Southern California is unquestionably one of the most child-friendly vacation spots on the planet. The kids will be begging to go to theme parks and teens to celebrity hot spots. Get those over with (you might enjoy them too), then introduce them to many other worlds, big and small.
Best Regions for Kids
- Orange County
Disneyland is a natural with kids, and Knott's Berry Farm is a more old-time, Americana attraction with a summer water park. Speaking of water, there are any number of gorgeous beaches to choose from.
- Los Angeles
See stars in Hollywood and get behind the movie magic at Universal Studios, then hit the beaches and Griffith Park for SoCal fun in the sun. What, it’s raining? Dive into the city’s many kid-friendly museums instead.
- San Diego
From pandas to koalas, flamingos to elephants, San Diego Zoo is paws-down the best zoo in Southern California. Also make time for the zoo's safari park in Escondido, as well as the other family-oriented attractions in Balboa Park, maritime sites along downtown's Embarcadero and colorful Legoland in Carlsbad.
Southern California for Kids
SoCal’s sunny skies and warm temperatures lend themselves to outdoor activities of all kinds. Here's a small sampling: swimming, surfing, snorkeling, cycling, kayaking, hiking and horseback riding. Many outdoor outfitters and tour operators have dedicated kids’ activities. On those rare cold, rainy days – or if you need a break from all that sun – you'll find top-notch museums and indoor entertainment galore.
Sometimes no organized activity is even needed. We’ve seen young kids thrill at catching their first glimpse of a palm tree, and teens with sophisticated palates bliss out over their first taste of heirloom tomatoes at a farmers market or shrimp dumplings at a dim-sum palace. The bottom line: if the kids are having a good time, you will be too.
Most restaurants in Southern California – not just fast-food places – are easygoing places to bring kids. A good measure is the noise level: the louder, the more kid-friendly. Casual eateries in well-trafficked neighborhoods typically have high chairs and children's menus available, and some break out the paper place mats and crayons for drawing. Even restaurants without special kids’ menus can usually whip up something your children will eat. Generally, dining earlier (say, before 6pm) is better for families with young ones.
Theme parks have dozens of ways to get the kids hopped-up on sugar and salt at expensive prices, and many don’t permit picnics or food to be brought in. One way to get around this is to carry a cooler in the car and have a picnic in the parking lot (although be sure to get everyone's hand stamped for park re-entry before you do).
One place kids are generally unwelcome is at high-end restaurants. Unless your children are exceptionally well behaved, properly dressed and old enough to appreciate the meal, neither the staff nor the other diners are likely be charmed.
If all else fails, supermarket chains such as Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Gelson’s have healthy takeout food. Baby food, infant formula, disposable diapers (nappies) and other necessities are also widely sold at supermarkets and pharmacies.
Universal Studios Hollywood If the kids are old enough to appreciate movies that grownups also like, they’ll love this theme park, though there’s not too much for the preschool set.
Six Flags Magic Mountain Older, coaster-friendly kids will thrill while whirring, whizzing and whooping on some of the best in the west.
Pacific Park Small, bargain-priced park on the Santa Monica Pier brings fun for the whole family.
Hollywood Walk of Fame Get the kids’ pictures taken beside the star of their favorite star on Hollywood Blvd. Actors dressed as famous characters from Superman to Marilyn Monroe, Sponge Bob to Michael Jackson roam the Walk of Fame too; tip them a couple bucks if you take their picture with your kids.
Grauman’s Chinese Theatre R2-D2’s wheel prints and the hand-, foot- and wand-prints of the young stars of the Harry Potter movies are must-snap sites.
Exposition Park Museums The California Science Center is both great and free, and the Natural History Museum is, among other things, where Peter Parker (aka Spiderman) was first bitten.
La Brea Tar Pits See the cast of Ice Age (albeit as their former real-life selves) at this archaeological museum.
Petersen Automotive Museum Thrill your (inner) eight-year-old boy at this newly renovated museum.
Skirball Cultural Center Climb all over the Noah’s Ark exhibit made of found objects.
Kidspace Children’s Museum This play park near the Rose Bowl in Pasadena boasts a kaleidoscope-like building, climbing tower and places for small fry to run around.
Aquarium of the Pacific – Sharks! ‘Nuff said. In downtown Long Beach.
Chinatown Pick up touristy knickknacks, make a wish on a fountain, chow on dumplings or sip boba tea (with chewy black pearls of tapioca).
Olvera St LA’s oldest street mixes Mexi-kitsch with quality eats.
Little Tokyo Browse for anime and manga, snack on sushi or ramen, and learn about the Japanese American experience at the Japanese American National Museum.
Go Out & Play
Griffith Park Amusements include the landmark Griffith Observatory, a merry-go-round, hiking to view the Hollywood Sign, Travel Town for younger tykes, and the zoo, though it can’t compare to San Diego’s.
