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 cleanerfish, crabs, sea stars, and brownbanded bamboo sharks before heading to the park’s two-acre kid zone, Sesame Street Bay of Play. The only thing that’ll top this area’s water fun and three Muppet-themed rides—Abby’s Sea Star Spin, Elmo’s Flying Fish, and Oscar’s Rocking Eel—is the 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, 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), and crawl through the “den” of a polar bear.
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 and 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 two metres in the air or dig in the sand for dinosaur fossils. (Tip: Before you go, check out the handy Know Before You Go page on your smartphone browser.)
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 this extraordinary attraction shed light on the amazing adaptions that make it possible to survive in the desert’s harsh environment. Walk through 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.
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.
Flying elephants, giant teacups…there’s no debating that after for more than 60 years, this magical world of make-believe is still the happiest place on earth. Fantasyland, with all the low-thrill classics—including Peter Pan’s Flight and It’s a Small World—is the go-to for the 5-or-younger set, but lines get the longest there, too, so tackle it first thing. Staying at a Disneyland hotel means you can beat the lines by entering the park an hour before it opens to the public.
When ride hopping becomes too much, skip over to Toontown to blow off steam. Kids 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 wait times and the locations of their favorite characters, FastPass machines, and, most important, restrooms. There’s also a well-stocked baby care center with private areas for nursing moms, microwaves for warming food, and little potties for toilet-trainers.
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.(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 27-metre-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 4.52 million litres 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 12-metre-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 84cm tall—exclusive access to a waterbed for making waves, interactive exhibits at eye level, a block area, and a touch pool.
This non-profit theme park, owned by the city of Gilroy and dedicated to educating children about plants and gardens, is a real charmer. In addition to low-key rides and attractions geared especially for little ones, Gilroy Gardens is home to 25 “Circus Trees” by Axel Erlandson, whimsically shaped topiaries, which dot the grounds. Kids can also romp around themed gardens. As for rides, classics get a California-centric twist, such as the Artichoke Dip (think spinning tea cups) and the Garlic Twirl (a Gilroy-specific take on the classic tilt-a-whirl). Some of the gardens have specialized tours—like a relaxed boat cruise through the flower-filled Rainbow Garden. Or climb aboard a recreation of an antique 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.
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 this charming scenic railway. 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.
This park on the shores of Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland has been making kids smile (and delighting parents in the process) since 1950. In fact, the story goes that Walt Disney 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, not to mention rides like a carousel and a trolley. 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.
In the hustle and bustle of the Bay Area, it sounds implausible: a wilderness sanctuary spanning more than 810 hectares, rife with wildlife, offering panoramic views of the San Francisco Bay. But that’s what makes Tilden Park, nestled between the Berkeley Hills and San Pablo Ridge, so special. It takes its name from Charles Lee Tilden, a Bay Area attorney and businessman who purchased much of the land in the 1930s to preserve it for the public. He went on to become the first president of the Park District Board of Directors.
Today, activities at Tilden Park abound for all ages: Visitors can take to its network of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding or stroll through the botanical garden. Small children will gravitate toward the Redwood Valley Railway’s miniature steam train, old-time carousel, and the goats, pigs, and cows that they can feed at Little Farm. (Hint: bring your own lettuce and celery.)
There’s also an 18-hole golf course, a steam train that chugs along a scenic ridge, and a lake nearly 300m long, perfect for an afternoon dip and picnic. On a clear day, set off on the East Bay Skyline National Recreation Trail, which offers views of the San Francisco Bay to the west and Mt. Diablo to the east. Though it’s only a few kilometres from the city, it feels half a world away.
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 and kid-friendly rides, including a carousel and Ferris wheel.
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.
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 build alongside the shady Sacramento River, with creative ways for kids to learn about Native American and pioneer history, as well as plants and wildlife. Indoor exhibits shed light on the region’s natural world. 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 recreations of a traditional Native American bark house.
The park also lets kids experience some pretty classy outdoor art, most notably Redding’s striking Sundial Bridge Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Kids love to stare down through the glass tiles that pave this remarkable pedestrian-only bridge spanning the Sacramento River. 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—especially pretty in spring.