Explore a Family Playground

photo Myles McGuinness

California is a paradise for all generations, where a family vacation can be more than just keeping the kids entertained. A playground for all ages, California is a destination that each generation can enjoy to the fullest, all while being together.

With theme parks like Disneyland Resort and Universal Studios Hollywood, and educational powerhouses like the San Diego Zoo and the California Academy of Sciences, families can bond in all sorts of environments.
Family-friendly lodging is built right into the equation in California, as well. With year-round sunshine and proximity to attractions, the resorts in California have mastered the equation for keeping parents and kids simultaneously happy.
For multigenerational travelers who relish the great outdoors, California has much to offer in terms of national parks, skiing, and water-based fun–so active families will find ways to spend quality time together.

Major Theme Parks

Family Fun - photo Disney

The theme parks of Southern California are legendary, known around the world for their castles, characters, and thrill rides. Others are fascinating places to learn about the world around us, and all showcase the variety of ways to have fun in California.

Click on the Video icon for a quick tour of the larger parks.
LEGOLAND California, with LEGOLAND Water Park, in Carlsbad, San Diego County, is wonderful for kids of all ages, featuring some rides geared for children as young as age 2. Older kids and adults will enjoy Land of Adventure, as well as Pirate Reef, with water cannons and water slides. Be sure to check out the remarkable re-creations of classic Star Wars scenes, as well as Miniland USA, all built with LEGO plastic building blocks. Nearby SEA LIFE Aquarium, the sister facility, has hands-on touch pools and stingrays, as well as the walk-through aquarium.
San Diego is also home to SeaWorld, the land of ocean-themed rides, shows, and attractions. The park aims to educate visitors, with exhibits focusing on the sensitive balance of life in the sea. The park is home to land animals as well, like walruses, polar bears, and beluga whales. A must-ride at SeaWorld is Manta, a multisensory high-tech roller coaster that includes an enormous walk-through aquarium.
Movie fans will follow the spotlight to the mega attractions of Universal Studios Hollywood. On the east side of the Hollywood Hills, this movie studio-meets-theme park mixes behind-the-scenes tours with high-energy rides that zoom around movie-themed worlds. Adjacent to Universal Studios is Universal CityWalk, a neon-lit complex of shops, eateries, and entertainment spaces that offers another level beyond movies and rides.
But the most famous of major theme parks in California is Disneyland Resort, where Mickey and friends have been welcoming visitors since 1955. Disneyland is made up of two distinct parks: the original Disneyland Park, featuring eight themed “lands,” and Disney California Adventure Park.

Click the Slideshow icon for additional images of the California theme parks.

Smaller, Specialty Theme Parks

Aquarium of the Pacific - Visit California/Sean Arbabi

In addition to the big name theme parks, California has a whole list of niche parks, as well, tailored to specific travelers.
The California Academy of Sciences, located in San Francisco, is a world-class science museum that includes a planetarium, natural history museum, aquarium, and four-story rainforest. Explore the undulating living roof sprinkled with wildflowers, and discover the more than 40,000 living creatures on display. At the Morrison Planetarium, dazzling shows are presented daily. Visitors can also explore the Earthquake! multi-sensory exhibit that gives an up-close look behind the science of why the earth shakes, rattles, and rolls.
In Vallejo a visit to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom is a must. This theme park has a wild animal twist, with shows and exhibits featuring tigers, sea lions, walruses, giraffes, sharks, penguins, and orcas. There are also gravity-defying roller coasters and thrill rides, like Superman Ultimate Fight and Medusa.
Near Santa Clara, California’s Great America is another great theme park. In 2013 the park welcomed Gold Striker, the tallest, fastest wooden coaster in Northern California.

Zoos, Science Centers & Museums

California is jam-packed with highlights for families who are all about combining education with fun. Across the entire state, parents and kids can enjoy exciting opportunities to learn.
The San Diego Zoo is one of the world’s greatest collections of exotic animals. The 100-acre zoo sprawls over the city’s leafy gem, Balboa Park. Within the zoo keep an eye out for more than 4,000 rare and endangered animals, including giant pandas and koalas.
In the San Francisco Bay area, explore Six Flags Discovery Kingdom—a theme park with an animal twist, featuring shows and exhibitions with tigers, sea lions, walruses, giraffes, sharks, penguins, and orcas. There are also gravity-defying roller coasters and thrill rides for the adrenaline junkies of the family.
As far as family-friendly museums, kids won’t want to miss the opportunity to get up close and personal with Mickey and friends at the Walt Disney Family Museum. This comprehensive museum is housed in the Presidio of San Francisco and chronicles the life of Walt Disney through drawings, artwork, music, and archival film clips.

