Fortunately for parents planning a vacation, many of the top attractions in California for families coincide with almost any kid’s wish list. This is the land of sunny beaches, towering trees, heart-pounding roller coasters, theme parks of every stripe, and family-friendly museums that range from wacky to educational. Luckily, parents will find plenty of places to recharge, whether it’s strolling through an art gallery or historic park, reading a book on the beach, or sipping California chardonnay at a farm-to-fork joint.
For many kids, “California” equals Disneyland. The dream vacation spot continues to enchant kids, and even the most cynical adults are likely to crack a smile at classics like the Haunted Mansion, the Matterhorn, and Pirates of the Caribbean. The new Disney’s California Adventure Park piles on the fun with rides inspired by both real and imagined California. If anyone has energy left after a few days in the Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios and Hollywood are only a short drive away, as are the beaches of Orange County: the ideal place to catch your breath—plus some sun, and maybe a few waves.
Further south, the San Diego Zoo offers wilder fun and enchantment. Located in the heart of Balboa Park, the zoo is home to 600 species of animals. Kids will love the elephants, tigers, lions, and monkeys, but especially the family of playful pandas. This truly cavernous zoo has animal habitats tucked all throughout its 100 acres, and is guaranteed to properly wear out your energetic youngster. The aerial tramway from one end of the zoo to the other adds an additional thrill and is the ideal antidote to tired legs. Be sure to visit some of the other museums and gardens scattered around the Balboa Park. The beaches are a hit too—Coronado and La Jolla are especially great for kicking back with a craft beer and a couple of San Diego’s best tacos while the kids splash around in the surf.
For serious beach fun, head to the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. With 34 rides, the Boardwalk has been thrilling kids, jaded teenagers and fun-loving grownups alike since 1907. Ride the oldest wooden roller coaster in the state, get lost in the arcade, and cool off on log ride, while your little ones have plenty of fun touring the tot rides. Once they’ve had their fill, take your blanket and saltwater taffy to the beach for some sandcastles, splashing, and sunbathing. Or head to the hills to enjoy the grandeur and quiet of the California’s redwood trees.
Parents may groan, but kids can’t get enough of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. On this stretch of northern waterfront, they can tip their toes in the bay at Aquatic Park, dine on decadent sundaes at Ghirardelli Square, explore 19th century schooners and World War II Liberty ships at Hyde Street Pier and Pier 45, play vintage arcade games at the Musée Mécanique, ride the carousel and watch street performers at Pier 39, and have their mind blown at the fantastic Exploratorium.
Afterward, ride a cable car and take the family out to some of San Francisco’s best pizza in North Beach. Make Day Two a visit to Golden Gate Park and the outstandingly kid-friendly California Academy of Sciences and Koret Children’s Playground. Or head to the beaches, redwoods, and wild lands north of the Golden Gate.