Kiss a beluga, see cool movie props, and learn about Walt’s secret hideaway on exclusive and behind-the-scenes tours at California’s theme parks and attractions. Here’s a roundup of worth-the-splurge activities at top destinations (be sure to reserve in advance).
Stilettos, short skirts, craft cocktails—and an albino alligator. San Francisco tends to push the envelope, but this Thursday night event has its own unique twist. The city’s premier science museum presents themed Nightlife events, ultra-popular with the city’s young and hip. Each week, the Academy’s savvy staff figures out new ways to shed light on cool topics, such as the secrets of animal migration, or how creatures see in the inky dark of night. Exhibits give you a rare chance to chat with academy scientists or see animals up close. Live music keeps things thumping, and designer drinks that are matched to the theme are served at different locations. As for that alligator, that’s Claude, a natural albino morph who lives in the Academy’s swamp exhibit.
Feel like a film star yourself when you book the VIP Experience at Universal Studios Hollywood. First there’s that valet parking—not bad. Then there’s that private entrance leading you to an exclusive lounge, where you can relax with snacks and refreshments, in your own A-lister’s inner sanctum. Next, you meet your expert guide for the day, who will go out of his or her way to find out what kind of insider tips and film facts you’d like to know more about as you tour the back lot and soundstages. They’re also very helpful when the urge to take a group photo in front of your favourite film set strikes.
Unlike the standard back-lot tour, this tour lets you get out of your group’s private trolley and walk around. You’ll be able to wander around and get up-close looks at sets, learn about lighting and camera angles, and see where current TV shows and films are being shot. Pose for a selfie on the steps of Norman Bates’ house from Psycho, or wander through the Bravermans’ living room from the long-running TV series Parenthood. A popular stop is the massive prop warehouse, which houses an impressive collection of film paraphernalia, from vintage bowling bags to full suits of armour. The tour includes a gourmet lunch prepared by the studio’s executive chef and served in a private dining room, as well as queue-jump privileges for all rides throughout the day, prime seats secured by your guide for all shows, and meet-and-greets with featured performers.
Time your visit to catch one of Hearst Castle’s special events, and you’ll definitely have plenty to post and tweet. Though tours offered seven days a week year-round are outstanding, these...
The only way to get closer to swirling sea life is to tug on a wetsuit and dive in. This unparalleled facility, with soaring, glass-walled tanks letting you feel as if you’re truly under the sea, defines the standard for aquariums. It’s also one of the best makeovers on the planet: in the early 1900s, the main building was a bustling canning facility for sardines, all chronicled in fascinating historical exhibits near the entrance. (Excellent behind-the-scenes tours shed more light on the aquarium’s history, as well as its remarkable inner workings.)
Intriguing history or not, this is one big wow of a place. Mesmerizing tanks and exhibits showcase more than 35,000 animals and plants representing over 550 species—a large number of them California natives. Watch a giant Pacific octopus unfurl its tentacles, stand in the center of a swirling school of sardines, have hammerhead sharks swim inches away from your face, and see how trainers do daily health checks of the aquarium’s cutest inhabitants, California sea otters. A host of special activities, including junior diving programs, sleepovers, and custom romance tours (nothing like a little undersea light to make things dreamy) are also available. Insider tip: Get tickets online in advance to skip long lines.
Disneyland Resort is undeniably magical—and that’s part of its charm. But understanding how the magic is made can be entertaining too. You can get sneak peeks and learn some fun anecdotes on the resort’s cool tours.
Perfect for first timers or for veteran Disneyland-ers who want to bone up on cool trivia, the Welcome to Disneyland Tour provides a thorough introduction to both Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park—plus there are plenty of anecdotes to make you feel in the know.
In Disneyland Park, the Walk In Walt’s Disneyland Footsteps tour offers an intimate perspective and opportunity to experience attractions significant to Walt’s past, in addition to those that connect with Walt’s very personal vision. Personal VIP tours are also available, and the specialized Star Wars at Disneyland tour offers a Jedi’s-view perspective of the resort’s many attractions related to the saga. the specialized Cultivating the Magic tour sheds light on Disneyland’s extensive gardens.
Like a journey to Africa, a day at this spectacular park lets you see some of the world’s most magnificent—and endangered—animals at close range and in expansive naturalized enclosures. A tram ride leads you past roaming groups of rhinos, gazelles, giraffes, and other species ranging freely through savannah-like expanses. African lions wrestle with their cubs in specially designed enclosures that look like part of the whole, but are safely contained from other animals. There’s plenty to see on foot too: the amazing Tiger Trail exhibit lets you get remarkable underwater views of Sumatran tigers swimming in the Tiger Trail exhibit.
"Static-line hot-air balloon rides and a long, long zip line ride offer great views of the park and surrounding region."
For even more up-close looks at the park’s animals, including premium behind-the-scenes tours, plus unique experiences such as the Cheetah Safari, where you can watch as these amazing cats reach speeds up to 70 mph/113 kph. Special Jungle Ropes Safaris are a great way for your little monkeys to burn off some steam. Static-line hot-air balloon rides and a long, long zip line ride offer great views of the park and surrounding region. And for a California-style hint of what sleeping in the African bush might be like, Roar & Snore Safaris let you spend the night in large tents (some even have beds and electricity) at a campground overlooking the African Plains exhibit.
Come for the animals; then take time to see the plants. The park has extraordinary landscaped areas, all worth strolling. Especially beautiful in spring is the Nativescapes Gardens, focusing on drought-tolerant species adapted to the region’s sunny, dry climate. Free, guided tours are offered at 10 a.m. the second Saturday in April and May.
Known for such famous inmates as Al "Scarface" Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Robert “Birdman" Stroud, Alcatraz is certainly one of San Francisco’s most sobering sites. Standing on the wind-and-fog-whipped island, looking across to the dazzling City by the Bay, so close yet so far away (the waters here are notoriously cold and treacherous), it’s easy to imagine how agonizing it must have been for inmates incarcerated at this federal penitentiary between 1934 and 1963. Early bird, morning, and afternoon visits to the island with cell house audio tours are offered daily. The audio tour includes recorded comments from former Alcatraz inmates, is both chilling and fascinating, and adds notable depth to your visit. For a bizarre twist, consider taking the eerie after-dark tour.
But a visit to “the Rock” isn’t all gloom and doom. Rich in history, the island is also home to the first lighthouse and first U.S. military fort built on the West Coast. On clear days, Alcatraz boasts 360-degree views. Walk around Alcatraz to take in views of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge and dramatic Bay Bridge heading to the East Bay, lushly green Marin County to the north, and nearby Angel Island—a California State Park and another worthy island destination in San Francisco Bay.
What’s more, Alcatraz has morphed into an important nesting site for seabirds, and roughly a third of the island is roped off during the nesting season to let the birds rear their chicks. Scan the island’s decaying buildings and overgrown gardens (former wardens’ and guards’ wives were known for their green thumbs) to spy nesting cormorants, pigeon guillemots, snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons, and California gulls, who seem particularly good at laying eggs directly in the middle of pedestrian paths.
Note: Though ferry boats depart frequently from Fisherman’s Wharf, make reservations early; space often sells out weeks in advance.