Bus outside Tom Bradey International Terminal. It’s that easy. 

Disney California Adventure Park

This Los Angeles theme park is where you will find the Incredicoaster and Cars Land. If you’re going to Disneyland, you should book a day here too.

The Incredicoaster will take guests on a thrilling race alongside the Parr family.. Picture: Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort

The Incredicoaster will take guests on a thrilling race alongside the Parr family.. Picture: Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort

In fact, Disney California Adventure Park sits right beside the Disneyland entrance. It covers eight different lands to explore, featuring appearances from characters in Cars, Toy Story, The Little Mermaid and more. In Hollywood Land, teens will find the Towering Citadel of the brand new Guardians of the Galaxy experience. Join Rocket’s rescue mission to free his fellow Guardians to a rocking backing track of 80s music, free-fall drops, special effects and more.

Younger families should wander down Pixar Pier to the Incredicoaster, where you chase baby Jack-Jack at high speeds. For something more sedate, circle the Pixar Pal-A-Round ferris wheel or Jessie’s Critter Carousel. In Cars Land, race to a desert finish line at Radiator Springs Racers, hold on tight to a jigging and jiving tractor at Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree and meet the friendly, four-wheeled residents.

Pixar Pier at Disney California Adventure Park. Picture: Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort

Pixar Pier at Disney California Adventure Park. Picture: Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort

Need some respite from the high-octane thrills and spills? Take a break along Buena Vista shopping and entertainment strip. Better still, get arty at Animation Academy. Follow in the footsteps of Disney’s top creatives, listen to step-by-step instructions and draw your own character sketch. Afterwards, check out the Animation Courtyard Gallery housing some of the most famous Disney-Pixar sketches.

Getting there: Easy peasy! Disney California Adventure Park is a next-door neighbour to Disneyland.

LEGOLAND California Resort

You could easily spend a week at the LEGOLAND California Resort theme park complex. You’ll feel like a family of giants as you explore models, brick factories, the aquarium and the water park beside the world-famous little yellow figurines.

The grand opening of the LEGOLAND Castle Hotel. Credit: LEGOLAND

At the LEGO Factory, learn the history of the toy and how the bricks are made. At LEGOLAND itself, embark on the Lego City: Deep Sea Adventure. Inspect several meticulous models constructed out of thousands of LEGO bricks, such as six intricate scenes from Star Wars.

Upgrade your LEGOLAND ticket for $30 to include the Legoland Water Park, perfect on a hot Californian afternoon. Race along six slides on the Riptide Racers, get soaked under the jets of the Wipeout Water Lagoon and shoot down the Splash Out waterslide.

Make a splash at LEGOLAND Waterpark Credit: LEGOLAND

Otherwise, head to SEA LIFE Aquarium for an extra $25 on top of your LEGOLAND entry. Touch a sea star in the Interactive Rock Pool and watch sharks and rays get fed daily at 2pm at Ray Lagoon. A Sea at Night exhibit has just opened, allowing you to walk among the simulated tide under a starry sky, even in the middle of the day!

Immerse in the LEGO world even further by staying at one of two hotels onsite. Take your pick between LEGOLAND Resort Hotel or LEGOLAND Castle Hotel. One of our journalists reviewed their family experience here.

Universal Studios Hollywood

Experience the movie magic at the hub of all things motion picture. Motion simulator rides, live shows and 3D attractions make this theme park an exciting insight into behind-the-scenes action.

First of all, fly your broomsticks to Hogwarts, inside the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Let your wand choose you at Ollivanders, cast your own spells at Wand Magic locations, cheer along at the Triwizard Spirit Rally and try a butterbeer in Hogsmeade. Jump aboard the motion simulation of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, before being blown away by the light display and special effects of the Dark Arts at Hogwarts Castle.

World of Harry Potter Universal Studios Hollywood

Hogwart Castle, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Universal Studios Hollywood. Picture: Ridvan Ozdemir / Shutterstock

Tweens and teens will also be impressed by the new Jurassic World: The Ride. Inside Jurassic World, you can also test your bravery at the Raptor Encounter, DinoPlay kids’ area and Jurassic Café.

Need to take it down a notch? The DreamWorks theatre offers a multi-sensory encounter with Kung Fu Panda’s Po and friends. In Springfield USA, The Simpsons virtual reality roller coaster will tour through Krusty the Clown’s theme park.

Universal Studios Hollywood

The Simpsons ride at Universal Studios Hollywood. Picture: Alkhutov Dmitry / Shutterstock

And for the most mini of the movie buffs? Travel on the family-friendly Hippogriff rollercoaster and take your photo with Minions, Spongebob, Dora and other characters.  

