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Amusement Parks

Children's Fairyland

699 Bellevue Ave., Oakland, CA 94610

Ever wish for an old-time magical kingdom to go with younger kids, that didn't cost as much as Disneyland? Welcome to Children's Fairyland, the place where the Bubble Man dwells and puppet masters rule. Anyone who remembers the story of the Three Little Pigs will want to go inside their house, and of course the short train ride is too short, so you'll have to go again. Some of the older fairytales aren't known to the kids, or even some of the younger parents, so it can be a good reason to break out a copy of Grimms' Fairy Stories on the next trip to the library. The rides are low-key, from the Ferris Wheel to the Jolly Trolley, which is perfect for kids under the age of seven. There's even a merry-go-round for the younger and older kids, because of height restrictions. The puppet show can bring to life Goldilocks and the Three Bears, or the City Mouse and the Country Mouse. The crooked house is just the place for pretending, especially after the Alice in Wonderland tunnel and maze, and kids have a blast sliding down Jack and Jill Hill. If the kids want to see and touch something more warm and personal, well, fairy tales always have animals in them. There are soft bunnies and guinea pigs, three little cackling hens, baby doll sheep, donkeys and goats, an alpaca – and a pony. Visitors during summer get to see something really unique: Children's Community Theatre. Kids get to dress up and put on shows for other kids, so it could be a Western about a cowgirl out to conquer the bull-riding circuit, it could be a fantasy about an orphan who meets a dragon princess disguised as a fish. Watch the calendar to see what the kids and directors thought up this year. Of course, fairy wonderlands can sometimes show warts. Some parents have commented on how the paint needs to be re-done in spots, and that some of the kids get disappointed when they don't meet the height or weight requirements. It's true that Fairyland has more gardens than new equipment, but that's what gives it an old-time feel – and the kids enjoy themselves anyway.

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Gilroy Gardens

3050 Hecker Pass Hwy.
Gilroy, CA 95020

When the Gilroy Garden Park reopens on March 30th, the child world and plant world will again collide for good. The Garden Park is a good mix of education and fun, and can help kids think through conservation issues – especially if they're looking at the living Circus Trees that look like sculptures. During the summer, you can even go down a water slide through one of the trees, and pretend you're on a Jungle Book adventure with Mowgli. The rock maze is also a cool retreat from the sun, and there are shady trees all around the complex. Bring your bathing suit for walking behind the waterfalls, and tipping buckets onto the kids' heads at the Splash Garden. This is one of the best features of the park, not just because of the huge treehouse and twisty slide, but also because the kids can either shoot water at each other with super soakers, or use a water pump as a see-saw. The spinning water wheel may be as close as a city kid can get to seeing wheels and water other than in a movie. However, if you and the kids prefer to observe the beauty of water rather than interact with it, watching ducks while imitating them on paddle boats can be a lot of fun. The second great feature is not the rides, which are definitely mild to moderate on the thrill scale. The teacups, flying mushrooms, and little fire engines will probably thrill the toddler to four-year-old crowd. It's the gardens that are truly amazing. One of the really worthwhile rides is when you get to meander down a backroads area on a motorized antique car, going past a barn and a small pond with a tiny dock. You can see the Rainbow Gardens on a boat ride that goes around a small lazy river, and chase butterflies through the Monarch Garden greenhouse. Claudia's Carousel is especially good for toddlers, because then you get to slowly look at the amazing trees in all their twisty shapes – this could be a horticulture session for the older kids.

