Topping the list are Disneyland, Seaworld San Diego and Universal Studios Hollywood. With these three, you really can't go wrong.
But there are other parks which may fill the bill for you. There are parks that cater to the youngest tots, parks that feature adrenaline-pumping thrill rides, and simple amusement parks.
The parks are listed below going from north to south.
Six Flags Magic Mountain: With 14 roller coasters, this Southern California amusement park is best known for its thrill rides, including extreme rides like the X2 and Tatsu.
The park appeals primarily to teens, but there are also rides and attractions for younger kids, including Bugs Bunny World and Thomas Town. There are also games, arcades, shops and restaurants.
It can get pretty hot here during the summer, and the lines can get long, so plan accordingly.
Magic Mountain is located in Valencia, about 38 miles north of Los Angeles.
Universal Studios Hollywood: This movie-based theme park in California's entertainment capital offers rides, shows and a working movie studio.
Just outside the front entrance, you'll find a large parking structure (Jurassic Parking) and Universal City Walk, a large complex of cinemas, shops, restaurants, night spots, and Gibson Amphitheatre, an indoor venue for concerts.
Once inside, you enter the upper lot of the park, where the studio tour and many family attractions such as Shrek and the Simpsons are located.
You can then take an escalator down to the lower lot, which houses the Jurassic Park and Mummy rides, an arcade, and more. Located off the 101 Freeway (Hollywood Freeway).
Disneyland Resort: With 2 theme parks, 3 hotels, and the Downtown Disney District, the Disneyland Resort provides a complete destination for Disneyland vacations and family fun.
Begun in 1954, Disneyland theme park is the grandaddy of all theme parks, in California and the world, and still sets the standard. The park features more than 60 rides and attractions in 8 themed "lands." There's plenty of live entertainment, Disney characters, colorful parades, and spectacular fireworks.
Disney's California Adventure park, located directly across from Disneyland, opened in 2001, and celebrates the California experience.
The park is smaller than Disneyland, with 4 themed "lands" and over 30 rides and attractions, including the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Toy Story Midway Mania, the California Screamin' roller coaster, and Soarin' Over California. There are plenty of characters and parades as well.
Both Disney parks feature numerous shops, restaurants, and entertainment, and there's even more in the Downtown Disney District located between the two parks. Check their web site for special offers and Disney vacation packages
Knott's Berry Farm: From a sleepy beginning as a family farm, Knott's Berry Farm grew bit by bit to become the first theme park in California, and the nation.
The park features 6 themed areas, including Ghost Town, Fiesta Village, the Boardwalk, Wild Water Wilderness, Indian Trails, and Camp Snoopy for the younger set.
There are roller coasters and thrill rides, music and entertainment, shopping and dining. Located on Beach Boulevard in Buena Park.
Adventure City: This small theme park in California's southland is tailored for families with young children. There are 10 rides (which parents can ride with their kids), a Children's Theater, Petting Farm, climbing wall, arcade, and other attractions. Located on Beach Boulevard in Anaheim.
Boomers: This small amusement park features attractions like bumper boats, go carts, miniature golf, lazer tag, a rock wall and a cafe. There's no admission charge, and you can get all day play wristbands.
Boomers has several theme parks in California, and attractions vary. On the central coast, there's one in Santa Maria (north of Santa Barbara).
In Orange County, there are locations in Fountain Valley and Irvine. In San Diego, there are locations in North Clairemont and El Cajon.
Legoland California: Geared toward families with children ages 2 to 12, this is one of the most unique theme parks in California. It features 8 themed areas with rides, shows, attractions, shopping and restaurants. There are more than 15,000 Lego models in the park, ranging from larger than life to miniature.
Themed areas include the Land of Adventure where you can journey through ancient ruins, Dino Island with life-sized Lego dinosaurs, the Africa themed Explore Village, the scaled-down Fun Town, Pirate Shores for water play, Castle Hill with knights, damsels and dragons, Miniland USA with its miniature American landmarks, and Imagination Zone with rides and Lego building.
The park is located in Carlsbad, just 30 miles north of San Diego, just off I-5.
Sea World San Diego: One of the most popular theme parks in California, Sea World is a happy blending of marine animals, show biz, and amusement park rides. It's perfect for a San Diego family vacation.
The park features shows like Shamu's Believe and Dolphin Discovery, and rides like Journey to Atlantis, Shipwreck Rapids, and Elmo's Flying Fish.
Exhibits include Shark Encounter, Manatee Rescue and Rocky Point Preserve, where you may even be able to feed the dolphins.
There are several restaurants in the park, or you can choose one of the special dining options like Dine With Shamu or Showtime Picnic. For the serious animal lover, San Diego Sea World also offers special tours, animal encounters and adventure camps. The park is located on Mission Bay.
Click on the link below the map to see a larger version, with legend.