Southern California – home to sunshine, beaches, Hollywood, and theme parks galore.
There’s a lot to enjoy in SoCal, but apart from the beaches, most of the attractions are pretty pricey. Theme parks, in particular, usually charge $50 or more for admission.
If you plan to take a lap of the theme park circuit, you’ll be interested to know there are attraction passes that can help you save on admission. One of these passes is the California Explorer Pass. While it can definitely save you money if used appropriately, it’s not right for everyone.
In this California Explorer Pass review, I’ll explain how the pass works, what’s included, how much it costs, and who it works best for. Ultimately, I’ll help you decide if it’s a good solution for you.
Let’s do this!
California Explorer Pass: How it Works
The California Explorer Pass includes access to your choice of 3, 4, or 5 of Southern California’s top attractions for one set price. Each pass allows you to visit 1 of 2 premium attractions, plus you get an additional 12 regular attractions to choose from. If you build your pass strategically, you can save up to 29% on admission costs.
There’s no need to choose your attractions in advance, and you can visit them in any order you like. You also don’t need to worry about purchasing tickets – just show up and show your pass; the staff will know what to do. (One exception is the Warner Bros. Studio Tour – it requires a reservation.)
Your pass is activated the first time you use it. From there, you have 30 days to visit the number of attractions you purchased. So, if you buy a 5-attraction pass and use it to visit your first attraction, you’ll have 30 days (including that first day) to visit the other 4. You are limited to visiting each attraction just once during the life of your pass.
Attractions Included on the California Explorer Pass
The California Explorer Pass is billed as a multi-attraction pass, but it’s mostly a theme park pass. Here are the twelve regular attractions included on the pass, complete with their typical price for admission:
- Big Bus Los Angeles 1-Day Classic Ticket – $50
- San Diego Zoo – $56
- San Diego Zoo Safari Park – $56
- Warner Bros. Studio Tour – $69
- Knott’s Berry Farm – $84
- Knott’s Soak City – $53
- Six Flags Magic Mountain – $89.99
- SeaWorld San Diego – $91.99
- Belmont Park – $54
- California Academy of Sciences – $39.95
- California’s Great America – $59.99
- Six Flags Discovery Kingdom – $73.12
In addition to these twelve spots, you also get to choose one of these premium attractions:
- LEGOLAND California 2-Day Resort Hopper – $155
- Universal Studios Hollywood – $139
*Prices current as of April 2019
As you can see, this is a very high-value lineup – even better than similar cards like the New York Explorer Pass. Except for the California of Academy of Sciences, every attraction has an admission price of $50 or more.
That’s pretty impressive – but to gauge the California Explorer Pass’ value, we also need to look at its pricing.
California Explorer Pass Pricing
|Passes||Adult Price||Child Price (ages 3-12)|
|*Current as of April 3rd, 2019|
Looking at these prices, you can see that the passes are on the pricey side. Still, if you choose your attractions carefully, you can save a nice chunk of change using the California Explorer Pass.
The best possible value comes from using the 5-attraction pass to visit the 5 most expensive attractions. The lineup would look like this:
- LEGOLAND ($155)
- SeaWorld ($91.99)
- Six Flags Magic Mountain ($89.99)
- Knott’s Berry Farm ($84)
- Six Flags Discovery ($73.12)
The regular price of this lineup would be $494.10. Since the 5-attraction pass costs $349, the total savings would be $145.10 per person, or 29%. That’s not bad.
This set of selections may not be realistic for every traveler, though. For one thing, most adults traveling without kids probably don’t want to want to visit LEGOLAND.
Secondly, this lineup is all theme parks. That might sound like a blast to some, but others will want a bit of variety in the mix.
Finally, these attractions aren’t all located in the same city. So, this lineup only works if you are planning on doing a fair bit of driving and spending time in different areas.
Based on these limitations, I’d say most people probably won’t save 29% with the California Explorer Pass. Still, if you use the card enough, the savings still exist.
Top Reasons to Buy the California Explorer Pass
Save Money on Admission
The California Explorer Pass can save you up to 29% on admission to Southern California’s top attractions (although most probably don’t save quite this much). While it’s not the greatest value I’ve seen from a pass, it’s still money in your pocket.
Fast Track Entry
The downside of visiting popular attractions is that you end up wasting time waiting in long ticket lines. The California Explorer Pass helps cut down on this by offering fast track entry to 5 of the 14 attractions. In those cases, your pass functions as your ticket – you skip the ticket line and head straight to the entry point with your pass.
Choose a Premium Attraction
Although the California Explorer Pass’ selection isn’t huge, I really like that it includes a choice of two premium attractions.
The LEGOLAND California 2-Day Resort Hopper ticket is an excellent choice for families with young kids. At first, 2 days might seem like overkill, but the ticket includes entry to LEGOLAND itself, plus Sea LIFE Aquarium and LEGOLAND Water Park. Its regular price is $155, so choosing this option adds a lot of value to your pass.
The 1-day Universal Studios ticket will appeal more to adults, but the good news is that kids love it, too. I’d say if your kids are older than 12, they’d probably prefer Universal to LEGOLAND. The regular admission is lower at $129, and it’s only a 1-day ticket, but it’s the clear choice if you’re traveling without kids or with older kids.
Other Benefits of the California Explorer Pass
Digital Pass – The California Explorer Pass is available digitally using the free Go City App. In 2019, you’d think that would be a given, but there are still plenty of paper-only sightseeing passes out there.
