Bringing a toddler to a theme park is not for the faint-hearted. Heck, bringing a little kid anywhere can be a challenge. 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—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 “visiting” replicas of world landmarks, touring forests by train, and seeing animals up close. Use our insider tips on how to make the most of the state’s most popular theme parks and discover some of the smaller attractions that cater to little ones. Take note of these California-specific travel tips and start planning!
Tired of shouting, “Don’t touch”? Then SeaWorld San Diego is the spot for you and your younger kids. At this San Diego attraction, kids are invited to get their sticky fingers on everything—including the sea life itself. At the Explorer’s Reef and California tide pools, they can get touchy-feely with schools of cleaner fish, crabs, sea stars, and brown banded bamboo sharks before heading to the park’s two-acre kid zone, Sesame Street Bay of Play. In addition to the water fun and three Muppet-themed rides—Abby’s Sea Star Spin, Elmo’s Flying Fish, and Oscar’s Rockin’ Eel—kids will get a chance for a photo op with Elmo himself. Or perhaps the giggle-inducing Pets Rule! show, where rescue animals perform off-the-wall stunts.
You won’t find much refuge from the SoCal sun here, so stay on top of the sunscreen and take advantage of the indoor exhibits. Tots can put their noses to the enormous Turtle Reef window, walk through the acrylic viewing tunnel at Shark Encounter (as sand tiger and bonnethead sharks circle overhead).
To help ensure a stress-free day, rent a stroller at Guest Services inside the park entrance. For mobile kids who might like to wander, pick up a wristband on which you can enter your cell phone number if you and your kids get separated. And if your children love to sit in splash zones, stash a change of dry clothes in your day pack.
Your little guy may not yet own his first set of Duplos, but he’ll still be drawn into this fantasy world made from millions of miniature bricks. Gentler rides and play areas are delineated by a cuddly teddy bear on the park map. 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. (Tip: Before you go, check out the theme park's handy Know Before You Gopage.)
Much of the magic is in Miniland USA, where you’ll find to-scale LEGO replicas of iconic landmarks, including the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Las Vegas Strip, and New York’s Central Park, where short attention spans will love searching for itty-bitty sunbathers or people practicing tai chi. That’s if you can peel your weensy Wookie away from the Star Wars attraction next door, where scenes from the films and cartoon have been painstakingly recreated. What could be more mind-blowing than the attention to detail here? The amount of bricks to make it all happen: more than 32 million!
Talk about survival skills. The animals and plants on show at the extraordinary Living Desert Zoo & Gardens shed light on the amazing adaptions that make it possible to survive in the desert’s harsh environment. Observe an incredible array—more than 1,400 species in all—of cacti, yucca, and other desert plants that grow in California’s Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, as well as other deserts around the world. You’ll see—and learn about—desert animals too, some of them undeniable charmers. African meerkats rise up on their hind legs, swaying as they pivot their heads and sniff the air. Desert foxes, with enormous bat-like ears, curl up tight for afternoon naps. And giraffes crane their necks and stretch out extraordinarily purple tongues to nibble on grasses outside their enclosures.
This isn’t your typical zoo, where little ones have to strain to see the animals tucked deep inside their enclosures. Here, the 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.
Cool morning tends to be the best time to see animals in action, so come early if you can. That’s not to say afternoons don’t have their merits: As the day heats up, tortoises and lizards come out to absorb the sun and, in the late afternoon, the zoo’s nocturnal animals, like owls and bats, start to stir. Evenings are also a pleasant time to stretch your legs on The Living Desert’s trail network, which leads into the nearby Santa Rosa Mountains. Keep your eyes peeled for native roadrunners dashing among the desert shrubs, looking for lizards and other prey.
For education on desert terrain, head to the model train exhibit. Its 3,300 feet of track winds past miniature versions of desert landmarks such as Mount Rushmore and the Grand Canyon. Or let kids loose in the one-acre Gecko Gulch playground, where they’ll slide through a replica of a saguaro cactus, scale a lizard sculpture, pan for gold, or dig in a sand dune.
This is a sprawling 100-acre complex, so unless you plan on lugging your little ones through the Palm Desert heat, purchase tickets for the park’s shuttle service. It’s free for kids ages 3 and younger. If you will be walking with stroller-aged kids, bring a jogging or all-terrain ride because many of the paths are dirt.
Flying elephants, giant teacups, costumed characters making the rounds—for more than 60 years, this magical world of make-believe has been the happiest place on earth. Fantasyland, with all its low-thrill classics—including Peter Pan’s Flight and It’s a Small World—is the go-to spot for children aged 5 or younger, but queues are the longest here, too, so tackle it first thing. Staying at a Disneyland hotel means you can beat the queues by entering the park an hour before it opens to the public.
