Best Theme Parks in Northern California

If you live in or are visiting the San Francisco-San Jose, California area, you won’t have to travel far to find several great amusement and theme parks. With plenty of rides, shows, activities and exhibits, you can plan your trip to make the most of your visit. All of the parks offer season passes which is your best bet for value. However, if you are here for a short visit, then a day pass is best and coupons and discounts can often be found at your local supermarket or drugstore, just ask. Consider using your AAA card for discounts on tickets as well, especially at Great America. Additionally, many large companies offer discounts through their HR department, worth investigating:

[Note the opening season dates listed to plan your visit accordingly.]

Gilroy Gardens, Gilroy: This theme park used to be named Bonfante Gardens, after the Bonfante family who conceived of the park and owned Nob Hill Foods (a 27-store grocery chain in California). The park is located three miles west of downtown Gilroy on 600 acres of land. Gilroy Gardens is a 501c(3) non-profit organization and the only one that supports horticulture and beautification projects throughout the community. The park features educational field trips for students. This theme park is smaller-scale and perfect for smaller children and multi-generation family outings. The season opens on weekends starting the last Sunday in March through November 27. They are only open during the week from mid-June through mid-August. My family used to go here once a year to mark the end of the summer. Now that my children are middle and high school age, California’s Great America is more their style. On your way to or from the park you can visit some of the premium outlets in Gilroy, also known as the garlic capital of the world.

Save on tickets:
Upcoming Events:

California’s Great America, Santa Clara: Up until 2006, this theme park was owned by Paramount as a way to tie-in and generate more interest in their blockbuster movies and capitalize on Hollywood’s appeal and special effects. Now owned and operated by Cedar Fair Entertainment, the park has renamed the rides due to copyright infringements. For instance the Top Gun roller coaster is now known as Flight Deck and continues its fighter jet theme. If you’re looking for fast action rides, this is your destination. And rather than going to San Jose’s Raging Waters for your slip and slide fun, just continue your adventure to Boomerang Bay within the park boundaries. My children love having a theme park within minutes driving distance from our home (20 minutes north of San Jose, about 50 minutes south of San Francisco). We’ve attended several company picnics here that take advantage of their private picnic grounds. Open for weekends the last Sunday in March and closed the last Sunday in October. Open daily starting Memorial Day through the second to last Monday in August. There are plenty of great musical concerts throughout the summer, check their Twitter and Facebook pages for the latest and greatest info including discounts.

Best bet for tickets is the season pass:
Be sure to check your HR resources, often they offer reduced priced tickets to employees
Calendar & hours:

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom , Vallejo: Like the two parks mentioned above, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom also was known by another name. Formerly called Marine World this is the only theme park that can boast dolphins, sea lions and other creatures and a good collection of fun and fast rides. One of the most unique opportunities at this park is the chance swim with dolphins. The Dolphin Discovery program includes a classroom session by their trainers followed by an interactive session with the dolphins. This program is open year round. Another incredible opportunity is the Sharks in the Dark program where you can arrange an overnight sleepover. The park has a complicated calendar. Generally it opens the last Sunday in March for weekends through the last Sunday in October. But it reopens on weekends starting the last weekend in November and through December with limited week days for the holiday season. See detailed dates and hours below under calendar. There’s a wide variety of rides to satisfy the thrill seekers as well as tamer rides for the little ones. There are shows, attractions and rides for just about everyone in the family. About 75 minutes north of San Jose, 30 minutes from San Francisco.

Best bet for tickets:
Save 5% when you use your Discover card
If you flash your “Fast Pass”, you get 15% off retail purchases
Swim with the Dolphins:
Sharks in the Dark:

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk : If Six Flags and Great America theme parks aren’t enough to thrill you, there’s an old-fashioned seaside theme park right on the famous Santa Cruz beach boardwalk. My family loves that this classic amusement park is just 30 minutes from San Jose, and offers the flavor of a seaside park from vintage America. The highlight is the rickety old wooden roller coaster, the Giant Dipper. It’s claim to fame is it is the fifth oldest roller coaster in the United States, having opened on May 17, 1924, and was recognized as an historic landmark along with the Looff Carousel which has a working brass ring dispenser. You can purchase season passes or individual ride tickets which makes is convenient for the visitor who only wants to try out the Giant Dipper or Looff Carousel. There’s even a fun site to see “millions of memories” where people from all over share their photos from this old-time amusement park. Open daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and weekends during the fall and part of spring. Parts of the park are open year round. Check the calendar link for details. About 30 minutes north of San Jose, 75 minutes south on windy Route 1 view from San Francisco.

Millions of Memories: