SF Bay Area: From Nature & Whales to Thrill Rides

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We’ve written about the SF Bay Area quite a bit, from restaurant and hotel reviews to family-fun activities. Be sure to read our Family Travel Section, which includes other regions of the country and world. At the bottom of this article, we include links to other not-to-be missed SF Bay Area reviews. Also be sure to take a look at our Family Fun in Sonoma article for some fun suggestions in a post-Covid world.

And with that, we’d like to share two fun experiences in the SF Bay Area for a l’il family adventure.

The lighthouse off the coast of Santa Cruz where you can take whale watching tours or other cruises.

Thrills for the Kids at Great America

Great America is open again for business in the SF Bay Area so if you’re an amusement park or thrill ride enthusiast, add it to your list. While we visited in the summer of 2021, Great America was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays but open the rest of the week.  We’d recommend a mid-week if you can manage it and if you don’t want to wait in long lines, I’d strongly encourage you to get their FAST PASS, which is available as an individual upgrade or a season pass, although they’re sold out of the latter at the time of writing this article. The FAST PASS allows you to bypass the regular lines on 17 rides and attractions, including RailBlazer, Patriot, Gold Striker and others.

To get a sneak peak, here’s a short video from our day.

There is also a waterpark you can visit as well although we didn’t explore it on this trip — perhaps on a future visit as it’s always fun on a hot summer day and it was nearly 90 when we went in August.  We missed hanging out with Snoopy because the rollercoasters were calling us the moment we walked into the park, but if you have smaller kids in tow, be sure to grab a shot with Peanuts’ favorite character.

Truth be told, the main thrill here is their rollercoasters.  Upside down, right side up, vertical, horizontal, sideways and more. They even have an old fashioned wooden rollercoaster as well, one of my favorites. The RailBlazer is Great America’s ground-breaking single-rail steel coaster although there’s also the Demon (yup, it’s really called that) which has major upside down action, the Flight Deck, Gold Striker, the Psycho Mouse and the Grizzly.

My personal favorite is the Rip Roaring Rapids. What’s nice about this ride is that you can take your whole family on one raft even if you’re not a family of 6 (the max per raft). They’ll let you go on a raft on your own which is great as we’re transitioning out of a pandemic.

The raft takes you down a rugged river course with whitewater challenges which at times, feel like a real rafting trip.

Although the Merry Go-Round may seem a bit slow if you’re traveling with older kids, I still love it as an adult and always go on one whenever I’m in a theme or amusement park — Great America has a great one because it offers two levels, so you can either go on the top or lower level. Of course the top level offers better views of the park.

Below, the beautifully painted horses on the merry-go around.

We loved the Tiki Twirl, which is surrounded by the sounds of tribal music and jungle drums. You whiz past fiery 40-foot-tall torches, exotic relics and tropical landscaping.  The disc coaster features a camelback hump in the middle but the disc also rolls over a hill, spinning riders in different directions.

One of my favorite parts of the park is the New Orleans themed section. Last time we were there, they had jazz music playing so be sure to check the schedule if live music is your thing. We love the bright vivid colors, the food, the vibe and energy of the place.

There are also colorful flowers throughout the park as well as tons of places to get burgers, pizza, icy drinks, soda, chicken and more.

The Sky Tower is an iconic 200-foot observation tower which provides an overhead view of California’s Great America and is the very first ride guests encounter upon entering the park.  Don’t miss the bumper cars, Flying Eagles and the Barney Oldfield Speedway (both are great for smaller kids), the Delirium if you can handle fast and upside down rides, the Swings (see our video above), Centrifuge and more.

Be sure to check out their website for more details and hours of operation, where you can also purchase tickets. They’re based in 4701 Great America Parkway in Santa Clara, CA.

Sailing & Whale Watching out of Santa Cruz

Even further south of Santa Clara lies Santa Cruz, where we have spent quite a bit of time over the years. In one of our earlier posts (see bottom of this article for the links), we covered the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and Amusement Park, but you can also take cruises out (more relaxing ones such as on one of the Chardonnay yachts), or one of the whale watching tours. What we enjoy more is renting a yacht for the day which is a great thing to do with friends or a family.

The Wind Goddess

On this particular trip, the clouds didn’t burn off which meant that most of our day was without sun. Despite it being close to 90 degrees ten miles south of us and over 90 in Marin, it stayed at a steady 66 degrees for most of the day.

Taking off out of the harbor.

I love passing the lighthouse every time — it never gets old for me as it’s such an iconic structure and there are always tons of seagulls, geese and birds mingling about.

The iconic lighthouse off the coast of Santa Cruz

It’s a great way to teach kids how to sail or at a minimum, how to navigate and steer the boat when the sails are down.

A few shots from our day.

When we left the harbor, we barely had any wind, however it picked up by around 2 pm so it was smooth sailing after that. We headed towards a whale watching tour boat which was on their way back to the dock. This meant that we were left out on the vast ocean with no other boats and several whales which we followed for a couple of hours. We were amazed at how close we were able to get to them and on more than one occasion, we caught a glimpse of their faces as they jumped out of the water near the boat. They truly are amazing creatures and mesmerizing to watch.

Although we had rare viewing on this particular trip, mostly what you’ll catch are their backs and of course, their fins as they make their way underwater once again.

Visit the Santa Cruz Tourism page on Outdoor Activities for more about what you can do in the area including sailing and surfing.

Other Useful & Relevant Articles 

  • Sonoma County Family Fun in 2021, which includes
    • Sonoma Canopy Tours for ziplining through the Redwoods
    • Dutton Estate Winery
    • Pascaline Patisserie & Café which is a charming French gastronomic gem, nestled among world-class vineyards, and Gravenstein
    • Ice Cream at Screamin’ Mimi’s
  • SF Bay Area Fun in Winter: check out our article that includes a round-up on
    • SF Love Tours
    • GoCar Tours and the…
    • Walt Disney Family Museum.
  • SF Bay Area Family Activities in Summer: check out our article that includes a round-up on
    • Lucky Tuk Tuk Tours
    • Fisherman’s Wharf
    • Driving or walking down the Crooked Street
    • Palace of Fine Arts
    • China Town
    • The Presidio, dining outside on the Pier and along the Embarcadero including the renowned Cioppinos where we had lunch
    • The Painted Ladies (houses) in San Francisco
    • The city by foot and trolley, the Cartoon Art Museum
    • The Aquatic Park
    • The Maritime Museum
    • Ghirardelli Square and the cable cars
    • Aqua Adventure Water Park in Fremont
    • Fairfax for shopping, pizza and ice cream
    • Marin County Fair and….
    • Point Reyes Station along the coast, which is a lovely drive either from San Francisco or Marin. Don’t miss their Buffalo Ice Cream in the country store along the main drag.
  • This SF Bay Area Family article includes visits to
    • Six Flags Hurricane Harbor
    • Great America pre-Covid
    • The Fillmore Jazz Festival in San Francisco
    • The San Francisco Dungeon
    • Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum
    • The Santa Cruz boardwalk and Amusement Park
    • The Golden Gate Bridge and….
    • Singalong Movies at San Francisco’s famous Castro Theatre
  • This piece focuses on Silicon Valley including the
    • Pacific Catch Restaurant and…
    • Broadway by the Bay for great family-friendly shows/musicals
  • This great article focuses on SF and the South Bay for family activities, including
    • House of Air on Old Mason Street in SF
    • Stowe Lake Boat House
    • The Exploratorium
    • Winter Lodge for Ice Skating in Palo Alto
    • Hiking, the views and a swing on San Francisco’s Bernal Heights (Hill) where we lived for awhile and…..
    • The Half Moon Bay Antiques & Collectibles Show
  • Exploring the Tri-Valley Restaurant Scene
  • The Wines of Livermore Valley


Note: we were hosted by some of the vendors but all opinions expressed are entirely our own.

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