When you've had your fill of ride-hopping, skip over to Toontown to blow off some steam. Children will have a blast touring Mickey and Minnie’s homes, where anything goes—from climbing on Mickey’s furniture to snooping in Minnie’s fridge. (Spoiler: it’s stocked with cheese.)
You can always count on this Anaheim park to make it easy on parents. With the Disneyland App, you’ll have access to waiting times and the locations of their favourite characters, FastPass machines and, most importantly, toilets. There’s also a well-stocked baby care centre with private areas for breast-feeding, microwaves for warming food and potties for those who are toilet training.
Thought Universal Studios Hollywood was just for film buffs and thrill seekers? Not so. There’s lots of family fun there. Start on the Upper Lot for encounters with friends like Scooby Doo and SpongeBob and to play Krusty’s carnival games in the Simpson’s hometown of Springfield. But the Minion-themed Super Silly Fun Land is where kids will really go bananas. There are dry and wet play zones (they can splash in more than 80 water features), arcade games, and a Silly Swirly Fun Ride that takes them high above the hoopla.
For a break from the action, take a seat at the Animal Actors show or Shrek 4-D, where wind, water, and moving seats make the fairy-tale come to life. (Note: Your child may prefer a stationary chair.)
Mom and Dad can still go toe-to-toe with Jurassic Park’s T-Rex or take the heart-pumping descent into the depths of the Revenge of the Mummy’s terrifying tomb—all without scaring the training pants off their tots. The park’s “child switch” policy means that your little one can wait with one parent in a designated room near the front of the line while the other gets an adrenaline fix. Then, grown-ups can switch, with the second skipping to the front of the line. Just remember: Queues start snaking soon after the park opens, so to avoid R.C.S. (Restless Child Syndrome), stay on top of wait times by downloading the Universal Studios Hollywood app.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s vibrant undersea world is as close to Finding Dory as little kids can get. Though they won’t spot a seven-legged octopus like Hank, they’ll certainly see familiar friends at the Open Sea exhibit. Through its 90-foot-wide picture window, they can catch a glimpse of dozens of sea creatures, including scalloped hammerhead sharks, green sea turtles, pelagic stingrays and sardines, gliding through 1.2 million gallons of water. (You can prep your kids ahead of time for this spectacular attraction with the aquarium’s cool live web cam.) Nearby exhibits feature both puffins and moon jellies. And in the Enchanted Kelp Forest, children can get their hands wet in the 40-foot-long touch pool teeming with sea urchins, kelp crabs, sea stars, and other marine life.
You’ll probably want to park it for a while in the Splash Zone & Penguins area. Here, they’ll spy Nemo’s cousins in the tropical fish tank, watch African penguins feeding, explore hands-on educational exhibits, and work at a water table (complete with waterproof aprons). It’s the Splash Zone’s Coral Reef Kingdom that really sets this aquarium apart. The soft safe zone (even the floor is padded!) gives little kids—they can’t be more than 34 inches tall—exclusive access to a waterbed for making waves, interactive exhibits at eye level, a block area, and a touch pool.
If you're still searching for a way to get your kids to eat their veggies, take them to this charming agricultural amusement park in the Garlic Capital of the World. The garden-themed rides—with silly names like Artichoke Dip (think spinning tea cups)—are so mild, some allow infant riders. Climb aboard a hungry worm for a trip around an apple core or crawl into the center of a giant garlic bulb for some whirls and twirls.
In addition to low-key rides and attractions geared especially for little ones, Gilroy Gardens is home to “Circus Trees” by Axel Erlandson, who helped them achieve their whimsical shapes through an elaborate grafting process. Your child can go on a scavenger hunt of the famed trees—just grab a brochure at the entrance. They’re all masterpieces, but the basket tree and the four-legged giant are must-sees.
The shady 536-acre property has six botanical gardens, the largest being Monarch Garden, set in a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse. Some of the gardens have specialized tours—like a relaxed boat cruise through the flower-filled Rainbow Garden. Or you can climb aboard a re-creation of a Model-T car to tour the South County Backroads area, landscaped to show how this broad valley south of San Francisco was once almost exclusively farmland. Kids will also have a blast seeing the tropical and subtropical plants from on board the park’s miniature replica of a steam train.
The Santa Cruz Mountains were once a vibrant logging area—and with logging came railroads. Today, logging is largely gone, but one leftover from that bygone time is the charming scenic railway at the Santa Cruz Roaring Camp Railroads. Century-old steam locomotives take passengers on entertaining rides into redwood country, offering intimate views and big vistas of towering redwoods. Year-round, trains depart from tiny Felton to make an hour-long loop through forests to the summit of Bear Mountain. Along the way, conductors share interesting stories and information about the region and its railroad history.
For an entertaining treat, join a themed train ride, offered throughout the year. Consider a ride on the Starlight Evening Train, ride to a campfire supper and sing-along on the Western Moonlight Dinner Train, or root for the hero during a Great Train Robbery. Roaring Camp itself is a recreated 1880s logging camp, with sites including a covered bridge, a period opera house, and a classic general store. Kids enjoy watching demonstrations in blacksmithing and making candles by hand.
