Happiest Place on Earth?

A SoCal Family Theme Park Survival Guide

A few tips from actual parents for that trip that might cost as much as a semester of college

By Portland Monthly Staff Published in the February 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

Getting wet at Universal Studios

Universal Studios

One day is enough for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and a Duff beer at Moe’s, or to geek out on behind-the-scenes features and take the Studio Tour (see the shark from Jaws attack!). To do it all, though, consider two days. There are hotels next to the park in Universal City, but you’ll feel less trapped and have more dining options staying one Metro stop away.

Raging Waters

Also known as Waterloo in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, this Inland Empire waterpark is open May through September and packed with crazy tunnels, drops, and a wave pool. It’s best for older, confident swimmers: kids under three feet get in free, but many rides have a four-foot height requirement, so there can be a lot of “No, you can’t go on that.” Conveniently located near San Dimas High School and a Circle K that might have some strange things afoot.

Disneyland Resort

Sit-down restaurants are for suckers. Seek out the Frontierland kiosks hawking giant smoked turkey legs as well as Mexican-market-style cups of fresh fruit with spicy chile salt. Need to chill out? Lurking inside the Disney Animation Building on California Adventure’s main street is the park’s “Animation Academy.” Hang out in the air-conditioned amphitheater while an actual Disney animator teaches you how to draw Mickey, Goofy, and other characters. Classes start every 30 minutes, and your own drawing is the best free souvenir.

A friendly droid encounter at Legoland


Older kids can breeze through in one day, while two days might be better to plan for younger Lego lovers who want to spend an hour digging for bones in the sandbox. A themed Ninjago or wizard room at one of the official Legoland hotels is cool, but there are other hotels in walking distance that cost a lot less—we like Carlsbad by the Sea and its shamrock-shaped pool.


Worried your young animal-rights activist will reject everything SeaWorld stands for? SeaWorld was, too—so a recent rebrand has put a brighter spotlight on rescue, rehabilitation, and conservation programs. The park also added a bunch of roller coasters. Where else can you watch manta rays glide through a water tunnel above your head, rocket down a twisty coaster named Manta, and then literally pet manta rays?

Knott’s Berry Farm

This OG amusement park in the OC is cheaper than anything Disney-branded, so it can be a good alternative if kids are just in it for roller coasters. Bonus: Steve Martin started his entertainment career here, so a trip is an excuse for a family viewing of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Six Flags Magic Mountain

This half-century-old “Thrill Capital of the World” is packed with roller coasters—and can be packed with people. Locals might tell you to go on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to have the place to yourself, or to get there early, start at the back of the park, and work your way forward, bypassing the rush for the big-ticket rides at the front.

General Tips

Plan ahead and check online for deals. A season pass is sometimes cheaper than paying for days individually.

If you’re chiefly interested in the newest, most popular attractions (e.g., Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge), the cost of a FastPass or VIP experience might be worth it as long as your soul can handle the temporary adherence to a caste system.

At many parks, you can get an app that shows wait times for individual rides. Most of these apps are free, but the info is priceless.

Shell out for experiences more than things. Those personalized mouse ears or that wand from Ollivander’s will quickly be outgrown but will always seem too special to throw away. These souvenirs could haunt your family for generations.

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