Amusement parks and summertime go hand in hand, and for our little ones, the short car ride to a nearby park feels as exciting as a full blown vacation. If you’re like us and opting for a summer staycation, or simply need a day to break up the summer routine, venture to one of the Bay Area’s fun-packed amusement parks. After a day of chills & thrills, you’re likely to have a car full of tired kiddos, and you’ll have earned major points in the “best parent ever” category. Read on to find our five picks for the most fun, kid-friendly amusement parks around.

Aqua Adventure Water Park

Aqua Adventure Water Park
It’s fun to cool off on a hot day with the kiddos, and this comfortably-sized amusement park has the right-on motto: Get Set To Get Wet. Here there are water slides to go down, a slow flowing river to relax in, and a dedicated toddler “Squirt” (get it?) Splash Zone for your littlest guppy who can’t swim yet. Besides that, there’s a pool, a lazy river, a giant slide and a small play area. The lifeguards here are very attentive, as it’s a smaller park, and you can book a shady cabana and get out of the sun for awhile making this a stellar spot for families during the summer.

Insider Tip: Cabana rentals come with lounge chairs & an end table with in-cabana food service, but you need to book these in advance.

40500 Paseo Padre Parkway
Fremont, Ca
Phone:  510-494-4426
Online: www.goaquaadventure.com

California’s Great America
California’s Great America has the most thrill rides in all of Northern California, but there’s also still tons of fun for younger children who aren’t ready yet for defying gravity. You can check out KidZville, a big, busy town built just for smaller sizes, as well as plenty of favorite Peanuts Gang characters wandering the park and interacting with your family for fun photo ops.  There are eighteen different rides for parents and kids to enjoy together, and this summer kicks off the 2013 Gold Striker roller coaster ride attraction. There’s also a variety of delicious dining options, shopping and massive amounts of parking. Great America is the South Bay’s biggest amusement park and suits everyone even in big and diverse groups.

4701 Great America Parkway
Santa Clara, CA
Phone: 408-988-1776
Online: www.cagreatamerica.com

Circus tree at Gilroy gardens

Gilroy Gardens
For something really unique and different, try the only amusement park with a horticultural theme designed to educate guests about the natural world. It was founded by Michael and Claudia Bonfante after selling their Nob Hill Foods supermarket chain to build the park and constructed gradually over 25 years. Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park features 21 rides and countless attractions including a “Garlic Twirl” reminiscent of another amusement park’s Teacup Ride. Plus there are sweeping, majestic gardens and the world famous utterly unusual Gilroy Circus Trees.

Insider Tip: Your admission tickets to eco-friendly Gilroy Gardens are tax-deductible.

3050 Hecker Pass Highway
Gilroy, Ca
Phone: 408-840-7100
Online: www.gilroygardens.org

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
A Bay Area summer isn’t complete without a day trip to this 100-plus year old Beach Boardwalk! It features both modern and classic thrill rides, restaurants, miniature golf, video game arcades, and family bowling, all located on a lively mile of sandy beach. The admission-free Boardwalk offers a wide range of pay-as-you–go ticket options and free summer entertainment and manages to maintain an old-school family style amusement park vibe. To that end: try the 1924 rickety wooden roller coaster if you dare, the Giant Dipper, and the scenic Sky Glider ride which soars across the entire span of fun below.

400 Beach Street
Santa Cruz, Ca
Phone: 831-423-5590
Online: www.beachboardwalk.com

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
You might recall this park used to be Six Flags Marine World, but in 2007 they made several new additions and the new name reflects the triad of a marine park, plus an animal park, and a thrill-ride park. So now, from alligators to sharks, dolphins to cougars, butterflies to elephants, and walruses to penguins, there’s a plethora of wildlife during every visit to the amusement park. There’s also some of the fastest, tallest, wildest, gut-wrenchingest rides in the country for older kids – including a few record-breakers like their Superman: Ultimate Flight inversion roller coaster. Not to fret if your tyke is too short or too scared to go upside down & sideways because this park has special attractions just for little ones including a darling train ride. All aboard!

1001 Fairgrounds Drive
Vallejo, Ca 94589
Phone: 707-643-6722
Online: www.sixflags.com/discoverykingdom

What was the last amusement park ride you rode with your kids?

–Mireille Schwartz

In descending order, photos courtesy of: Fred Schroeder (Flickr), Chris BB (Flickr), Gilroy Gardens website, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom website