If you’re planning a family vacation in California but aren’t sure where to go and what to do, we have ideas for you. Spring break and summer vacation season are both right around the corner and our state has tons to offer families.
To give you some ideas, here’s a list of my daughter’s favorite things to do in California with kids.
Universal Studios Hollywood
Have a Harry Potter fan? Good, because Universal Studios Hollywood is a bucket list destination for those who are into HP and movies in general. In addition to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, not to be missed is the World-Famous Studio Tour which takes you through sets from movies old (Jaws) and new (Fast and Furious). And now there is Super Nintendo World, too.
Stay and Play: Hilton Universal City Hotel or Sheraton Universal City are both within a quick walk of the park and CityWalk (though a shuttle runs between the hotels, CityWalk, and the theme park). Read tips for buying Universal Studios Hollywood tickets.
There’s no doubt that the Happiest Place on Earth is one of the most popular spots for a family vacation in California. Disneyland Park is the original Walt Disney theme park with its eight themed lands and classic rides like Space Mountain and “it’s a small world.” Disney California Adventure across the way is home to seven themed lands, including the super-popular Cars Land and World of Color light show.
Stay and Play: The newly-renovated Disney’s Grand Californian (my top pick) or any Disney Resort Hotel provides guests with Extra Magic Hour privileges. That extra hour in the park before it opens to the public dramatically enhances a visit (less line waiting). Read tips for buying Disneyland Resort tickets. It isn’t uncommon for families to spend an entire week enjoying the entire Disneyland Resort.
Knott’s Berry Farm
It’s effortless to pair a visit to Knott’s Berry Farm with a trip to Disneyland as they’re quite close to each other. Here, there are more roller coasters for older kids and Camp Snoopy for the younger ones. The park has a fascinating history as it was once an actual berry farm (the boysenberry was created here) and chicken restaurant. The people waiting for their chicken dinners needed something to do, so the Knott family created displays to entertain, and then the entire operation grew over the years into a full-fledged theme park.
Stay and Play: While there is a Knott’s Berry Farm Hotel, it’s only a 30-minute drive from Orange County’s beach cities and a 15-minute drive from Disneyland. Read how to buy Knott’s Berry Farm tickets.
Have kids under 12? Head to LEGOLAND California in North San Diego to enjoy the LEGO-themed park, water park, and SEA LIFE Aquarium. There are over 60 rides, shows, and other attractions for the entire family to enjoy. Bring mini figures to trade with staff and watch for character meet and greets.
Stay and Play: I’ve also written about the best ways to buy LEGOLAND tickets. LEGOLAND Hotel and LEGOLAND Castle Hotel guests receive priority access to the park before it opens to the public.
San Diego Zoo
Having personally been to more zoos worldwide than I can count, the San Diego Zoo remains our favorite with its open-air, cageless enclosures and over 700,000 rare and exotic plants. Top highlights include the polar bears, koalas, Wildlife Explorer’s Basecamp (children’s zoo), and Skyfari aerial tram. Be sure to check the unique experiences that occur before the zoo opens and our top tips for visiting.
Stay and Play: There aren’t hotels within walking distance of the zoo, so it is best to stay in downtown San Diego, which is also within walking distance of some of the city’s best shops and restaurants. I have a list of downtown San Diego hotels and top tips for buying San Diego Zoo tickets. And, did you know that the San Diego Zoo is next door to Balboa Park, our nation’s largest urban cultural park? It is also a must-see attraction on your San Diego family vacation.
Santa Monica Pier
The over 100-year-old double-jointed Santa Monica Pier at the end of Colorado Avenue offers tons of family fun between an aquarium, carousel, trapeze school, Pacific Park, and many restaurants. Santa Monica is a fantastic base for a Los Angeles family vacation.
Stay and Play: Fairmont Miramar, Shutters on the Beach, or Loews Santa Monica are my top hotel picks. Many families who want to visit Universal Studios Hollywood also stay in Santa Monica to enjoy the beach, and it’s not too far from the shops and restaurants of Beverly Hills or the airport (traffic permitting).
I grew up in Huntington Beach, so admit to being a tad biased. But, this is one of the best beaches in the state (and 10 miles long), hands down, and, of course, one of the best places in the world to surf. It’s called Surf City USA for a good reason. Casual surf shops and restaurants, in addition to the International Surf Museum line the coast here. Away from the pier, waves break more gently, and you really can spend hours boogie boarding, digging for sand crabs, and enjoying Southern California sunshine.
Stay and Play: Pasea Resort and Spa (a new boutique hotel) or Hyatt Huntington Beach are both right across the street from the beach. Strips with cheese (freshly-made chips with grated cheddar cheese on top) from Jack’s concession stand have been a local favorite for decades. And be sure to rent a bike for riding along the boardwalk.