California is home to some of the biggest kid-friendly attractions on family vacation wish lists, and it’s home to dozens of destinations up and down the coast that provide plenty of memorable vacation experiences, too.
Wondering how adaptable it is for your toddler? We’ve compiled some ideas for ways to keep your busy 1-, 2- or 3-year-old exploring, learning and having fun—and hopefully taking blissful car naps in between activities. These are the best California vacations with toddlers.
With two major family attractions in the area—Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm—Anaheim is pretty much a no-brainer destination for families with toddlers. Both of these parks offer plenty of rides, shows and character meet-and-greet opportunities that are ideal for the 3-and-under set. Need some down time in between all that high-octane excitement? Anaheim is also home to several regional parks and playgrounds where families can just slow down and relax.
Recommended Hotel: Hotel Indigo Anaheim
2. Catalina Island
Catalina Island is just far enough from mainland California to feel like a grand adventure for you and your toddler. Starting with the short ferry ride there, there’s plenty of simple joys that unfold over the course of your island trip. Play all day on the beach, take a glass-bottom boat tour to peer for fish or let your toddler tee up for miniature golf at Golf Gardens.
Recommended Hotel: Pavilion Hotel
Related: 10 Best All-Inclusive Resorts for Toddlers
If you want to kindle your little one’s fascination and love of nature and animals, head to the seaside town of Monterey, with breathtaking views of the Pacific. You’ll want to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where there are areas designed for toddlers to get their tiny hands on touch tanks and play spaces. This area is also a great destination for sea lions and whale watching off Fisherman’s Pier, and depending on the time of year, you might catch sight of some butterflies at the Monarch Grove Sanctuary.
Recommended Hotel: Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa
4. San Francisco
Toddlers will delight in the City by the Bay, from a ride on the cable cars to a whirl on the Pier 39 carousel, followed by watching the lazy sea lions on the pier of Fisherman’s Wharf. There are some great children’s museums here, too: the Bay Area Discovery Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, Children’s Creativity Museum and the Exploratorium all offer hours of learning and creative indoor fun.
Recommended Hotel: Argonaut Hotel
Related: 11 Best Amusement Parks for Toddlers and Young Kids
5. San Diego
The San Diego Zoo steals top rankings of zoos across the world and is so expansive, you can take a bus, sky tram or trolley to get around (toddler fun in their own right) to see the animals. The zoo is located in the 1,200-acre Balboa Park, where you’ll also find an array of museums. Kid City inside the Fleet Science Center is a big draw for toddlers. Consider taking your little one to SeaWorld San Diego, too. The Sesame Street Bay of Play shows and rides are guaranteed to hold their interest.
Recommended Hotel: Pacific Terrace Hotel
6. Mammoth Lakes
Get away from it all and expose your children to California’s rugged beauty. In Mammoth Lakes, you’ll find an easy hike to the 101-foot Rainbow Falls. Yosemite National Park is nearby, too—hiking with kids from a young age is something many families treasure. Treat them to a ride on the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad. In winter months, play in the snow here with tubes, sleds and snow play areas, ending your days with a hot cocoa nightcap.
Recommended Hotel: Mammoth Mountain Inn
Related: 7 Best Vacations With Toddlers
Though LEGOLAND California is frequently considered a “big kid” bucket list destination, it can be an excellent choice for DUPLO-loving toddlers, too (think: safari truck rides, carousels, a fairy tale-themed boat ride and digging for dinosaur skeletons). Elsewhere in Carlsbad, you’ll find beaches, SEA LIFE Aquarium and the Museum of Making Music—an interactive space where your kiddos can feel free to be a little noisy.
Recommended Hotel: LEGOLAND California Hotel
8. Santa Ynez Valley
This Central Coast wine destination with acres of rolling farmland offers an ideal, laidback landscape for a trip with children. Here you’ll find some special farm and agricultural-related experiences to add to your California itinerary. Feed the emus and ostriches at Ostrich Land in Buellton or have your child take a ride on a miniature donkey at Seein’ Spots Farm. Stroll through the Danish-inspired downtown of Solvang. And don’t shy away from wineries—several of them have spacious outdoor patios ideal for letting your toddler run around while you sip a glass of Chardonnay.
Recommended Hotel: Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort
9. Palm Springs
Known as the world’s swimming pool capital, Palm Springs is an unlikely but also sort of genius destination with kids. It’s in the backyard of Joshua Tree National Park, so if you’re a hiking-inclined family, be sure to check out some of the easier treks through the cactus gardens. Another great kid draw is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The Living Desert zoo and gardens showcases area wildlife.
Recommended Hotel: Omni Rancho Las Palmas
Cynthia J. Drake is a travel writer based in Austin, Texas, where she lives with her husband and two sons. Since becoming a mom, she’s been stranded at sea with her family, gotten lost in the Rocky Mountains, dealt with more than her fair share of public vomiting, and still can’t wait for the next trip. She writes regularly for AAA magazines, Austin American-Statesman, Texas Highways and Cruise Critic. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
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