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Happy Hollow Park and Zoo

1300 Senter Rd.
San Jose, CA 95112

Happy Hollow is definitely the sort of place that kids love, and parents love that it's quite affordable. Many of the rides are quite young, and quite tame when compared to the thrills of Magic Mountain, but they are definitely suitable to the seven-year-olds and younger set. Parents may be underwhelmed by the Danny the Dragon ride featuring fairytale statues and a small dark tunnel, but small children seem fascinated and will probably insist on 'Danny again'. Since Danny is currently under a construction makeover, they may have to wait a while until he's ready to thrill them all over again. The carousel and Pacific Fruit Express roller coaster are also a quiet sort of fun, but the bumper cars and Frog Hopper may satisfy the boys' needs for a little adrenaline. The animals in the petting zoo can actually be petted, from the large cow to the ponies and donkeys, which is a step above some ultra-safety conscious facilities. You can brush them as well as feeding them, which is a definite plus, although the goats may have to be deterred from anything flapping that may look like food. No need to bring hand sanitizer, because there's a real hand-washing station with soap. If these activities aren't enough, try the puppet shows and the play areas. These are scattered across the grounds, so if at any time one of the kids has a desperate need to climb and slide and spin around, they can do so. If you pack along some yogurt bars and fruit cups, you can spread out at the picnic tables also scattered across the grounds, and then visit one of the many bathrooms. You may even be visited by face painters, if the season is right. In keeping with the rides, the zoo doesn't provide the larger impressive animals like elephants or giraffes, but the meerkats and birds are always good to see – especially if you make it during feeding time so the trainer can answer questions. Also, sometimes the jaguar lets himself be seen up close.

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Oakland Zoo

9777 Golf Links Rd.
Oakland, CA 94605

Animals and kids go together, especially at the Oakland Zoo. As a parent, it's important to have that 'magical' place in your back pocket, with plenty of activities, that isn't as pricey as Disneyland. (Parents in the Bay area should think about getting a membership, which includes free admission, parking, guest tickets, and 8 ride vouchers.) For parents without a car, the 511 Trip Planner can save a lot of time on public transport. Since the Zoo is spread across more than 500 acres with hills, parents with toddlers should definitely remember the backpack or stroller. What's great about the Zoo is that there's more than just waiting for the lions to roll over, or reading up on monkey grooming habits. If your kids are of the 'do everything' type, you'll want to check out the train, carousel, and rollercoaster. If your kids are of the 'observer' type, there are 650+ animals to watch, and Monday through Friday feeding times - from alligators to elephants to sun bears. If your kids are of the 'up close and personal' type, scrambling through the meerkat tunnel or the reptile cave is always a good idea, along with the play areas. (Don't forget to take a bathroom break after all that crawling – restrooms are right next to the meerkats, the Bug House, the picnic area, and the goat and sheep barn.) The lack of a 'concrete jungle' at Oakland is what sets it apart from the Los Angeles Zoo. Kids and parents who want to see animals in a naturalistic environment can't go wrong here. It's also more interactive, from the bat house to the goat petting area, and the cable car allows you to see the Bay area while peeking into animal cages.

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Traintown

20264 Broadway
Sonoma, CA 95476

This amusement park is all about the trains, costs much less than a trip to Disneyland, and has much shorter wait times except on July 4th weekends. Since there's no admission price, you can wander around for free if you like, or go out for pizza nearby. Like a movie theatre, the on-site cafe does have some limited options, but no outside food and drinks are permitted. To reduce costs, have the kids eat some quick granola bars and slurp their way through a juice box in the car or just outside of the entry way, since the picnic tables are reserved for parties. Also, some parents have offered the Napa Valley deal of a lifetime to their kids – if we pay for rides at TrainTown, you let us go on a wine tour and watch movies on the iPad. That can be a win-win for the whole family. If you're looking for the Most Amazing Place on Earth, Train Town does not really qualify, but the 20-minute train ride is definitely a hit for the younger crowd. Some of the kids love the petting zoo stops with alpacas and sheep, and some are more inclined toward the carousel and small roller coaster. Since each ride has its own separate cost, you can ride a little and walk around, or watch the water fountain, or take silly photos of you and the kids in the replica old town (Lakeview). There's even a small running water mill, and you can explain to the kids that this is what energy creation looked like before there were electric plugs in the house. Boys will probably want to investigate the outhouse to 'see if it works', but there are normal bathrooms on-site. Like a county carnival, admission and parking are free, but you might see operators running multiple stations, zigzagging between the roller coaster and ferris wheel, then on to the Dragon Train or the Choo-Choo chairs. Unlike a carnival, it's a cleaner and much more charming facility with the feel of a model train set brought to life. Bring some change for the gumball machines and arcade games, oooh and ahhh over the to-scale railroad cars, and certainly reserve some quarters for feeding the ducks and goats. It's amusement on a small scale, and the smaller kids really enjoy all the tunnels, water falls, and trains that are just their size.

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