Big Bus Los Angeles Tour – This hop-on hop-off bus tour is a fun way to get to know L.A. You get access to the Hollywood loop and the beach loop. Both tours include six stops at major sites and live narration. You can stay on board for the full tour or hop off at any of the stops. Your ticket is good for the entire day, so hop back on any time.
Free Guide Book – Like many of the best sightseeing passes, the California Explorer Pass comes with a free guidebook that has important info for each attraction. This includes things like hours, address, and how to use your pass to get in.
Where the California Explorer Pass Falls Short
The California Explorer Pass can help you save some money on California’s top attractions, but it’s not a perfect solution to everyone’s needs. There are a couple of weaknesses worth pointing out.
First of all, there isn’t much variety on this pass. We might as well call it what it is: a theme park pass. The San Diego Zoo and a couple of tours are in the mix, but 9 of 14 attractions are theme parks.
I crunched the numbers, and if you build a pass without a theme park, it’s impossible to get your money’s worth. This has a lot to do with the fact that both premium attractions fall into that category. I’d personally like to see a more diverse selection.
I’m not one to turn my nose up at any savings – money is money. I should point out, however, that the California Explorer Pass doesn’t offer as much value as some other sightseeing passes. At regular price, the most you can save using the 5-attraction pass is $145.10, or 29%.
While 29% isn’t bad, you can generally save a lot more with an all-inclusive pass. For example, if L.A. will be your hub, you can save up to 50% with the Go Los Angeles Card. That pass includes 7 of the attractions the California Explorer Pass offers, plus a bunch more.
Similarly, the Go San Diego Card includes 7 of the same attractions as the California Explorer Pass, plus many more. With this card, you can save up to 55% off the regular price.
Who Should Consider the California Explorer Pass
- Theme Park Junkies – If you’re a thrill-seeking theme park lover, the California Explorer Pass is right up your alley. There are nine theme parks to choose from – you can customize your pass to make it for all theme parks if you like!
- Travelers Who Enjoy a Relaxed Pace – Unlike all-inclusive passes, the California Explorer Pass is valid for 30 days once you activate it. That means you can spread out your attraction days without worrying about getting maximum value from your pass.
- Families – The cost of visiting attractions is multiplied when you’re traveling with kids, but so are the savings you get with the California Explorer Pass. I feel like the pass is designed with families in mind since the two premium attractions are very kid-friendly. People of all ages enjoy theme parks and animal exhibits, and that’s basically what the pass is.
Who Should Skip the California Explorer Pass
- People who Aren’t into Theme Parks – As I mentioned above, the California Explorer Pass is mostly theme parks. If you’re not into that, your choices for the pass will be limited. There are five non-theme park attractions to choose from, but when you look at their value, you realize it’s impossible to get your money’s worth from the pass without including a theme park. Bottom line? If theme parks aren’t your cup of tea, the California Explorer Pass is not for you.
- Anyone Who Wants an All-Inclusive Experience – If you’ve used an all-inclusive pass before and enjoy being able to do as many attractions as time permits, you’ll be disappointed with the California Explorer Pass’ three, four, or five-attraction format.
- Solo Travelers – If you’re traveling by yourself, the California Explorer Pass might not be a good fit for you, simply because most people don’t go to theme parks alone. Most rides accommodate pairs, so riding with strangers might not be as fun. If that doesn’t bother you, charge ahead.
- Travelers on a Tight Budget – The California Explorer Pass is not cheap, and neither are the attractions it features. If you’re on a strict budget, you’re probably not planning to visit theme parks, zoos, or do pricey tours. Skip the pass and stick to low-cost activities.
Tips for Getting the Most of out the California Explorer Pass
Buy the Pass on Sale – Want to save more with the California Explorer Pass? Buy it on sale! This pass goes on sale pretty often, so buy it when you find a good deal. I never pay full price for passes if I can avoid it, and you shouldn’t either.
Choose the More Expensive Attractions – Getting your money’s worth from the California Explorer Pass is not a given. For example, if you bought the 3-attraction pass and did Universal ($139), California Academy of Sciences ($39.95), and Belmont Park ($54), the total value of the attractions would be $232.95. The 3-attraction pass costs $244, so you would actually lose money. Make sure you choose some more expensive options, so the value of the attractions exceeds the cost of the pass.
Buy the Five-Attraction Pass – The three and four-attraction passes can save you money, but the five-attraction pass offers the best value.
How to Buy the California Explorer Pass
If you’re ready to jump on the theme park circuit, you can buy the California Explorer Pass online.
Once the sale is complete, you’ll get an email with your pass attached. You can print a copy if you like, paper in-hand, or you can download the free Go City app and use the pass right from your smartphone.
If you change your mind before you use your pass, you’ve got 30 days to get a full refund.
Bottom Line: Is the California Explorer Pass a Good Fit for You?
The California Explorer Pass is a good fit for people who are looking to visit a few theme parks on non-consecutive days.
For travelers looking for a more comprehensive experience, the pass falls short. All-inclusive passes like the Go Los Angeles Card and the Go San Diego Card offer more options and higher potential savings. The catch with those passes is that to save the big bucks, you need to hit multiple attractions every day…and not all travelers are up for that.
So, in the end, it really depends on your interests and your style.
If you’re looking to take a spin on the SoCal theme park circuit with chill days in between, the California Explorer Pass can help you do it for less. If you’re looking for more options and don’t mind busy days, check out an all-inclusive pass instead.
Either way, I hope this California Explorer Pass review was helpful. Thanks for reading and happy travels!