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14 Fun Family Experiences

Encourage your kids’ creativity, ingenuity, and think-big optimism at these top-notch attractions

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There’s a reason California offers so many iconic family attractions: So many of these attractions have been groundbreakers in entertainment, culture, and conservation. Start your explorations of these parks and museums, listed north to south, with these essential experiences.

1. Watch Creatures Cross Your Path at Safari West

This 400-acre wildlife park in Santa Rosa is called the “Sonoma Serengeti” for good reason. It’s home to 900 animals from 90 species, including giraffes, rhinos, and wildebeests, along with local species such as bobcats and turkey vultures. But the magic of the Sonoma County park comes from its spontaneity. “Rather than walking from one habitat to the next, we board a truck with our guests and go out exploring,” says guide Jarod Paddock. “It's never, ‘next up the zebra’ and always ‘next up, whatever we find next.’ Every day is a surprise.” (more)

2. Watch Candy Making at Jelly Belly Factory

While the free basic tour at the candy factory in Fairfield is fun, the guided tour makes you feel like you found a golden ticket inside your Wonka Bar. You’ll don a white coat and hat to explore the factory and see the conveyor belts, machines, and ingredients up close. Along the way you’ll sample that inside-the-bean mixture, as well as various just-made beans. For the most eye candy, be sure to book a weekday tour at the Solano County factory, since jelly-bean-making machines hit pause on the weekends. (more)

3. Bask in the Butterflies at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom

One of the biggest thrills at this Vallejo theme park northeast of San Francisco is actually incredibly soothing. Walk into the 100-by-50-foot atrium of the Butterfly Habitat, and you’ll hear a babbling waterfall as you stroll among the trees and shrubs, all dotted with roughly 500 butterflies, consisting of 25 different species. When the tropical exhibit debuted in 1988, it was the largest butterfly display in the nation, and it’s still a crowd-pleaser. The whole park has a wildlife bent, too, since it was a zoo and marine life center when it first opened in the 1960s. (more)

Exploratorium, San Francisco

4. Experience Innovative Exhibits at The Exploratorium

This mind-blowing San Francisco museum invites you to see both the world and yourself, literally, in new ways. Take the Giant Mirror, which “shifts the way you see yourself, so you can give yourself a high-five or walk 'through' yourself while your image flips over,” says Janet Petitpas, the Director of Collections and Exhibit Galleries. “The shape also changes the sounds around you, making for a multi-sensory experience.” (more)

5. Meet Native Animals at Oakland Zoo

The zoo in Oakland is home to more than 700 creatures from around the globe, hailing from the tropical rainforests to the African savannah. Its heart is the 55-acre California Trail, which opened in 2018. Take the Skyride gondola to the entrance—the ride alone offers views of six counties—then see animals native to the Golden State such as grizzly bears, jaguars, bison, grey wolves, and eagles. The area’s conservation efforts have helped endangered California animals, too, such as the Alameda striped racer snake and the mountain yellow-legged frog. If one day isn’t enough, book one of the overnight safari-style tent experiences. (more)

6. Tour a Quirky Mansion at Winchester Mystery House

“Eccentric” sums up the San Jose mansion that Sarah Pardee Winchester started building in 1884. Worried that she would be haunted by the victims of her family’s rifle empire, she deliberately built quirky features to throw ghosts off track such as 40 staircases and a lot of dark (and spooky) hallways. Choose day or evening for your tour of the home or its gardens. (more)

7. Take a Spin on Unique Rides at Gilroy Gardens

Little kids can get impatient at theme parks, but this Gilroy park has found the sweet spot to keep them happy (but never overstimulated). The horticultural theme park boasts made-for-small-kids rides such as the Artichoke Dip, the Mushroom Swing, and the Garlic Twirl—the latter surrounded by century-old olive trees. “Even when we had a baby, we were able to take her on some of the rides,” says Jessica Thompson of the family travel vlog TLife, “but they also have roller-coasters for the older kids.” For grown-ups, “the landscaping is amazing, and the park is magical at nighttime.” (more)

