Bringing a toddler to a theme park is not for the faint-hearted. Heck, bringing a little kid anywhere can be a challenge. But don’t despair. These kid-friendly Golden State attractions are devoted to mitigating meltdowns. They’ve got loads of delightful diversions for kids age 5 or younger—from petting zoos to gentle rides—food for purchase, bathrooms around every corner and stroller-friendly walking paths.
And at these top spots, it’s not just about fun and games—your child will actually learn something while “visiting” replicas of world landmarks, touring forests by train, and seeing animals up close. Use our insider tips on how to make the most of the state’s most popular theme parks and discover some of the smaller attractions that cater to little ones. Take note of these California-specific travel tips and start planning!
Tired of shouting, 'Don’t touch'? Then SeaWorld San Diego is the place for you and your younger children. At this San Diego attraction, children are invited to get their sticky fingers on everything—including the sea life itself. At the Explorer’s Reef and California rockpools, they can get touchy-feely with schools of cleaner-fish, crabs, sea stars and brown-banded bamboo sharks, before heading to the park’s two-acre children's zone, the Sesame Street Bay of Play. In addition to the water-based fun and three Muppet-themed rides—Abby’s Sea Star Spin, Elmo’s Flying Fish and Oscar’s Rockin’ Eel—children will get a chance to have their photo taken with Elmo himself. Or perhaps they'll prefer the giggle-inducing Pets Rule! show, where rescue animals perform spectacular stunts.
You won’t find much refuge from the SoCal sun here, so stay on top of the sun cream and take advantage of the indoor displays too. Toddlers can put their noses up against the enormous Turtle Reef window, or walk through the acrylic viewing tunnel at Shark Encounter (as sand tiger and bonnet-head sharks circle overhead).
To help ensure a stress-free day, hire a pushchair at Guest Services, just inside the park entrance. For more mobile children who might like to wander, pick up a wristband on which you can enter your mobile number just in case you and they get separated. And if your children love to sit in splash zones, don't forget to bring a change of clothes in your bag.
Your little boy or girl may not yet own their first set of DUPLO bricks, but they’ll still be drawn into this fantasy world made from millions of miniature bricks. Gentler rides and play areas are delineated by a cuddly teddy bear on the park map. Toddlers can chug around on a pint-size choo-choo, 'pilot' a plane two metres in the air or dig in the sand for dinosaur fossils. (Tip: before you get to Carlsbad, check out the theme park's handy Know Before You Go page.)
Much of the magic happens in Miniland USA, where you’ll find to-scale LEGO replicas of iconic landmarks, including the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Las Vegas Strip and New York’s Central Park, where short attention spans will love searching for itty-bitty sunbathers or people practicing tai chi. That’s if you can peel your tiny Wookie away from the Star Wars attraction next door, where scenes from the films and cartoon have been painstakingly recreated. What could be more mind-blowing than the attention to detail here? The amount of bricks needed to make it all happen: more than 32 million.
For children five and under, DUPLO Playtown is the place to slide, climb and explore playhouses and other interactive structures—which include a hospital, a barn and a supermarket—decked out with buttons, games and, of course, plenty of giant LEGO bricks. The LEGOLAND® Express Train Ride gently navigates hairpin turns as it chugs through a sprouting LEGO garden. It’s a great introduction to theme park fun for smaller children just beginning to ramble around on their own. For older LEGO fans, DUPLO® Playtown has the impressively looming Kid Power Towers; children and parents can ascend to the top for panoramic views of the park before 'free falling' back to the ground.
Talk about survival skills. The animals and plants on show at this extraordinary attraction shed light on the amazing adaptions that make it possible to survive in the desert’s harsh environment. Walk through an incredible array—more than 1,400 species in all—of cacti, yucca, and other desert plants that grow in California’s Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, as well as other deserts around the world. You’ll see—and learn about—desert animals too, some of them undeniable charmers. African meerkats rise up on their hind legs, swaying as they pivot their heads and sniff the air. Desert foxes, with enormous bat-like ears, curl up tight for afternoon naps. And giraffes crane their necks and stretch out extraordinarily purple tongues to nibble on grasses outside their enclosures.
Cool morning tends to be the best time to see animals in action, so come early if you can. That’s not to say afternoons don’t have their merits: As the day heats up, tortoises and lizards come out to absorb the sun and, in the late afternoon, the zoo’s nocturnal animals, like owls and bats, start to stir. Evenings are also a pleasant time to stretch your legs on The Living Desert’s trail network, which leads into the nearby Santa Rosa Mountains. Keep your eyes peeled for native roadrunners dashing among the desert shrubs, looking for lizards and other prey.
Flying elephants, giant teacups…there’s no debating that after for more than 60 years, this magical world of make-believe is still the happiest place on earth. Fantasyland, with all the low-thrill classics—including Peter Pan’s Flight and It’s a Small World—is the go-to for the 5-or-younger set, but lines get the longest there, too, so tackle it first thing. Staying at a Disneyland hotel means you can beat the lines by entering the park an hour before it opens to the public.