Daily in summer (weekends in spring and fall), Roaring Camp also operates a round/trip Santa Cruz Beach Train, picking up and dropping off passengers in Felton and at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
The trains have both covered and open-air passengers cars. If you opt for open-air seating, consider bringing earplugs or sound-blocking headphones for babies or young toddlers with sensitive ears. There’s plenty of kid-friendly fare available for purchase, but this is one of the few attractions that allows visitors to bring in their own food.
Thomas the Tank Engine stops by once or twice throughout the year. These days are especially popular, so buy your tickets well in advance and get there early.
This park on the shores of Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland has been making kids smile (and delighting parents in the process) since 1950. Evidently it impressed Walt Disney, too: After his visit, the story goes that he visited and incorporated elements of Fairyland, like guides dressed up as storybook characters, into his own Anaheim theme park.
These days, the park is filled with climb-able, slide-able, explore-able tree houses, castles, pirate ships, and giant pumpkins, plus a small petting zoo, puppet shows, and several party venues for special birthdays. At the gate, you’re greeted by the Old Lady in the Shoe, and you can start by wandering through the adorable Alice in Wonderland maze, which is constructed from giant playing cards. Two of Fairyland’s biggest draws are its Storybook Puppet Theater and live-action children’s theatre. Need to refuel? Stop by Johnny Appleseed’s Café, or spread out a blanket in the Teddy Bear Picnic Grove. In summer, check Fairyland’s schedule for special family sleepovers.
Insider tip: Magic Keys that “unlock” Talking Storybook Boxes throughout the park are available at the entrance for $3. The kids can save their keys and use them on another visit.
This quarter-scale railroad park was the dream of Sonoma printer Stanley Frank. He filled the park’s 10 acres with scaled-down locomotives and train cars built as exact replicas of classic full-size versions, making TrainTown 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 too. A 20-minute tour winds through tunnels and over bridges before stopping at Lakeview, TrainTown’s own village that includes a petting zoo of barnyard critters (bring lots of quarters to purchase kibble from the vending machines) and kid-friendly rides, including a carousel and Ferris wheel.
Park admission and parking are both free for the whole family—you buy tickets for individual attractions instead. On weekdays, you’ll avoid any crowds, but most of the rides, with the exception of the train, carousel, and airplane, are closed.
Rhododendrons as big as wedding bouquets, dahlias in popsicle-bright colours, ferns, fuchsias, succulents—it seems like the list of what doesn’t grow (and grow well) at this lush preserve must be shorter than what does flourish here. Walk among diverse plantings of perennials, trees, and shrubs—including many natives. Springtime—of course—is especially beautiful.
This is also a great spot for birding (some 150 species frequent the property), so bring binoculars for close-up views. If you’re traveling with kids, there’s one special feathered friend that will pique their interest: Quincy the Quail. Pick up a Quail Trail Guide at the park entrance so the kids can learn about Quincy and follow his hints for finding 17 quail markers along the stroller-friendly paths. The silly scavenger hunt, created by a long time volunteer with 11 grandchildren, takes you through a eucalyptus forest, past a bush that’s a home for hummingbirds, and down to a secret fairy village where kids can make fairy houses with petals, sticks, and stones.
Master gardeners and other experts teach assorted workshops throughout the year; check the calendar of events to see if something catches your eye and matches your schedule. During the winter holidays, come see the gardens sparkle during the Festival of Lights (late November to mid-December).
Turtle Bay Exploration Park is exactly that—a mostly outdoor institution built alongside the shady Sacramento River, with creative ways for kids to learn about Native American and pioneer history, plants and wildlife. Indoor exhibits shed light on the region’s natural attributes. Outside, Paul Bunyan’s Forest Camp lets kids learn about what it was like to be an early logger in the region; there are also re-creations of a traditional Native American bark house.
You can also meet some of the park’s orphaned animals, like Loki, the red fox. And stand in the seasonal North American butterfly exhibit as 32 different varieties flutter overhead. Or take a stroll through the lorikeet aviary. One of the multicoloured Australian birds might just land on your head, but springing for a cup of nectar for them to eat—it’s only a dollar—will up the chances of close encounters.
This 300-acre nature complex is located in Redding, in the heart of Shasta County, and proves you don’t need theme park rides to give kids a thrill. The most arresting feature here is the pedestrian-only Sundial Bridge, which crosses the Sacramento River and connects the two campuses. You and your kids will be mesmerized by the working sundial’s glistening floor made from 200 tons of tinted green glass and granite.
On the far side of the bridge, opposite the museum, is the 200-acre/81-hectare McConnell Arboretum & Gardens, with displays of native California plants and trees—which is especially pretty in spring.