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I was over in Oakland a few weeks ago and we drove past Fairyland. The Bay Area used to have many charming theme parks: Frontier Village in San Jose, Santa's Village in Scotts Valley (I loved the glass maze) and of course Playland at Ocean Beach in San Francisco (the memories come to life in Remembering Playland).
Fortunately small and large theme parks are still around, although none in San Mateo County. We'll have to be happy with Malibu Castle Golf and Games and our lovely beaches.
Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad and Carousel
Does your child like trains? For $2.00 you can ride with them on this small, open air steam engine. And the park is really nice for a picnic.
Happy Hollow Park Park and Zoo
The perfect amusement park for the six and under crowd. The rides are super-gentle and the animals are small and odd, like pygmy goats, fossas, cabybaras (think really big hamsters). If you have any other zoo memberships in the country, it's worth checking to see if they honor that membership. My friend with a Boston Zoo membership got in for free.
Roaring Camp Railroads
You can ride and open-air steam engine through the redwoods from Felton down to the Santa Cruz boardwalk. The ride is about an hour long and it's not inexpensive (unfortunately). However I still remember taking this ride when I was 8 years old and emerging from the woods and arriving on the sunny boardwalk seemed magical. Discover more by reading Roaring Camp: The Social World Of The California Gold Rush.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
We would camp in Big Basin and spend the day at the boardwalk. It's got a carny vibe to it, but the beach has good swimming and the arcade has pinball machines. The rides are definitely for older kids. And of course the classic vampire flick The Lost Boys was filmed here. Go deeper with The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: A Century By The Sea.
Located right next to Lake Merritt, this is a Bay Area treasure. There are puppet shows, forty storybook sets, a children's theatre, and very gentle rides. There's also a small petting zoo. It's charming and old-fashioned and near one of the few urban lakes in the Bay Area.
Photo (child touching donkey) credit: marcalandavis
Cynthia R. found this awesome themed park in Japan. Think pink!