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California Attractions for Younger Kids

California Attractions for Younger Kids

These family-friendly theme parks and wonderlands cater to children under 5

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Bringing a toddler to a theme park is not for the faint-hearted. In fact, bringing a little kid anywhere can be a challenge at times. 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—as well as age-appropriate 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 experiencing replicas of world landmarks, touring forests by train, and seeing animals up close. Take note of these California-specific travel tips, then discover some of the smaller attractions that cater to little ones, listed south to north.

Sesame Place San Diego

Sesame Street fans of any age will love the rides, water park, and character sightings at Sesame Place San Diego in Chula Vista, located about seven miles from downtown San Diego. Definitely bring your swimsuits and a few beach towels to splash in the wave pool, slides, and a lazy river. The park offers plenty of changing areas and lockers to help families manage the swimsuit-to-regular clothes transitions, plus loaner safety vests for little ones. Dry off, then play on the family rides, watch the parade and live shows, and enjoy meet-and-greets with characters including Elmo, Big Bird, Abby Cadabby, and Julia. (Sesame Place San Diego)

SeaWorld San Diego

Tired of shouting, “Don’t touch”? At SeaWorld San Diego, kids are invited to get their fingers on the sea life itself. At the Explorer’s Reef and California tide pools, they can get touchy-feely with schools of cleanerfish, sea stars, and brownbanded bamboo sharks. They can also get up close to the enormous Turtle Reef window, and walk through the acrylic viewing tunnel at Shark Encounter, as sand tiger and bonnethead sharks circle overhead. Don’t miss the San Diego park’s two-acre Sesame Street Bay of Play, where they can enjoy Muppet-themed rides and perhaps get a photo op with Elmo himself. (More: SeaWorld San Diego for Small Children)

Legoland California

LEGOLAND California, Carlsbad

They may not yet own their first set of LEGOs, but little kids will still be drawn into this fantasy world made from millions of miniature bricks. Kids can chug around on a pint-size choo-choo, “pilot” a plane six feet in the air, or dig in the sand for dinosaur fossils: a lot of the rides cater to the under-48-inch crowd. Go to the DUPLO Play and Funtown areas for playhouses and interactive structures decked out with buttons, games, and, of course, plenty of giant LEGO bricks. Don’t miss Miniland USA, with its LEGO replicas of global cities, and where short attention spans will love searching for itty-bitty cars and sunbathers. (More: LEGOLAND for Toddlers)

The Living Desert, Palm Desert

African meerkats, desert foxes, giraffes, and more. The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens isn’t your typical zoo, where little ones have to strain to see the animals tucked deep inside their enclosures. Here, the desert wildlife can walk right up to the fence. For an extra charge, your courageous kiddos can ride camels or let the giraffes lick food right from their palms. Don’t miss the Gecko Gulch playground and the model train exhibit, with 3,300 feet of track winding past miniature versions of Mount Rushmore and the Grand Canyon. (More: The Living Desert)

Disneyland Resort, Anaheim

With mellow classics such as Peter Pan’s Flight and It’s a Small World, Disneyland Park’s Fantasyland is the go-to spot for the 5-or-younger set. Next, head to nearby Toontown, where kids can “tour” Mickey and Minnie’s homes. Disneyland has a well-stocked baby care center with private areas for nursing moms, microwaves, and little potties for toilet-trainers. Consider staying at a Disneyland hotel, which means you can beat the lines by entering the park an hour early. To streamline your trip, download the Disneyland App for access to Disney's Genie service, which offers Lightning Lane entry to attractions, estimated wait times,  customized recommendations and more. The app can also let you know where the nearest restrooms are. (More: Disneyland Resort for Younger Kids)

The Getty Center, Los Angeles

Sure, the Getty Center is a sophisticated, world-class museum, but it also has plenty of kid-friendly appeal. On most Saturdays, there are special family activities, and on select days you can take the Family Tour, which shares fun facts about art enhanced with music and sound effects. Also, visit the Family Room, where activities include building a tube sculpture, playing with a wall of mirrors, or going on a scavenger hunt using Art Detective Cards. (More: The Getty Center with Kids)

