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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

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.