Angela Kim wanted a simple family vacation—one where everyone could unplug for a bit.
“It’s so hard to find destinations where no devices are needed for six hours,” says Kim, the “Mommy Diary” blogger who has four kids ranging from 2 to 17, including one special-needs daughter. They ended up finding some screen-free paradise in their own Southern California backyard: They played in the water in Newport Beach, then went to San Diego County to visit two theme parks and experience more outdoor fun.
Since the three stops on their trip are within a 100-mile span, it’s easy to recreate this family-friendly California trip. Fly in and out of Orange County’s John Wayne Airport, where the trip begins, or out of San Diego International Airport, where the trip ends.
Stop 1: Newport Beach
Where they stayed: Balboa Bay Resort, a waterfront resort in Orange County with a pool, spa, and easy access to water sports
What they did: Newport Beach has beaches and a small amusement park, as well as walkable streets lined with boutiques. “It’s luxury, but also family-friendly,” says Kim. The family had fun exploring Balboa Island (try the famous frozen bananas and ice cream bars) and Balboa Village Fun Zone, with carnival games and a Ferris wheel.
The Kims also played on the water, renting from Vision Electric Boat Rentals in Lido Marina Village. “We took turns driving, and the kids took turns on our laps,” Kim says. “I liked that you could bring your own drinks and snacks—you could spend hours out there.” For anyone who’s not used to playing captain, driving these canopied electric boats “was very easy,” Kim notes. The boats only reach speeds of 5 mph and “the water is not turbulent, either—Newport Harbor was very chill.” Some good nearby spots to pick up lunch or eat afterward: Hopdoddy Burger Bar, Sushi Roku, and Avila’s El Ranchito.
The family enjoyed more unplugged fun at Crystal Cove State Park, which combines classic beach bliss with hiking trails and tide pooling. “There’s something about being surrounded by nature—the vastness of the ocean, the sound of the waves,” Kim says. “At Crystal Cove, kids can just play with sand, filling their buckets, looking at sand crabs—they can do that for hours. It’s timeless.”
Stop 2: Carlsbad
Where they stayed: The Cassara Carlsbad, a condo-style hotel next door to LEGOLAND California
What they did: Following their day in Newport Beach, the Kims drove 50 miles south to Carlsbad in northern San Diego County. Their primary destination: LEGOLAND California, which was especially exciting for her 6-year-old son.“My son doesn’t know how to read yet, but he is a little engineer,” Kim says, “so it’s the perfect place for kids like him. They have a lot of rides and roller coasters for younger kids, too. His favorites were Driving School and Pirate Reef, where they can control boats and shoot water.”
Bigger kids and parents will love it as well, she says: “You get to see everything made out of LEGO [bricks]—they have a Las Vegas and a few other cities built out of LEGO.” The family also enjoyed the theme park’s SEA LIFE Aquarium with its glowing bioluminescence exhibit (“my son thought that was very cool”). For special-needs families, LEGOLAND also offers a helpful accessibility guide.
Carlsbad offers more fun diversions, too, including beaches, the interactive Museum of Making Music, and a walkable downtown, with crowd-pleasing spots such as The Goods Doughnuts.
Since the Kims were visiting during spring, they also checked out a seasonal don’t-miss attraction: the Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch. This 50-acre field of ranunculus flowers, open from March to May, also features a tractor ride, a hay maze, and fresh local strawberries and ice cream. “Going to the Flower Fields was more for me,” Kim says with a laugh. “I have my own rose garden at home so this was very inspiring. The way they lay out the colors—there’s a lot of love and planning that goes into it. The kids were like, ‘This is beautiful—now let’s have ice cream.’”
Stop 3: Sesame Place San Diego
Where they stayed: They kept their home base at The Cassara, since Sesame Place is just a 45-minute drive south
What they did: The Kims traveled to the town of Chula Vista, home of Sesame Place San Diego. The park, which opened in 2022, has both water-park features and traditional rides, such as the little kid–friendly roller coaster Super Grover’s Box Car Derby and Cookie’s Monster Mixer water slide. The park also offers daily live shows and meet-and-greets with Sesame Street characters. The appeal is not just for preschoolers, either, as Kim attests: “The younger kids loved the water play,” she says, “and the merch is very Gen Z.”
Sesame Place is also the first Certified Autism Center (CAC) theme park in the nation, with amenities for special-needs families such as quiet areas, noise-cancelling headphones, and trained staffers. Some of the park’s features will benefit all families—like the colorful sign right inside the park entrance that lays out all the rides’ different height requirements. “You can plan your day right there,” says Kim. “It leads to less chaos, fewer meltdowns.”
The staff training makes a big difference with special-needs kids too. “My older daughter is 17, but her functioning level is 5 or 6,” says Kim. “She loves these rides, but then has issues with transitions—she doesn’t want to get off, she wants to ride again. It’s nice to know these people will understand and are trained to work with her.”
Those little things make the day more fun for kids and parents alike. The autism certification “made me feel really happy,” she says. “You feel very included.”
Make the Trip Your Own:
Orange County and San Diego County have plenty of oceanfront expanses where you can unplug—check out these four great beaches of Orange County, the beaches of San Diego, and great San Diego tide pools. It’s also easy to leave the devices behind when experiencing the city’s many museums, ways to take to the water on a boat, or places to watch a sunset. For more inspiration to plan your crew’s next California getaway, check out 6 Top Family-Friendly Things to Do in Orange County and San Diego: Family Friendly Vacation Ideas.
For more low-stress trip ideas, check out California destinations for special-needs families and free kid-friendly attractions around the Golden State.