Magic on Demand
Smiles abound for young and young-at-heart at California’s theme parks

By Matt Villano

PHOTO: Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland

Diversions are as plentiful as sunshine in California. One of the most popular outlets: original theme parks.

These attractions are meccas to amusement, each focusing rides and exhibits around different concepts such as fairies, film, plastic blocks, sea life and an inimitable mouse. Most of the parks are situated in the southern part of the state (where the weather is generally warmer) but the granddaddy of them all is up north. Each of the parks is worth a closer look.


Believe it or not, the first theme park in the U.S. to cater to families with young kids was Children’s Fairyland, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theme park on the shores of Lake Merritt in Oakland. The place opened in 1950 (original admission started at 9 cents), making it the first official theme park in California, as well. According to some, it was one of Walt Disney’s inspirations for the eponymous park he created five years later.

Today, Fairyland includes small rides such as a Ferris wheel and carousels, and life-sized sets depicting scenes from timeless storybooks (Pinocchio’s castle and the Humpty Dumpty wall are two favorites). The theme park also is home to the Open Storybook Puppet Theater, which opened in 1956 and is the oldest continuously operating puppet theater in the U.S. A number of the country’s most famous puppeteers got their start here, including a teenager by the name of Frances Oznowicz. You likely know him as Frank Oz.


If the lovable (and life-sized) Mickey Mouse and friends don’t pique your interest and attention at California’s most famous theme park, surely the rides will. The park, which opened in 1955, features rides for all ages, including some of the most ballyhooed roller coasters anywhere in the state (one favorite is Space Mountain, which speeds along almost entirely in the dark).

Overall, Disneyland is divided into eight themed areas, or “lands.” Some of these areas focus on actual history: Frontierland recreates the setting of the American frontier, while Main Street U.S.A. is patterned after a small Midwestern town (many believe Walt Disney got his inspiration from his own boyhood town of Marceline, Missouri).

The park opened with one hotel, but since the 1990s, it has grown exponentially, adding a new theme park (Disney’s California Adventure), a shopping district (Downtown Disney) and two additional hotels. The newest attraction, Cars Land, was inspired by the Cars movies, and opened in June 2012.

Universal Studios Hollywood

This film-themed park got its formal start in the 1960s when walk-throughs of Universal Studios soundstages and sets were expanded to include peeks at actual production. Over the years, the studio added a tram to shuttle visitors through the back lot; today, this tram remains the best way to experience stunt demonstrations and staged events (such as an encounter with the shark from Jaws).

The rest of the park is divided into two areas connected by escalator: the Upper and Lower lots. Each of these areas features a collection of rides and shows that pay homage to iconic Universal movies, including King Kong 360 3-D, Jurassic Park: The Ride, Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride and WaterWorld.

On the Upper Lot, the Simpsons Ride is popular among kids, while grown-ups love Universal’s House of Horrors, a year-round haunted house. Transformers: The Ride 3-D opened on the Lower Lot in the spring of 2012.

Legoland California

For a place dedicated to tiny plastic bricks (dubbed “Legos,” of course), this relatively new theme park in the San Diego suburb of Carlsbad has quite a bit going on. Sure, the place boasts mind-boggling Lego replicas of famous architectural icons (the Statue of Liberty and the Taj Mahal among them), but it also incorporates rides, eateries and a water park.

Still, the most unique area is Miniland USA, which features dioramas of seven areas of the U.S. (including New Orleans, Los Angeles and Washington, DC). The area was built with more than 40 million Lego bricks at a scale of 1:20, and it took nearly three years to complete. Fittingly, it’s also home to the Model Shop, the headquarters for the park’s 10 master builders (a window allows guests to witness these professionals at work).


With three locations across the country, SeaWorld has cemented its position as the most visited marine mammal park on earth. Fittingly, the first of these parks opened in San Diego in 1964. Today, the place is a sprawling homage to nearly dozens of different species of marine life, including dolphins, sea lions, walruses, polar bears and whales. It also is one of only two places in the world where emperor penguins are kept in captivity.

Arguably the most famous resident of SeaWorld was Shamu, the name of the first black-and-white killer whale (also known as orca) brought to the park in the 1960s (the name “Shamu” is now used interchangeably as a stage name for all orcas during “performances” where the animals jump on command). More recently, in the 1990s, the facility temporarily housed J.J., an orphaned gray whale calf, until the animal was rehabilitated and reintroduced to the wild.

Other Bay Area Parks

The San Francisco Bay Area is home to two other popular parks: California’s Great America (in Santa Clara) and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom (in Vallejo). Rides at Great America range from scream-inducing (Flight Deck, a roller coaster, has one 360-degree loop and a zero-gravity roll) to family-friendly (the Carousel Columbia is the world’s tallest double-decker carousel). For younger children, there’s the Peanuts-themed Planet Snoopy; for toddlers, KidZville.

The vibe at Discovery Kingdom is more eclectic. In addition to rides such as the Medusa roller coaster, Boardwalk Bumper Buggies and SkyScreamer (a swing ride), the park also is home to a number of animals, including Tava the African elephant, Jocko the walrus and Shouka the killer whale. Many of these animals demonstrate natural and learned behaviors as part of organized shows every day.


Once you’ve decided where to go, try CityPASS for saving some money. Southern California CityPASS knocks one third off the price of admission to Disneyland, Disney California Adventure Park, Universal Studios Hollywood and SeaWorld. CityPASS is a single-admission card that’s good over a 14-day period and allows you to skip most ticket lines. Buy your CityPASS at any of the above attractions or online at

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