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).
Wiggle into a wetsuit and step into the Wild Arctic exhibit to touch and interact with snowy white beluga whales (FYI, they feel a bit like cold, wet hot dogs). Also get backstage peeks of polar bears and walruses, and see how trainers work with these incredible (and big) cold-weather creatures.
The Beluga Interaction is one of several special experiences you can have with Seaworld’s animals and trainers. Other special interactions include a chance to hang out with the park’s resident bottlenose dolphins, and learn simple hand signals from their human trainers. Penguins get star treatment during a special encounter with these unusual birds. Tour the penguin’s state-of-the-art facility, learn about their special adaptions for living the frigid Antarctic lifestyle, and meet a penguin face to face—or make that face-to-beak.
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...
This incredible facility on the edge of Monterey Bay is as creative coming up with special programs as it is at showcasing marine creatures in extraordinary new ways. Some of the aquarium’s favorite creatures, California sea otters, get the spotlight on a special experience with otter experts. Learn how these endangered animals are cared for at the aquarium, and about the aquarium’s ongoing research to protect otters in the wild.
On customized experiences for two, you can create your own romantic rendezvous—perhaps champagne and dinner?—with an underwater glow. There are also special family sleepovers, behind-the-scenes tours to learn more about sharks or jellies, and a chance for kids to become underwater explorers by donning specially designed gear and swimming in the protected Great Tide Pool fronting the aquarium.
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 hear some amusing 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 subject-specific Cultivating the Magic tour sheds light on Disneyland’s extensive gardens.
This might be as close as you can come to an African safari, without the 12-hour flight. Comfy, fully outfitted tents let you spend the night on the edge of this park’s expansive African Plains exhibit. Watch giraffes, rhinos, antelope, gazelles, and other fascinating animals interact—much as they would in the wild—then watch them bed down for the night. They get the hard ground; you get a comfy bed, plus dinner and a hot breakfast. Add to the splurge with special night-vision goggles, available only during these special events.
Insider's Tip: You can also pick the sleepover that best fit your style—one for all ages, or one that’s adults only.
Always eerie Alcatraz, a former federal prison perched on an island in San Francisco Bay, is even more chilling on guided evening tours. Follow your guide to hear about some of the prison’s most notorious inmates—people like Al "Scarface" Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Robert “Birdman" Stroud. Step inside a real cell, and imagine the loneliness of staring at the nearby city, sparkling in the night. But the tour isn’t all gloom-and-doom; it’s also a great chance to get amazing sunset shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the city skyline lighting up as the sun goes down. Bundle up—the island can be especially chilly, especially when fog rolls in. Space is limited; advance reservations are required.