8. Go Deep at Monterey Bay Aquarium

You’ll feel like you’re under the sea yourself at Monterey’s breathtaking aquarium. Head first to the Splash Zone, suggests Monet Hambrick, author of the blog The Traveling Child. “Kids can see the big tanks with schools of fish, but they can also touch stingrays and starfish in the touch tanks,” she says. After, let them blow off steam on the playground outside, perched on the bay. (more)

Universal Studios Hollywood

9. Take the Studio Tour at Universal Studios Hollywood

Talk about a blockbuster. With its behind-the-scenes look at a functioning studio lot, this ride-meets-tour at the Los Angeles County theme park offers both thrills and fascination. The hour-long Jimmy Fallon–narrated tram ride is jam-packed with sights and even has a special effects–fueled Hollywood finish. Kids will appreciate the most current sets seen on the tour, such as The Voice’s studio, but everyone will enjoy seeing icons such as King Kong, the ever-spooky house from Psycho, and the animatronic shark from Jaws (call him by his first name: Bruce). (more)

10. Play (and Eat Pie) in the Old West at Knott’s Berry Farm

This theme park in Orange County’s Buena Park started as a farmstand selling boysenberries and pies during the Depression. It evolved into a restaurant, and in the 1960s, the Knott family put up an Old West attraction to keep customers occupied—and Gold Rush era-themed roller-coasters, shows, and shops followed. Today, Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant still sits outside the park gates, so you can enjoy a family meal—capped off with warm, purple-y pie—on any day. (more)

Disneyland

11. Rediscover the Classics at Disneyland Resort

You step into a time machine any time you board the rides of Fantasyland. Not only have experiences such as The Mad Tea Party, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and Peter Pan’s Flight been here since the Anaheim park’s opening day in 1955, but their combination of gentle thrills and iconic imagery can awaken that childlike excitement in anybody. New experiences are always debuting at the duo of Disney parks—another 1955 ride, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, even got a slight makeover in 2020—but overall, these classic rides remain blissfully unchanged. (more)

12. Explore Miniland USA at LEGOLAND California

These scaled re-creations of cityscapes, composed of 32 million-plus LEGO bricks, epitomize the ingenuity of LEGOLAND California in Carlsbad. It’s also the geographical heart of the park, making it easy to pop in and out during your visit as a break between rides. Each time, look for new gems—like surfers, limos, even zombies or tiny LEGO folks practicing tai chi. Be sure to take the all-ages Coast Cruise ride, which winds its way through Miniland’s waterways and gets you closer to the Taj Mahal and Sydney Opera House. (more)

13. Converse with Dolphins at SeaWorld San Diego

At the poolside Dolphin Encounter, you not only get to pet the friendly bottlenose dolphins, but you’ll literally learn their language. “We teach guests the hand signals we use, such as asking them to vocalize or ‘bow,’ which elicits their love of jumping,” says Mike Dunn, Manager of Education at SeaWorld San Diego. “Guests come away thrilled.” (more)

14. Visit Africa Rock at San Diego Zoo

With six habitats, this sprawling area of San Diego’s world-famous zoo encapsulates the continent from the coast to the savannah. See native creatures such as leopards, lemurs, baboons, dwarf crocodiles, and adorably tiny antelopes called klipspringers. Don’t miss the African penguins, who can swim up to 15 mph in their cobblestone-ringed pool that resembles Boulders Beach in South Africa (there's even an underwater window for observing up close). Fun fact: African penguins are sometimes known as “jackass” penguins, since their call sounds oddly like a donkey’s bray. (more)

The safety of both visitors and residents is a top priority in the Golden State. Before traveling, familiarize yourself with local guidelines and regulations for all of the destinations you plan to visit. We also encourage everyone to check out Visit California’s Responsible Travel Hub as well as the latest Travel Updates.

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