Of course, you cannot visit Universal Studios Hollywood without embarking on their world-famous Studio Tour. Running for 60 minutes and video-hosted by Jimmy Fallon and a real guide, the tour trails past the sets of Jaws, Psycho and Fast and Furious.

Knott’s Berry Farm

It is hard to believe that this sprawling adventure park was once a humble, family-run fruit stand. Mrs Knott’s fried chicken and boysenberry recipes catapulted Knott’s Berry Farm to international fame, as did the 160-acre park opened in the 1920s as California’s first theme park.

There’s no shortage of activities at Knott’s Berry Farm. Credit: Visit Anaheim

In Buena Park, close to Disneyland, the Wild Western-themed Knott’s Berry Farm has as many as 10 rollercoasters. Top rides include Calico Railroad and River Rapids, ferris wheel, GhostRider, Timber Mountain Log Ride and more.

Live entertainment abounds in Camp Snoopy and the Old West Ghost Town. Watch the Camp Snoopy Theater Show starring Charlie Brown and the PEANUTS gang, or a live Western stunt show at Wagon Camp Theater.

Credit: Holly Dickson-Smith

Cool down at Knott’s Soak City, which opens its 23 speed, tube and body slides from late May to early September. Soak City has a separate gate and separate admission. Relax and refresh in the Tidal Wave Bay wave pool, Sunset River and Gremmie Lagoon water playground, which is perfect for littlies. Grab a bite to eat at Longboard’s Grill or Portside Pizza.

Overnight in the Knott’s Berry Farm Hotel to make a multi-day stay as easy as boysenberry pie.

Six Flags Magic Mountain

All 262 acres of this exciting theme park are designed for maximum fun – of the superhero-themed variety.

Take your pick from no fewer than 19 rollercoasters, or maybe aim for a coaster marathon! Six Flags Magic Mountain is home to Riddler’s Revenge, the world’s fastest stand-up rollercoaster, as well as Twisted Colossus, the world’s longest hybrid rollercoaster.

An exciting new addition to the park, the DC Superheroes Drop of Doom is a virtual reality experience. Witness Superman and Wonder Woman battle Lex Luthor with 360 degree views, then plummet down west coast’s highest tower. Other high-adrenaline rides include Batman rollercoaster and Superman: Escape from Krypton.

The Buccaneer Pirate Ship, bumper cars, Jet Stream flume ride and Road Runner rollercoaster are suited to families. Looney Tunes themed attractions for littlies include the Grand American Carousel and Daffy’s Adventure Tours.

After your adrenaline rush, enjoy a hypnotist show or a meet-and-greet with your favourite Justice League and Looney Tunes characters.

The park generally opens at 10.30am. There are plenty of food options onsite, covering a range of international cuisines. Kids’ meals are on offer at most outlets.

SeaWorld San Diego

Similarly to our other theme park picks, SeaWorld San Diego offers thrills and spills a-plenty. The Tidal Twister, for example, is the world’s first duelling horizontal infinity loop rollercoaster. The Electric Eel is a multi-launch twisting coaster and the Journey to Atlantis is a flume ride like no other.

However, this theme park makes a unique splash with its emphasis on marine creatures and animals. After you test out the rollercoasters, soaking raft ride or relaxing gondola, you can meet the animal residents. These include killer whales, dolphins, walruses, penguins, sharks and turtles. In the Aquarium and exhibits, get up close to clown fish, giant Pacific octopus, moray eels and Japanese spider crabs.

At the Orca Encounter, learn from keepers about the killer whale family structures, hunting techniques and methods of communication. Hear from trainers and meet a Bottlenose Dolphin family at Dolphin Days.

Wild Arctic includes encounters with beluga whales. Picture: Mike Aguilera / SeaWorld

Wild Arctic includes encounters with beluga whales. Picture: Mike Aguilera / SeaWorld

In the Sesame Street Bay of Play, get your picture taken with characters, get your energy out on the jungle gym and line up for family-friendly rides such as Abby’s Sea Star Spin and Elmo’s Flying Fish.

The marine-themed park is located on Sea World Drive, about 15 minutes from San Diego’s International Airport. Most local hotels offer complimentary shuttle services. You can also catch a trolley or bus on Metropolitan Transit System.

Read more

Take it Tokyo: Tokyo Disneyland vs. Tokyo DisneySea

Around the world: where are all the Disneylands?

Theme park hacks with kids

The 6 biggest theme parks in the world

This a Family Travel online exclusive story. Make sure you don’t miss any exclusive digital content by subscribing to our email newsletter.