Disneyland may be magical, but getting to meet Minnie and Mickey doesn’t come cheap. Ticket prices can be costly, especially during the peak summer season. But you can get so much more for your money – and have just as much of a great time with the family – by visiting the many smaller, more affordable theme parks and attractions dotted throughout California. These eight hot spots across the state are perfect if you’re looking for a family vacation, but don’t want to go over budget.
1. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
The world-famous amusement park in Santa Cruz isn’t just cheaper than Disneyland, but it’s in a much more scenic location along a mile-long stretch of sandy coastline. Admission is free, but if you do have some cash to spend you can enjoy a wide range of carnival rides, games and food options. Go for a round of mini golf, play in the Casino Arcade, or shop around for a variety of souvenirs.
2. Monterey Aquarium
Monterey, on the Central Coast, has a tremendous aquarium that’s home to thousands of different types of animals & plants. It’s fun and informative for kids of all ages, and just anyone who loves learning more about marine animals. You can marvel over sea otters, jellyfish, stingrays, seahorses and more across their several underwater & interactive exhibits.
3. Pacific Park, Santa Monica
Set on Santa Monica’s pier overlooking the ocean, Pacific Park is packed with games, food, shopping, and about a dozen rides – including the famous Pacific Wheel, which has colorful LEDs that light up after dark. The park’s only about an hour and a half from Disneyland, but the prices aren’t nearly as high. There isn’t even a gate or admission fee, but you rather just pay per individual ride.
4. Gilroy Gardens
Gilroy Gardens blends a pretty garden landscape with 22 easygoing rides, restaurants, music and shows, just outside of Santa Cruz. Aside from their rides, visitors can also enjoy educational shows here, and check out the rare Circus Trees, which were rescued from the Santa Cruz Mountains. They’re closed for right now, but they’ll be up and running again in a couple of months when springtime comes around.
5. Children’s Fairyland, Oakland
Children’s Fairyland is like something from a whimsical storybook on the shores of Lake Merritt. Open since 1950, the magical park includes storybook sets, pleasant easygoing rides, adorable animals to pet, and live entertainment like puppet shows.
6. Safari West, Santa Rosa
Safari West will give you an authentic African adventure in the heart of California’s wine country. They provide three-hour, open-air Jeep trips across their 400-acre preserve, for a closer look at animals like zebra, giraffes, rhinos and cheetahs. And no need for a hotel – they also provide an exotic place to stay the night afterwards. Guests can fall asleep to the sounds of the jungle in their luxury tents, which come imported from Africa and built on high wooden platforms with spacious decks. (Read more about staying the night here.)
7. Funderland Amusement Park, Sacramento
Funderland has been open since 1946, with nine rides (including a classic carousel) geared more towards families with younger kids. The theme park also offers a snack bar, plus event/party packages and areas designated for special birthday parties. There’s no cost to get in – you’ll just need tickets to get on the rides.
8. Belmont Park, San Diego
Belmont Park is another amusement park by-the-sea, lying just next to Mission Beach near San Diego. You can buy tickets for each ride individually here or just get a wristband for unlimited rides all day. They have an assortment of rides (including the historic wooden Giant Dipper), arcade games, a mini golf course, bumper cars, food and other attractions, like rock climbing.