No destination outperforms Southern California when it comes to great family vacation offerings. Okay maybe I’m a little biased, being that I’m a Cali girl whose first vacation ever was to Disneyland. (I remember clearly: Minnie Mouse gave me a hug, it was the greatest moment in my six-year-old life.) But all you need to do is count the sheer number of world-class attractions — from the Mouse Kingdom to the San Diego Zoo, to the Santa Monica boardwalk to Knott’s Berry Farm and Universal Studios — to prove it. Or, if you don’t have time to go tallying up all of them, just head to my personal "can’t-miss" ones listed below:
Obviously if you’re visiting for the first
time with small children, Disneyland is going to be the first — and
possibly the only — stop on your list. Still magic after all these
years, the park requires at least two days to fully appreciate,
especially when you’re waiting in summer lines. Get ready for modern
enhancements and an updated look at the recently reopened Small World ride and “reawakened” Sleeping Beauty Castle.
Shows are better than ever: In the daytime, “Celebrate! A Street Party”
turns the Disneyland parade route into an all-ages festival with DJ
music, Disney characters and dance lines. And after dark, new fireworks
show “Magical” makes every night as special as the 4th of July.
After a double-dose of Disney, grownups might be ready for a slightly more sophisticated setting…in which case Laguna Beach is just the ticket. Or rather, the Passport. Laguna’s known for its summertime art festivals:
The Festival of Arts, which has been running since 1932 and is one of
the most acclaimed fine art shows in the country; Art-A-Fair, an
eclectic mixed-media show set in a garden; and the Sawdust Art
Festival, which showcases only Laguna Beach artists and artisans. This
year, visitors can buy a “Passport to the Arts” and get admission to all three shows plus one-day parking for $19 per person.
A lot of first-time LA visitors head straight for Hollywood, but if you’ve got small children in tow, that may not be the best idea. Skip the crowded streets and tour vans and head over to the sunny West Side, where Santa Monica’s gorgeous beach and classic pier provide the authentic California vacation experience — mixed with a bit of film biz glamour. Stroll or bike the oceanfront boardwalk, ride the carousel, take the little ones to Pacific Park and the arcade…maybe even sign up for Flying Trapeze class with Trapeze School of New York.
All of So Cal is abuzz about the new Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo. This 7.5-acre exhibit is much more than just an elephant viewing area. It recaps 12,000 years of natural history, from the tar pits (done in conjunction with La Brea) to today. Wooly mammoth and giant sloths are replicated in life-size, realistic statues sturdy enough for 3-year-olds to climb around on. Live animal exhibits include a fantastic capybara/ tapir area (the jumbo-sized rodents mostly wade around in their swimming hole, while the snouty, stocky-bodied tapirs nap in the shade). These animals were chosen for the exhibit because they so closely resemble their cousins from several millenia past, and photo/text cards explain the links. Other exhibits hold lions, California condors and creepy-crawlies.
The main attraction is an elephant-only area where several pachyderms munch away at tree branches and avail themselves of the 137,000 gallon pool. This entire exhibit is designed to be “behind the scenes” — meaning, no out-of-sight keeper areas or choreographed animal shows. Guests get 360-degree walk-around views, while staff members give impromptu presentations whenever they can…enlisting the participation of any beast that feels like helping. After linking past to present, the Elephant Odyssey nudges visitors toward the next step — the future, natch — by showing videos about Project Elephant Footprint. This is the San Diego Zoo’s partnership with Botswana-based conservation group Elephants Without Borders.
About 45 minutes north of the zoo, tucked away in the suburban community of Encinitas is the Wild Animal Park. If a zoo is an animal’s version of the “big city”, then this park is actually a suburb itself: A crowded front area leads to a sprawling expanse of land where animals get lots of space and freedom to go about their business. Humans only get to visit for limited amounts of time, as part of organized group tours that are priced separately. Trolley tours, up-close-and-expensive “Photo Safaris” and hot air balloon rides are among the options. If you don’t have small children and you really want to get out and about the park, I recommend the new Segway tours, which take groups of up to 10 guests on some of the less-traveled park trails (and even a little bit of off-roading!) Small ones go ga-ga over the Photo Safari giraffe feeding/photo opp.
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Lena Katz lives on the Left Coast and writes about tropical islands, beach clubs and food, but her heart belongs to NYC.