Family vacations are for making great memories—and the best moments often come from fun surprises and unexpected places. On your next trip with the kids, add one of these family-friendly activities to your itinerary: Some are hidden in plain sight, but all offer delights that you’ll be talking about for years.
1. Take a Magical Hike – Faery Falls
This 1.5-mile hike in Siskiyou County, near the town of Mt. Shasta, starts with a walk along the Ney Springs Canyon Trail, dotted with tall leopard lilies. Keep an eye out for the ruins of John Ney’s 1889 mineral springs resort. Another quarter-mile upstream you’ll reach 50-foot-high Faery Falls. The double-tiered cataract cascades over a mossy cliff.
2. Feed a Giraffe – B. Bryan Preserve
This Mendocino County preserve cares exclusively for endangered African hoof stock (zebra, antelope, and giraffe). Every tour ends with a giraffe feeding—including the self-guided car version. Choose from guided or VIP tours, or stay in one of the private cottages. Better yet, book the painting tour: While you feed a giraffe, he licks a tennis-ball-and-paintbrush contraption to create an abstract artwork you can take home.
3. Become a Puppy – Universal Studios Hollywood, Los Angeles
The newest ride at this iconic park doesn’t require any knowledge of the Secret Life of Pets movies to appreciate—but it does transform you into a stray pup who suddenly needs a home. Your cardboard box–style car takes you through neighborhood scenes from the movie, while cool imaging technology reveals your new doggy ears and paws. Pay close attention to the 64 animatronic critters featured on the ride, each in their own highly detailed vignette: say, a cat playing the piano, or a rabbit riding a drone. Ride a few times to see each of the diverse families who might adopt you at the end.
4. Enjoy Your Own Private Tahoe – Wylder Hope Valley
This resort south of South Lake Tahoe possesses endless on-site ways to play outdoors. In summer, fish, mountain bike, or rent stand-up paddleboards. In winter, tramp around the resort on snowshoes. Stay in a yurt or a cabin and enjoy the lawn games and firepits in the evening.
5. Try to Sniff the Stinky Socks – Jelly Belly Factory
On the Jelly Belly Factory Tour in Fairfield, you can see how 100+ flavors are made. At Station #9, take note of a small, white, closed-off room. Inside, the “bad” BeanBoozled flavors—like Stinky Socks or Liver-and-Onions—get their shells. The aromas proved to be problematic in the open so they were sequestered in their own space.
6. See the Sharks – Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, Vallejo
Develop a new appreciation for the apex predator at this Vallejo theme park that started as Marine World. Walk through the tunnel-style Shark Experience and see multiple species—nurse, sandbar, zebra, and “spotted wobbegongs”—swirling overhead and beside you. Fun fact: There are 380 shark species in the world, and most of them are docile. Here, you might see them snoozing or gently interacting with caretakers in diving gear.
7. Splash All Day – California’s Great America
You could easily spend an entire day at the Santa Clara theme park’s recently expanded 18-acre South Bay Shores water park. It features four high-speed drop slides, two tube slides, a wave pool, a lazy river, and a new lagoon that has eight more kid-sized slides. To really kick back, rent a cabana with free WiFi, charging stations, TVs, and waiter service. Open May through September.
8. Swap Cool Rocks – Gilroy Gardens
At some theme parks, fans trade collectibles with staffers. At the tree-loving theme park in Gilroy, kids can bring in an object they’ve found in nature to the Green Barn—like a rock, plant, or seashell—and chat about it with a staffer. Kids earn points for the object, which they can use to swap for another object or bank for a future visit.
9. Meet a Giant Tortoise – Fresno Chaffee Zoo
This sprawling zoo offers affordable “Up-Close Adventures” starting at just $20 per person. Choose from Tortally Shellstruck to feed a giant Galapagos tortoise, or the White Rhino Scratch to brush the resident rhino Tim. In 2022, the Fresno zoo will open a Kingdoms of Asia area, with sloth bears, Asian small-clawed otters, and Tomistoma crocodiles.
10. Watch Pelagic Red Crabs – Monterey Bay Aquarium
These tiny crustaceans are a joy to watch swimming backward in the Monterey aquarium’s Open Sea area. The crabs are relative newcomers to the region—they started washing ashore during a 2015 El Niño. They then became part of a study by aquarium scientists who are exploring the effects of microplastic pollution on the ocean floor.
11. Pedal Through a Magic Portal – SkyPark at Santa’s Village, Lake Arrowhead
Ride a pedal car through an ice cave at this Lake Arrowhead park that is much more than a holiday hotspot. During the holidays, you’ll find Santa and a Christmas village, but year-round you can ride nifty go-karts around a track, go ziplining, try bouldering, or skate on the all-seasons rink. Parents can enjoy craft beer at the on-site pub.
12. Pilot a Riverboat – Disneyland Resort, Anaheim
At the classic Mark Twain Riverboat, superfans know that a few savvy visitors help pilot the boat each ride—and get a cool certificate afterward. For more takeaway treasures, head to the reimagined Jungle Cruise; ask a cast member politely (and maybe add a joke) to score a souvenir map of the ride. While in Anaheim, don’t miss the new Avengers Campus in Disney California Adventure Park next door—and come hungry. Inspired by Marvel heroes Ant-Man and The Wasp, the Pym Test Kitchen offers supersized and miniaturized cuisine, like a huge chicken filet sandwich topped with a diminutive bun.
13. Get The Wiggles Out – DUPLO Playtown at LEGOLAND California, Carlsbad
Little kids can sometimes get sidelined by ride height requirements at theme parks, but preschoolers rule at this hilltop play area within the Carlsbad park. Tots will love exploring 10 different playhouses—such as a barn, grocery store, and hospital—that are outfitted with slides, mazes, and lots of bigger DUPLO plastic bricks for building. It’s also home to the LEGOLAND Express, a mini train geared to ages 5 and under.
14. Zipline Over the Savannah – San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Escondido
Not all safaris require a jeep. At the sister property of the San Diego Zoo, located in Escondido, the Flightline Safari is actually a zipline that glides over the park’s Asian and African savannah habitats. Stretching along two-thirds of a mile, it’s also one of the longest on the West Coast. During the hour-long experience, you’ll fly about 130 feet above the ground, and get a literal bird’s-eye view of giraffes, rhinos, and other wildlife below.
15. Frolic With the Otters – SeaWorld San Diego
Whiskered and wiggly, California sea otters are natural comedians. The five who live at the San Diego theme park are all rescues—one of them, Nova, is even a shark bite survivor. Get acquainted with them during a VIP encounter that lets you feed them. Trust us, they’ll be hungry: These critters with super-fast metabolisms can put away about 25 percent of their body weight each day.