California is a tailor-made destination for family travel. The kids will be begging to go to theme parks, and teens to celebrity hot spots. Then take 'em into the great outdoors – from sunny beaches shaded by palm trees to misty redwood forests to four-seasons mountain playgrounds.
Best Regions for Kids
- Los Angeles
See stars in Hollywood and get behind the movie magic at Universal Studios then hit the beaches and Griffith Park for fun in the sun. What, it’s raining? Dive into the city’s many kid-friendly museums instead.
- San Diego, Disneyland & Orange County
SoCal theme parks galore: Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, the San Diego Zoo & Safari Park, Legoland and more. Oh, and those sandy beaches just couldn’t be more beautiful.
- San Francisco Bay Area
Explore hands-on, whimsical and ‘Wow!’ museums, hear the barking sea lions at Pier 39 or Point Reyes National Seashore, traipse through Golden Gate Park and ride San Francisco's famous cable cars.
- Yosemite & the Sierra Nevada
Watch your kids gawk at Yosemite’s waterfalls and granite domes, then go hiking among groves of giant sequoias, the world’s biggest trees. In the Eastern Sierra, Mammoth Lakes is a year-round outdoor-adventure base camp.
California for Kids
There’s not too much to worry about when traveling in California with your kids, as long as you keep them covered in sunblock.
Children’s discounts are available for everything from museum admission and movie tickets to bus fares and motel stays. The definition of a ‘child’ varies – from ‘under 18’ to age six. At theme parks, some rides may have minimum-height requirements, so let younger kids know about this in advance to avoid disappointment and tears.
It’s fine to bring kids along to most restaurants, except top-end places. Casual restaurants usually have high chairs and children's menus and break out paper place mats and crayons for drawing. At theme parks, pack a cooler in the car and have a picnic in the parking lot to save money. On the road many supermarkets have wholesome, ready-to-eat takeout dishes.
Baby food, infant formula, disposable diapers (nappies) and other necessities are widely sold at supermarkets and pharmacies. Many public toilets have a baby-changing table, while private gender-neutral ‘family’ bathrooms may be available at airports, museums, etc.
It’s easy to keep kids entertained no matter where you travel in California. At national and state parks, ask at visitor centers about family-friendly, ranger-led activities and self-guided ‘Junior Ranger’ programs, in which kids earn themselves a badge after completing an activity booklet.
- Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Kids of all ages, even teens, and the young-at-heart adore the ‘Magic Kingdom’.
- Knott’s Berry Farm Near Disneyland, SoCal’s original theme park offers thrills-a-minute, especially on spooky, haunted Halloween nights.
- Universal Studios Hollywood Movie-themed action rides, special-effects shows, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and a working studio backlot tram tour entertain tweens and teens.
- Legoland California Resort This fantasyland of building blocks in San Diego's North County is made for tots and youngsters.
Aquariums & Zoos
- Monterey Bay Aquarium Meet aquatic denizens of the deep at a national marine sanctuary.
- San Diego Zoo and Safari Park Journey around the world with exotic wildlife at California’s best and biggest zoo then go on safari.
- Aquarium of the Pacific Long Beach’s aquarium houses critters from balmy Baja California to the chilly north Pacific, including a shark lagoon.
- Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens What was once the home of retired circus animals is today a center for endangered-species conservation.
- Living Desert Zoo & Gardens Outside Palm Springs, this educational zoo features a walk-through animal hospital and family campouts under the stars.
- Seymour Marine Discovery Center Santa Cruz’s university-run aquarium makes interactive science fun, with tide pools for exploring by the beach.
- Los Angeles Carnival fun and an aquarium await on Santa Monica Pier, or hit perfect beaches just up Hwy 1 in Malibu.
- Orange County Pick from beautiful pier-side strands in Newport Beach and miles of million-dollar sands in Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach (aka ‘Surf City, USA’) or old-fashioned Seal Beach.
- San Diego Head over to Coronado’s idyllic Silver Strand, play in Mission Bay by SeaWorld, lap up La Jolla or unwind in a half-dozen surf-style beach towns in North County.
- Santa Barbara County and Central Coast Laze on unmatched beaches in Santa Barbara then roll all the way north to the famous beach boardwalk in Santa Cruz.
- Lake Tahoe In summer it’s California’s favorite high-altitude escape: a sparkling diamond tucked in the craggy Sierra Nevada Mountains.
