Even though I reside smack dab in the center of the Midwest, California is one of my favorite places to visit with my family. We have made some of our best memories in the Golden State’s theme parks and on its beaches.
My three kids’ ages currently span from preschooler to almost tween, so finding activities that please everybody can be difficult. But that’s never a problem when we are in California. There are so many options that it’s easy to find something for everyone.
Based on my own travels and the fun family vacations of other TPG staffers, here is a list of the best family-friendly activities in California.
Best California theme parks for families
I am a theme park girl through and through. I visit Disney and Universal often, sometimes with my kids and sometimes without. In the same way that I think grown-ups can have fun at a theme park whether or not kids are present, I also know some theme parks are better suited for visiting with kids. At the parks listed here, my kids can lead the way and pick what they want to do. From entire lands designed for kids to family-friendly roller coasters, we can all have fun together.
Legoland California Resort
Legoland California Resort in Carlsbad is a theme park designed specifically for kids ages 2 to 12, so my kids are at the perfect age to visit. My youngest son still gets scared on some “big kid” attractions that he is technically tall enough for, so he had fun getting on rides that were just right for him. All three of my kids enjoyed Legoland’s outdoor play areas, and though we didn’t have time during our visit, there are a water park and aquarium on-site as well.
There is no more classic theme park for families than Walt Disney’s original park, Disneyland. There are plenty of rides for kids, and most of the coasters have thrill levels that are “just right” for kids still working up the courage for more grown-up rides. In recent years, Disneyland has added an entire land dedicated to “Star Wars” and refurbished Mickey’s Toontown. Over at Disney California Adventure, kids can visit Cars Land and Marvel’s Avengers Campus.
Knott’s Berry Farm
What began as a berry farm in the 1920s is now one of the most popular theme parks in Southern California. Knott’s Berry Farm has some of California’s tallest and fastest coasters, an entire Snoopy-themed area for kids and family-friendly attractions like the Calico Mine Ride — one of the park’s original rides. If you have more than one day to spend at the park, check out the Soak City water park adjacent to Knott’s Berry Farm. You can save money on your visit by purchasing a combination ticket for both parks.
Universal Studios Hollywood
At Universal Studios Hollywood, kids can essentially become a character in favorite movies like “The Secret Life of Pets,” “Jurassic World” and the “Harry Potter” series. As of January 2023, kids (and kids at heart) can step through the warp pipe into Super Nintendo World. You can ride a real-life Mario Kart game and meet characters like Princess Peach, Mario, Luigi and Toadstool. There are even a couple of great points hotels within walking distance of the park.
Children’s Fairyland is a storybook theme park in Oakland that predates Disneyland by five years. In fact, Walt Disney visited the park in 1954, and it may have even provided a bit of inspiration for the now world-famous park. Children’s Fairyland is only 10 acres — the perfect size for tiny visitors. Kids can explore lifesize storybook sets from classic fairytales, meet the farm animals who call the park home and enjoy a handful of rides like a carousel, train and small Ferris wheel.
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Best beaches in California for families
If a beach has sand and water, it’s a good beach for kids. But there are some beaches with additional amenities like playgrounds and kid-friendly eateries that make them even more appealing for families. Here are a few of my favorite California beaches.
Laguna Beach’s main stretch of beach, aptly dubbed Main Beach, sits along the Pacific Coast Highway. In addition to sand and sea, Main Beach has a playground, basketball, volleyball and a boardwalk. There are showers and restrooms near the playground, which is always a huge help when traveling with kids who usually get sand everywhere.
South Carlsbad State Beach
South Carlsbad State Beach is a great spot for surfing, swimming and sunbathing, but there’s more to this stretch of beach about 30 miles north of San Diego. The South Carlsbad State Beach Campground is on a cliff overlooking the beach and has spots for tents, campers and RVs. Families can stock up on supplies or enjoy pizza and refreshments (including beer, wine and cocktails for parents) at The Camp Store. The Camp Store is a combination restaurant, shop and outdoor music venue where families can gather and catch a splendid California sunset over the Pacific Ocean.