Natures Playground: Beaches

photo Visit California

Kids and beaches are made for one another, and families will be sure to gravitate toward California’s more than 800 miles of coastline. Some beaches are especially well suited to families, so when booking travel with kids in tow, here are the best beaches to consider.
Heart’s Desire Beach in the San Francisco Bay Area is wonderful for children. The hidden sandy cove is along the Point Reyes National Seashore, facing the calm and protected Tomales Bay and the hills of Marin County. Kids love the trek down through the forest, the seasonal stream running into the bay, and the long sandy shore.
Carmel Beach has sugary sand and an idyllic setting, with cypress trees and quaint cottages that dot the bluffs. Kids love this beach for sand castle building or splashing in the usually tame breakers.
It’s tough to beat the beaches of Southern California, and Crystal Cove State Park in Laguna Beach is one of the best–especially for families. This 3.2-mile-long beach is dotted with tide pools and secret coves, perfect for little explorers. Kids can beachcomb and play in the surf, fly kites, and see what the fishermen reel in.
Families with an eye for nature will love Natural Bridges State Beach near Santa Cruz. Its signature natural bridge is often capped by dozens of flapping and squawking pelicans and cormorants. Nearby grasslands attract more than 100,000 monarch butterflies each year, usually October through February. Natural Bridges also has great tide pools filled with colorful sea anemones, sea stars, hermit crabs, and other natural delights.
For more family-friendly beaches, consider Arroyo Burro Beach in Santa Barbara; Coronado near San Diego; La Jolla Shores in San Diego; and the Santa Monica Pier and Beach in Los Angeles.

Surf & Ski Family Style

photo Myles McGuinness

Whether you’re catching a wave or cruising the slopes, California has fun and adventure for all active families, no matter if they’re on surfboards or skis. California ski resorts are great crowd-pleasers, catering to all levels.

More than half of Squaw Valley’s skiable terrain is designed for beginners and intermediates, while Mammoth Mountain and Bear Mountain have terrain parks that run parallel to groomers, so families with different abilities can still spend the day together.

  • Consider ticket options that are geared to families.
Lake Tahoe’s Homewood Mountain Resort offers both family passes and multigenerational passes that cover parents, kids, and seniors. These resort towns also have dining down pat, with family restaurants that cater to kid-friendly palates, as well as places with more refined options that older generations can appreciate. And even if the entire family isn’t into skiing, almost everyone loves to play in the snow.

  • California’s alpine resorts are usually packed with loads of family-friendly activities that everyone can enjoy.
Families who surf together will be hard-pressed to find a destination better than San Diego. With its wide beach and easy access, La Jolla Shores makes a welcoming place for kids to try surfing.

  • Surf Diva, a surf school, first launched here to offer surf lessons geared toward women, but has broadened to include instruction for the whole family.

More Activities (Gold Rush, Parks)

Downtown Placerville - photo Myles McGuinness

California’s great outdoors can be a veritable natural playground for families of all sizes. Discover some of the state’s most heralded history in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, known as the Gold Country.

It was here in the mid-1800s that the precious metal was discovered. Today it is a literal gold mine of educational opportunities and family fun. The region includes California’s museum-filled estate capital, Sacramento, and the nearby historic mining towns. River-rafting, cycling, and cave-exploring are also popular here.
At the California State Railroad Museum, enjoy an outstanding collection of renovated engines and rail cars, as well as memorabilia commemorating the state’s rich railroad history. Families even have the opportunity to ride on a  steam-powered truing that follows the course of the Sacramento River. Also in Gold Country, discover Crocker Museum, a recently renovated structure in Sacramento where highlights include canvases of celebrated landscape artist Albert Bierstadt.
2016 marks the centennial of the National Park Service, and plans are already underway to honor the milestone year. With 27 in total, California is home to more national parks, monuments, and historic sites than in any other state - and what better way for families to bond together than by getting back to nature?

Lodging for Families

Folsom Hotel Saloon - photo Myles McGuinness

Picking a kid-friendly hotel isn’t complicated, especially in California, where pools come with the territory. But add the family-friendly bells and whistles like some of these lodgings - like special kids’ programs, in-room treats, and rooms that feel like private playgrounds - and your little ones are going to think you’re the coolest parents on the planet.
Kids can live out their actual playtime dreams at the LEGOLAND Hotel. This temple to everything LEGO has nailed every last detail, down to the themed rooms, from pirates and kingdoms to cowboy adventures. The lobby even features a giant mosh pit brimming with plastic bricks, so kids can jump right in on the fun wile Mom and Dad check in. There’s a LEGO brick box in every guest room, as well as separate sleeping areas for kids and grownups.
For families that swing more luxe, consider The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe. Surrounded by family-friendly Northstar California alpine resort, this luxury lodging is all about the kids with its Ritz Kids program, chock full of summer and winter activities. Family-friendly touches include fire pits for s’more making, on-site ski schools, ice skating rink, and an Indoor Campout package, which includes a pint-size dome tent sleeping nook for kids to be set up right in the room.
Hotel meets water park at Great Wolf Lodge in Orange County, making the perfect getaway for family fun. This 603-too hotel in Garden Grove, California has a completely indoor 105,000-square-foot water park, with more than a dozen slides, a wave pool, a lazy river, and a surf simulator.
These are just a taste of some of the family-friendly hotels that California has to offer. Other hotels to consider include the wacky Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort & Spa, and, of course, any of the lodgings at Disneyland.


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