Make a grand tour of theme parks, cool beach towns, and attractions that will get your teens to pull out their earbuds and take notice.
Length: 5 days
Day 1: San Francisco to Santa Cruz
Directions: From San Francisco, take I-80 northeast to Vallejo. Head south on I-880 to San Jose, then take State 17 southwest to Santa Cruz.
San Francisco. Forget Wii and Xbox: Your teens will be entranced by the more than 300 (mostly coin-operated) antique toys and games in the extraordinary Musée Mécanique at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.
San Francisco. Walk to Ghirardelli Square, where even the hungriest teen probably won’t be able to finish the monstrous sundaes at Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop (don’t fret about the line—it moves fast).
Vallejo. Your teens will flip out (that’s good) at the crazy loop-de-loops in the coasters at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom .
Santa Cruz. Visit the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum , housed in a waterfront lighthouse and displaying classic boards (and one munched by a shark—the surfer made it). Then head to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk for a ride on the Giant Dipper wooden coaster.
Spend the night in Santa Cruz.
Day 2: Santa Cruz to San Luis Obispo.
Directions: From Santa Cruz, head south on State 1 to Monterey, following this route until you reach San Luis Obispo.
Monterey. Take a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour of Monterey Bay Aquarium to get a sneak peek at new arrivals, learn about research, or take part in a feeding.
Big Sur. Burgers never had a better view than at Nepenthe , with outdoor tables perched on a patio at the edge of seaside cliffs. Finish with a slice of triple berry pie.
Piedros Blancos. Peer down at a sheltered crescent of beach to see enormous elephant seals hang out and feed in the surf; the bulls weigh well over 2 tons. Look for blue-jacketed docents to answer questions.
Hearst Castle. Take a tour of this ornate complex built by newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst and perched atop coastal hills. The lavish indoor Roman Pool is a favorite.
San Luis Obispo. Cool boutiques and cafes abound in this appealing college town. Check out Madonna Inn , with more than 100 uniquely themed rooms—like the solid-rock Caveman (Room 137).
Spend the night in San Luis Obispo.
Day 3: San Luis Obispo to Anaheim
Directions: Go south on U.S. 101 to I-405 (San Diego Freeway); head south to catch State 2 (Santa Monica Blvd.) west to the beach. Continue south on State 1 to Venice Beach. Head south on State 1 to I-10, then head east and exit onto State 110 toward Pasadena. Merge onto I-110 North, then exit at Sunset Blvd. to Hollywood. Return on Sunset Blvd. to U.S. 101 South and exit at Broadway to reach downtown L.A. Return to U.S. 101 North, then exit at Universal Studios Blvd. Return to U.S. 101 and head south; merge onto I-5 south, then exit onto Disneyland Dr.
Santa Monica. Take a spin on a Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier , then take a leisurely stroll along pedestrian-only Third Street Promenade with more than 100 shops and eateries.
Venice Beach. Watch the kaleidoscope of characters strolling along this stretch of classic SoCal beach. Hang out at the raucous beachfront skatepark .
Hollywood. Let the teens stand in the footprints of Johnny Depp at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre , then hang out with his eerily accurate wax likeness—along with Hugh Jackman, Lance Armstrong, and Brangelina—at Madame Tussauds Hollywood .
Los Angeles. Step into a world of music at the riveting Grammy Museum , where teens can mix their own grooves, watch Michael Jackson’s moves, or learn the links between blues and rap.
Universal City. With thrilling park rides and shows, a working movie studio, plus CityWalk’s shops, restaurants, and theaters, Universal Studios Hollywood gets thumbs-up from teens.
Spend the night in Anaheim.
Day 4: Anaheim to Catalina
Directions: From Anaheim, choose from various coastal locations to board the ferry to Catalina.
Anaheim. Be up early to beat the crowds into Disneyland® . Head to the back of the park first—another way to dodge lines—and use Fastpass tickets whenever possible
Catalina. Take off from various locations to ride the 22 miles out to Santa Catalina Island . Hop on a guided Jeep tour to visit rugged backcountry and see resident bison, or try snuba, a cross between scuba and snorkeling that doesn’t require dive certification.
Spend the night on Catalina.
Day 5: Catalina to San Diego
Directions: From Catalina, return to the mainland and head south on I-5 to Carlsbad. Return to I-5 and head north to the State 78 exit; follow it east to Escondido. Continue south on I-15 then west on State 163 to downtown San Diego.
Carlsbad. Discover the latest set of thrill rides geared toward older kids at LEGOLAND California ; then visit the sister facility, Sea Life Aquarium , where you can be surrounded by schools of fish in the Shoaling Ring.
Escondido. Feel like a condor soaring above the park on the Flightline zip-line ride; or take a rolling safari on beefed-up Segways to see beautiful wild animals like lions, giraffes, rhinos, and gazelles in huge, naturalized enclosures at San Diego Zoo Safari Park .
San Diego. Let the kids get soaked by Shamu, the glistening orca that flips and spins at SeaWorld San Diego . Then enjoy the rides, attractions, and special tours, including the chance to meet a penguin .
San Diego. End your trip with a relaxing visit to beautiful Balboa Park ; the whole family will be immersed in the Imax® theater at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center followed by the world-class San Diego Zoo .