When ride hopping becomes too much, skip over to Toontown to blow off steam. Kids will have a blast touring Mickey and Minnie’s homes where anything goes—from climbing on Mickey’s furniture to snooping in Minnie’s fridge. (Spoiler: It’s stocked with cheese.
You can always count on this Anaheim park to make it easy on parents. With the Disneyland App, you’ll have access to wait times and the locations of their favorite characters, FastPass machines, and, most important, restrooms. There’s also a well-stocked baby care center with private areas for nursing moms, microwaves for warming food, and little potties for toilet-trainers.
Thought Universal Studios Hollywood was just for film buffs and thrill seekers? Not so. There’s lots of family fun there. Start on the Upper Lot for encounters with friends like Scooby Doo and SpongeBob and to play Krusty’s carnival games in the Simpson’s hometown of Springfield. But the Minion-themed Super Silly Fun Land is where kids will really go bananas. There are dry and wet play zones (they can splash in more than 80 water features), arcade games, and a Silly Swirly Fun Ride that takes them high above the hoopla.
For a break from the action, take a seat at the Animal Actors show or Shrek 4-D.(Note: Your child may prefer a stationary chair.)
Mom and Dad can still go toe-to-toe with Jurassic Park’s T-Rex or take the heart-pumping descent into the depths of the Revenge of the Mummy’s terrifying tomb—all without scaring the training pants off their tots. The park’s “child switch” policy means that your little one can wait with one parent in a designated room near the front of the line while the other gets an adrenaline fix. Then, grown-ups can switch, with the second skipping to the front of the line. Just remember: Queues start snaking soon after the park opens, so to avoid R.C.S. (Restless Child Syndrome), stay on top of wait times by downloading the Universal Studios Hollywood app.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s vibrant undersea world is as close to Finding Dory as small children can get. Though they won’t be able to spot a seven-legged octopus like Hank, they’ll certainly see familiar friends in the Open Sea exhibit. Through its 27-metre-wide picture window, they can catch a glimpse of dozens of sea creatures, including scalloped hammerhead sharks, green sea turtles, pelagic stingrays and sardines, gliding through 1.2 million gallons of water. (You can prepare your children ahead of time for this spectacular attraction with the aquarium’s cool live web cam.) Nearby displays feature both puffins and moon jellyfish. And in the Enchanted Kelp Forest, children can get their hands wet in the 12-metre-long touch pool that is teeming with sea urchins, kelp crabs, starfish and other marine life.
You’ll probably stay for a while in the Splash Zone & Penguins area. Here, they’ll spy Nemo’s cousins in the tropical fish tank, watch African penguins being fed, explore hands-on educational displays and play at a water table (complete with waterproof aprons). It’s the Splash Zone’s Coral Reef Kingdom that really sets this aquarium apart. The soft safe zone (even the floor is padded!) gives young children—they can’t be more than 86 cm tall—exclusive access to a waterbed for making waves, interactive exhibits at eye level, a block building area and a touch pool.
If you're still searching for a way to get your kids to eat their veg, take them to this charming agricultural amusement park in the Garlic Capital of the World. The garden-themed rides—with silly names like Artichoke Dip (think spinning tea cups)—are so mild, some allow infant riders. Climb aboard a hungry worm for a trip around an apple core or crawl into the centre of a giant garlic bulb for some whirls and twirls.
In addition to low-key rides and attractions especially aimed at little ones, Gilroy Gardens is home to 'Circus Trees' by Axel Erlandson, who helped these trees achieve their whimsical shapes through an elaborate grafting process. Your child can go on a scavenger hunt to collect the famous trees—just pick up a brochure at the entrance. They’re all masterpieces, but the basket tree and the four-legged giant are must-sees.
The shady 217-hectare property has six botanical gardens, the largest being the Monarch Garden, which is set in an 1,800-square-metre greenhouse. Some of the gardens have specialised tours, like a relaxed boat cruise through the flower filled Rainbow Garden. Alternatively you can climb aboard a re-creation of a Ford Model-T to tour the South County Backroads area, which has been landscaped to show how this broad valley south of San Francisco was once almost exclusively farmland. Children will also have a blast seeing the tropical and subtropical plants from on board the park’s miniature steam train.
The Santa Cruz Mountains were once a vibrant logging area—and with logging came railways. Today, the logging has largely gone, but one remnant from that bygone time is the charming scenic railway at the Santa Cruz Roaring Camp Railroads. Century-old steam engines take passengers on entertaining rides into redwood country, offering intimate views and big views of towering redwoods. All year round, trains depart from tiny Felton to make an hour-long loop through forests to the summit of Bear Mountain. Along the way, conductors share interesting stories and information about the region and its railway history.