Crystal Cove State Park
Crystal Cove State Park is in Newport Beach, off the Pacific Coast Highway. The popular state park has 57 campsites, some with hookups and some without, as well as backcountry primitive camping for seasoned outdoor enthusiasts. Whether you are staying overnight or just visiting for the day, you can explore Crystal Cove’s tide pools at low tide. You can observe the organisms living in these tide pools on your own (given that you follow the etiquette guidelines). Or, you can attend public events such as guided hikes and ranger-led tide pool walks held throughout the week.
Sant Cruz may be best known for its beachfront boardwalk. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has rides, games, dining, shopping and special events like live music, free movies and more. Some of the park’s rides boast a bit of California history, including the Giant Dipper wooden coaster that originally opened in 1924 and the Looff Carousel, which has been in operation since 1911. When you’ve had your fill of thrills, the wide sandy beach is only steps away from the boardwalk.
Related: The best beaches in California
Best outdoor and animal activities in California for families
There’s a whole world of outdoor adventures in California beyond its beautiful beaches. From hiking through national parks to learning more about the state’s ecosystem and animal inhabitants, these activities are both fun and educational.
State and national parks
Whether you are in Southern or Northern California, you can visit some of the country’s most magnificent state and national parks during your time in the Golden State. Joshua Tree National Park outside of Palm Springs is a desert oasis (read: spring and fall are the best times to visit). It offers various hiking trails for all skill levels and campgrounds where you can sleep under the stars.
Farther north, you can explore the natural majesty of Yosemite National Park. Families with younger kids will most enjoy some of the shorter, flatter hiking trails to Yosemite Falls, Mirror Lake and Bridalveil Fall. Some of the best views in the park are also reachable by car, including Glacier Point and Tunnel View outside of the Wawona Tunnel.
Redwoods and sequoias are not the same type of tree, but you can see both in California. Redwood National and State Parks are home to some of the tallest trees on Earth. You can drive the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway if your kids aren’t quite ready for (or aren’t interested in) a long walk. Otherwise, you can get up close and personal with the ancient redwoods on one of the parks’ many hikes.
At Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, you can explore the giant sequoia groves from your car or on foot. The hike to the world’s largest tree, the General Sherman Tree, is only about half a mile from the Main Trail trailhead. You can also take a scenic drive along Panoramic Point Road or Kings Canyon Scenic Byway.
Pacific Marine Mammal Center
The Pacific Marine Mammal Center is in Laguna Beach, about 3 miles away from the Pacific Ocean. The center has facilities to rescue and rehabilitate seals and sea lions suffering from injury, sickness, dehydration or malnutrition. It eventually releases them when they are healthy and ready. While at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, you can meet these animals up close while also learning how you can protect the oceans and all marine wildlife.
Agua Hedinonda Lagoon Discovery Center
Just a few minutes away from Legoland California in Carlsbad lies the 400-acre Agua Hedionda Lagoon. The lagoon serves as a home to hundreds of species of wildlife, including fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds, invertebrates and plants. The Agua Hedionda Lagoon Discovery Center gives both visitors and locals who benefit from the lagoon the opportunity to learn more about this coastal ecosystem. It offers hands-on exhibits, outdoor gardens and animal experiences. These allow kids and adults to learn about the lagoon and understand how they can help preserve it.
San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo is one of the most well-known zoos in the world and a must-visit if you find yourself in Southern California. More than 14,000 rare and endangered animals reside at the zoo in habitats designed to closely resemble those where they would reside in the wild. The San Diego Zoo offers multiple ways to view and learn about its animal residents, including a guided bus tour, behind-the-scenes experiences, an aerial tram and more.
Related: The best hotels in San Diego
This list represents only a fraction of the kid-friendly activities in California, but it should give you an idea of the depth and breadth of what’s available when you visit. My favorite vacations have a variety of activities that let me truly experience a destination. With California’s array of theme parks, beaches, outdoor activities and more, you can build the perfect kid-friendly itinerary to please the whole family.