- Yosemite National Park Get an epic slice of Sierra Nevada scenery, with gushing waterfalls, alpine lakes, glacier-carved valleys and peaks.
- Redwood National & State Parks A string of nature preserves on the North Coast protect magnificent wildlife and the planet’s tallest trees.
- Lassen Volcanic National Park A peaceful destination in Northern California for otherworldly volcanic scenery and lakeside camping and cabins.
- Griffith Park Bigger than NYC’s Central Park, this LA greenspace has tons of fun for younger kids, from miniature train rides and a merry-go-round to planetarium shows.
- Channel Islands National Park Sail across to California’s version of the Galapagos for wildlife-watching, sea kayaking, hiking and camping adventures – best for teens.
- San Francisco The city is a mind-bending classroom for kids, especially at the interactive Exploratorium, multimedia Children’s Creativity Museum and eco friendly California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.
- Los Angeles See stars (the real ones) at the Griffith Observatory, dinosaur bones at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum then have hands-on fun at the California Science Center, home of the retired space shuttle Endeavour.
- San Diego Balboa Park is jam-packed with museums and a world-famous zoo, or take younger kids to the engaging New Children’s Museum downtown and let teens and tweens clamber aboard the USS Midway Museum.
- Orange County Bring budding lab geeks to the Discovery Cube and get a pint-sized dose of arts and culture in the Kidseum at the Bowers Museum, all near Disneyland Resort.
- Northern Mountains Redding's Turtle Bay Exploration Park combines an eco-museum, an arboretum and botanical and butterfly gardens beside the Sacramento River.
Don’t pack your schedule too tightly. When navigating metro areas such as LA, San Diego and San Francisco, allow extra time for traffic jams, parking and getting lost.
Accommodations & Child Care
Rule one: if you’re traveling with kids, always mention it when making reservations. At a few places, notably B&Bs, you may have a hard time if you show up with little ones. When booking, be sure to request the specific room type you want, although requests often aren't guaranteed.
Motels and hotels typically have rooms with two beds or an extra sofa bed. They also may have rollaway beds or cots, usually available for a surcharge (request these when making reservations). Some offer ‘kids stay free’ promotions, which may apply only if no extra bedding is required.
Resorts may offer daytime activity programs for kids and child-care services. At other hotels, front-desk staff or a concierge might be able to help you make babysitting arrangements. Ask whether babysitters are licensed and bonded, what they charge per hour per child, whether there’s a minimum fee and if they charge extra for transportation and meals.
Airlines usually allow infants (up to age two) to fly for free – bring proof of age – while older children require a seat of their own and don't usually qualify for reduced fares. Children receive substantial discounts on most trains and buses.
While driving in California, any child under age eight who is shorter than 4ft, 9in must be buckled up in the back seat of the car in a child or infant safety seat. Most car-rental agencies offer these for about $10 to $15 per day, but you must specifically book them in advance.
On the road, rest stops are few and far between, and gas stations and fast-food bathrooms tend to be icky. However, you’re usually never far from a shopping mall, which generally have well-kept restrooms.
What to Pack
Sunscreen. And bringing sunscreen should remind you to bring hats, swimsuits, flip-flops and goggles. If you like beach umbrellas and sand chairs, pails and shovels, you’ll probably want to bring your own, or buy them at local supermarkets and pharmacies. At many beaches you can rent bicycles and water-sports gear.
For outdoor vacations, bring broken-in hiking shoes and your own camping equipment. Outdoor gear can be purchased or sometimes rented from local outdoor outfitters and sporting-goods shops. But the best time to test out gear is before you take your trip. Murphy’s Law dictates that wearing brand-new hiking shoes always results in blisters, and setting up a new tent in the dark ain’t easy.
- Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children is loaded with valuable tips and amusing anecdotes, especially for families who haven’t traveled before.
- Lonelyplanet.com (www.lonelyplanet.com) Ask questions and get advice from other travelers in the Thorn Tree’s ‘Kids to Go’ and ‘USA’ forums.
- Visit California (www.visitcalifornia.com) The state’s official tourism website lists family-friendly attractions, activities and more – just search for ‘Family Experiences’ and ‘Kids’.
- Travel for Kids (www.travelforkids.com) Listings of kid-friendly sights, activities, hotels and recommended children's books for every region of California.