Bike at the beach Rental shops line the 22-mile South Coast Bicycle Trail.
Round Round Get Around…
Take the train For kids who don’t regularly ride trains, this will be the cheapest thrill ride of your trip, and maybe your fastest connections between Downtown and Hollywood, Universal Studios, Pasadena or Santa Monica.
Theme Parks & Museums
Do Disney There’s a reason Disneyland’s the most popular attraction in Southern California. Generations of kids and kids at heart love it, older kids will enjoy the thrill rides at Disney’s California Adventure, and there’s shopping and dining for everyone at Downtown Disney.
Knott’s Berry Farm More homegrown and more low-key than Disney. Charlie Brown and Lucy sub for Mickey and Minnie, and Camp Snoopy is just the right speed for little kids. Bigger thrill-seekers will definitely want to check out some of SoCal's hairiest roller coasters. It’s a definite to-do for their older siblings during October’s nighttime Halloween Haunt.
Discovery Cube Journey from beneath the earth (Quake Zone) to outer space (Boeing Rocket Lab) and frozen water (the Science of Hockey) at this super-duper museum in Santa Ana.
Ocean Institute Over 110,000 K through 12 students come to Dana Point each year to learn about oceanography, science and California history.
All Those Animals
San Diego Zoo From pandas to koalas, flamingos to Elephant Odyssey, this is paws-down the best zoo in America.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park Journey to Africa without leaving North San Diego County.
Birch Aquarium La Jolla aquarium that’s as entertaining as it is educational, thanks to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.
A Day In the Park
Balboa Park Spend a day at one of the nation’s best collections of museums. The Reuben H Fleet Science Center (with IMAX theater), Model Railroad Museum and Natural History Museum are all tailor-made for kids, the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater and Automotive Museum will appeal to particular audiences, and the plazas, fountains and gardens offer plenty of open space for children of all ages to let off some steam.
Let go with Lego
Legoland Those little colored plastic blocks from Denmark provide a day or more of entertainment, with rides for the littlest kids and an entire world's worth of Lego monuments to awe their parents.
A Little History
Old Town State Historic Park Elementary-schoolers and older will appreciate the historical exhibits here, plus old-time shops, south-of-the-border souvenirs and the Mexican restaurants nearby.
Cabrillo National Monument The views here inspire awe, and its old-school museum tells the story of the Spanish explorers who ‘discovered’ California.
By the Sea
Mission and Pacific Beaches Teenagers will be in their element among the array of surfers, bikers, ‘bladers and buff bods. Alternatively, go kayaking or ride a paddle wheeler on Mission Bay.
USS Midway Museum Board this decommissioned aircraft carrier and gain an appreciation for our men and women in uniform.
La Jolla Cove Snorkel to shipwrecks, sea caves and schools of fish.
Coronado Quieter kids will appreciate this calming getaway, featuring the Hotel del Coronado and kid-friendly public library.
Stearns Wharf Pride of place belongs to the pier in central Santa Barbara, and nearby Arroyo Beach and Leadbetter Beach attract many families.
Carpinteria State Beach Said to be the world’s safest.
Get outta town Escape to El Capitan and Refugio State Beaches, or Ventura County, a less expensive and more family-oriented beach getaway.
Channel Islands National Park – A natural for families who like their vacations, well, natural: hiking, kayaking, camping, whale-watching and more.
Central Santa Barbara The lovely mission-style town center boasts a low-key Museum of Natural History and Planetarium and a zoo, and opportunities for cycling, roller-skating, boating, whale-watching and various other activities abound.
Maritime Museum Family-friendly spot where you can ‘reel in’ a fake 45lb marlin.
Palm Springs & the Deserts
Water In the Desert
Resorts Who needs to run around, when swimming pools, tennis courts and, for older kids, golf are great family fun? There’s a large assortment Down Valley.
Knott’s Soak City Splish, splash and slide at this water park.
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Round gondola-style cars rotate ever so slowly as they ascend 6000 vertical feet up the San Jacinto Mountains. Temperatures at the top are up to 40°F lower than on the desert floor; in cooler months, bring warm clothing and snow gear (the latter can be rented).
Windmills Take an up-close-and-personal tour of these green power generators west of Palm Springs.
Living Desert Zoo Fascinating and well-presented exhibitions of desert flora and fauna.
Hike, hike, hike Active kids will enjoy hiking Indian and Tahquitz Canyon just outside central Palm Springs, while in the center of the region is Joshua Tree National Park; clear blue skies typically make for glorious hiking, light climbing, nature-watching and star-gazing.
Hollywood & History
Pioneertown The main street, Mane St, takes you back to the Old West – it was the set for some classic Western TV shows and movies. Go for the comedic shoot-̓em-up show.