For an entertaining treat, join a themed train ride, offered throughout the year. Consider a ride on the Starlight Evening Train, ride to a campfire supper and sing-along on the Western Moonlight Dinner Train, or root for the hero during a Great Train Robbery. Roaring Camp itself is a recreated 1880s logging camp, with sites including a covered bridge, a period opera house and a classic general store. Kids enjoy watching demonstrations in blacksmithing and making candles by hand.
Daily in summer (weekends in spring and autumn), Roaring Camp also operates a return trip Santa Cruz Beach Train, picking up and dropping off passengers in Felton and at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
The trains have both covered and open-air passenger cars. If you opt for open-air seating, consider bringing earplugs or sound-cancelling headphones for babies or young toddlers with sensitive ears. There’s plenty of child-friendly fare available for purchase, but this is one of the few attractions that allows visitors to bring their own food.
Thomas the Tank Engine stops by once or twice throughout the year. These days are especially popular, so buy your tickets well in advance and get there early.
This park on the shores of Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland has been making kids smile (and delighting parents in the process) since 1950. In fact, the story goes that Walt Disney visited and incorporated elements of Fairyland, like guides dressed up as storybook characters, into his own Anaheim theme park.
These days, the park is filled with climb-able, slide-able, explore-able tree houses, castles, pirate ships, and giant pumpkins, plus a small petting zoo, puppet shows, and several party venues for special birthdays, not to mention rides like a carousel and a trolley. Two of Fairyland’s biggest draws are its Storybook Puppet Theater and live-action children’s theatre. Need to refuel? Stop by Johnny Appleseed’s Café, or spread out a blanket in the Teddy Bear Picnic Grove. In summer, check Fairyland’s schedule for special family sleepovers.
In the hustle and bustle of the Bay Area, it sounds implausible: a wilderness sanctuary spanning more than 810 hectares, rife with wildlife, offering panoramic views of the San Francisco Bay. But that’s what makes Tilden Park, nestled between the Berkeley Hills and San Pablo Ridge, so special. It takes its name from Charles Lee Tilden, a Bay Area attorney and businessman who purchased much of the land in the 1930s to preserve it for the public. He went on to become the first president of the Park District Board of Directors.
Today, activities at Tilden Park abound for all ages: Visitors can take to its network of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding or stroll through the botanical garden. Small children will gravitate toward the Redwood Valley Railway’s miniature steam train, old-time carousel, and the goats, pigs, and cows that they can feed at Little Farm. (Hint: bring your own lettuce and celery.)
There’s also an 18-hole golf course, a steam train that chugs along a scenic ridge, and a lake nearly 300m long, perfect for an afternoon dip and picnic. On a clear day, set off on the East Bay Skyline National Recreation Trail, which offers views of the San Francisco Bay to the west and Mt. Diablo to the east. Though it’s only a few kilometres from the city, it feels half a world away.
This quarter-scale railroad park was the dream of Sonoma printer Stanley Frank. He filled the park’s 10 acres with scaled-down locomotives and train cars built as exact replicas of classic full-size versions, making TrainTown one of the most detailed sets of scaled trains in the country.
But kids don’t just get to look at these trains—they get to ride them too. A 20-minute tour winds through tunnels and over bridges before stopping at Lakeview, TrainTown’s own village that includes a petting zoo of barnyard critters and kid-friendly rides, including a carousel and Ferris wheel.
Rhododendrons as big as wedding bouquets, dahlias in popsicle-bright colours, ferns, fuchsias, succulents—it seems like the list of what doesn’t grow (and grow well) at this lush preserve must be shorter than what does flourish here. Walk among diverse plantings of perennials, trees, and shrubs—including many natives. Springtime—of course—is especially beautiful. This is also a great spot for birding (some 150 species frequent the property), so bring binoculars for close-up views.
Master gardeners and other experts teach assorted workshops throughout the year; check the calendar of events to see if something catches your eye and matches your schedule. During the winter holidays, come see the gardens sparkle during the Festival of Lights (late November to mid-December).
Turtle Bay Exploration Park is exactly that—a mostly outdoor institution build alongside the shady Sacramento River, with creative ways for kids to learn about Native American and pioneer history, as well as plants and wildlife. Indoor exhibits shed light on the region’s natural world. Outside, Paul Bunyan’s Forest Camp lets kids learn about what it was like to be an early logger in the region; there are also recreations of a traditional Native American bark house.
The park also lets kids experience some pretty classy outdoor art, most notably Redding’s striking Sundial Bridge Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Kids love to stare down through the glass tiles that pave this remarkable pedestrian-only bridge spanning the Sacramento River. On the far side of the bridge, opposite the museum, is the 200-acre/81-hectare McConnell Arboretum & Gardens, with displays of native California plants and trees—especially pretty in spring.