Universal Studios Hollywood, Los Angeles

Universal Studios Hollywood isn’t just for film buffs and thrill seekers. Start on the Upper Lot for encounters with friends like Scooby Doo and SpongeBob and to play Krusty’s carnival games in the Simpsons’ hometown of Springfield. But the Minion-themed Super Silly Fun Land is where little kids will really go bananas. There are play zones, arcade games, and a Silly Swirly Fun Ride. For a break, take a seat at the Animal Actors show or the DreamWorks Theatre with Kung Fu Panda, where wind, water, and moving seats make the story come to life. (More: Universal Studios Hollywood for Youngsters)

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay Aquarium

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s vibrant undersea world is as close to Finding Dory as little kids can get. Start at the Open Sea exhibit, with its 90-foot-wide picture window, to glimpse dozens of sea creatures, including scalloped hammerhead sharks, green sea turtles, and stingrays. (Get a preview with the aquarium’s cool live web cam.) Set aside plenty of time for the Splash Zone & Penguins area, where kids can can watch African penguins, work at a water table, and jump around on the waterbed-like Coral Reef Kingdom, which is just for kids standing 34 inches or less. (More: Little Kid Fun at Monterey Bay Aquarium)

Gilroy Gardens

Veggies take on a whole new charm at the agriculturally themed Gilroy Gardens, located in the Garlic Capital of the World, Gilroy. The garden-themed rides—like the tea-cup-style Artichoke Dip—are so mild that some allow infant riders. The shady 536-acre property has six botanical gardens (the largest being Monarch Garden), and it’s also home to the whimsically shaped “Circus Trees.” Go on a scavenger hunt of the famed trees: They’re all masterpieces, but the basket tree and the four-legged giant are must-sees. (More: Gilroy Gardens)

Roaring Camp Railroads, Santa Cruz

The Santa Cruz Mountains were once a vibrant logging area—and with that came railroads. Today, logging is largely gone, but one leftover from that bygone time is the Roaring Camp Railroads. Century-old steam locomotives take passengers on entertaining rides into redwood country, as conductors share interesting stories about the region. Kids especially love the themed train rides, like the Great Train Robbery, the Starlight Evening Train with a campfire supper, and occasional events featuring Thomas the Tank Engine. Roaring Camp itself is a recreated 1880s logging camp where kids can enjoy watching demonstrations of blacksmithing and making candles by hand. (More: Roaring Camp Railroads)

Children’s Fairyland, Oakland

This park on the shores of Oakland’s Lake Merritt has been a hit with families since 1950. Once upon a time, Children’s Fairyland impressed Walt Disney, too: the story goes that he visited and incorporated elements, like guides dressed up as storybook characters, into his developing theme park in Anaheim. These days, the park is filled with climb-able, slide-able, explore-able treehouses, castles, pirate ships, and giant pumpkins, and also offers a small petting zoo, puppet show, and live-action theatre. Start by wandering through the Alice in Wonderland maze, made from giant playing cards. At the entrance, pick up some Magic Keys that “unlock” Talking Storybook Boxes throughout the park. (More: Children's Fairyland)

Train Town

Sonoma TrainTown Railroad

This 10-acre Sonoma TrainTown Railroad, lined with quarter-scale replicas of locomotives and train cars, is 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. A 20-minute tour winds through tunnels and over bridges before stopping at Lakeview, TrainTown’s own village that includes a petting zoo and tot-friendly rides. Park admission and parking are both free for the whole family—you just buy tickets for individual attractions instead. (More: Sonoma TrainTown Railroad)

Turtle Bay Exploration Park, Redding

Set along the shady Sacramento River, Turtle Bay Exploration Park is exactly that—a mostly outdoor institution with creative ways for kids to learn about Native American and pioneer history, plants and wildlife. Explore a re-creation of a traditional Native American bark house, or Paul Bunyan’s Forest Camp, to learn about the Shasta Cascade’s logging days. Then, meet some of the park’s orphaned animals (like Loki, the red fox), stand in the seasonal North American butterfly exhibit, or get a close encounter with a lorikeet parrot. While you’re here, don’t miss the pedestrian-only Sundial Bridge, which crosses the Sacramento River; it’s a working sundial with a glistening floor made from 200 tons of tinted green glass and granite. (More: Turtle Bay Exploration Park)

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