World’s Biggest Dinosaurs Little kids go nuts for this pair of life-size concrete dinos off I-10, though grownups may be driven nuts by the Creationist message inside.
Julian Pan for gold and watch the weekend Old West show.
Aquariums & Zoos
- Reuben H Fleet Science Center & San Diego Natural History Museum, Balboa Park (San Diego)
- California Science Center & Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, Exposition Park (LA)
- La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles
- USS Midway Museum, San Diego
- New Children's Museum, San Diego
- Discovery Cube, Santa Ana (Orange County)
Beaches & Outdoor Activities
SoCal's Top Five Piers for Families
- Santa Monica Pier – LA's coastal gem, built in 1908, has its own amusement park on top, an aquarium underneath and summer twilight concerts.
- Balboa Island, Newport Beach – It’s not one but two piers, plus a peanut-sized amusement park made famous on TV’s The OC.
- Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara – The West Coast’s oldest continuously operating pier hosts the engaging Ty Warner Sea Center.
- Crystal Pier, Pacific Beach – If you're lucky enough to book the Crystal Pier Hotel, the surf lapping beneath your cottage on the pier is a natural lullaby.
- Paradise Pier, Disney California Adventure – Granted, it’s not technically a pier (it’s nowhere near the ocean), but who cares when the rides are so good?
A word of advice: Don’t pack your schedule too tightly. Traveling with kids always takes longer than expected, especially when navigating metro areas such as LA, where you’ll want to allow extra time for traffic jams and getting lost.
Children’s discounts are available for everything from museum admission and movie tickets to bus fares. The definition of a ‘child’ varies from ‘under 18’ to age six. A limited number of venues offer student discounts for older children and university students.
At amusement parks, some rides may have minimum-height requirements, so let younger kids know about this in advance, to avoid disappointment – and tears.
Many public toilets have a baby-changing table. Bigger, private ‘family’ bathrooms may be available at airports, museums etc.
For all-round information and advice, check out Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children.
What to Pack
Sunscreen. Lots of sunscreen.
And bringing sunscreen should remind you to bring hats, swimsuits, goggles and flip-flops. 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 (eg snorkel sets) for kids.
For mountain outings, bring broken-in hiking shoes, plenty of food and water, and your own camping equipment. Outdoor gear can be purchased or sometimes rented from local outdoor outfitters and sporting-goods shops. But remember that the best time to test out gear is before you take your trip. Murphy’s Law dictates that wearing brand-new hiking shoes results in big blisters, and setting up a new tent in the dark ain't easy.
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 unannounced. When booking, be sure to request the specific room type you want, although this is not often guaranteed.
Motels and hotels often have rooms with two beds or an extra sofa bed. They may also have rollaway beds or cots available (request these when making reservations), typically for a surcharge. Some offer ‘kids stay free’ promotions, although this may apply only if no extra bedding is required; ask when booking. Some hotels provide free breakfast for the whole family too.
Bigger hotels and resorts may offer daytime activity programs for kids, especially during summer. Fees can be cheaper than babysitting and everyone may enjoy the change of pace. At some hotels, the front-desk staff or concierge can 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 as a 'lap child' – bring proof of age – while older children require a seat of their own and don't usually qualify for reduced fares. Children do receive substantial discounts on Amtrak trains and Greyhound buses.
California law requires all passengers in private cars to wear seat belts. Any child under age six or weighing less than 60lb must be buckled up in the car's back seat in a child or infant safety seat. Most car-rental agencies rent these for about $10 per day, but you must specifically book them in advance.
For better or for worse, being on the road is an essential part of the SoCal experience. So is traffic, especially in LA. From LA to all but the most remote destinations in the Southland, travel time is theoretically two hours or less, but can easily multiply in traffic, especially on weekends and holidays.
Plan some in-car distractions in case the kids get fidgety. On the road, rest stops on freeways are few and far between, and gas stations and fast-food bathrooms are frequently not very clean. However, you’re usually never far from a shopping mall, which generally have well-kept restrooms.
Baby’s Away (https://babysaway.com) and Traveling Baby Company (www.travelingbaby.com) Rent cribs, Pack 'n Plays (portacots), strollers, car seats, high chairs, beach gear and more. Rates vary according to equipment, rental duration and delivery charges.
Lonelyplanet.com (www.lonelyplanet.com) Ask questions and get advice from other travelers in the Thorn Tree’s ‘Kids to Go’ and ‘USA’ forums.
Travel for Kids (www.travelforkids.com) Has no-nonsense listings of kid-friendly sights, activities, hotels and recommended children's books for LA, San Diego and Orange Counties.
Visit California (www.visitcalifornia.com) The state’s official tourism website lists family-friendly attractions, activities and more – just search for ‘Family Fun’ and ‘Events’.