Disneyland and the other LA area theme parks often get top billing when people make lists of things to do in the Los Angeles area, but there's more to do when visiting LA than just speeding through Space Mountain and picking up hitchhiking ghosts at the Haunted Mansion.
However, if you are interested in hitting an amusement park, there are smarter ways to do Disney, like using Ridemax and seeing Disneyland and California Adventure in just two days. By dodging the crowds, you can see the best the parks have to offer and still have time to explore the iconic Southern California sights.
If you're theme park obsessed, check out these spots:
- Universal Studios Hollywood: Better for kids who like fast, exciting rides and who are tall enough to ride them.
- Six Flags Magic Mountain: This "iron park" has so many roller coasters, it looks like a pile of twisted spaghetti. Lines can be long and there's little to do if roller coasters aren't your thing.
- Knotts Berry Farm: Close to Disneyland, it has more real roller coasters than its neighbor and a nice mix of rides and entertainment for all ages. It's less expensive than Disneyland if your budget is tight.
Hollywood Movie Magic
Hollywood—meaning Hollywood Boulevard a few blocks on either side of Highland Avenue—is a fun place to take the kids. It's super-touristy and has lots of souvenir shops and lots of excited energy. If your kids like movies and enjoy watching the Academy Awards, you can capture some true Hollywood excitement with a tour of the Dolby Theatre where the Oscars are held.
You can also join all the other star-struck tourists scanning the Hollywood Walk of Fame for their favorite stars' names and pose for pics with Batman, Wonder Woman, and all the other film character look-alikes hanging out along the boulevard. In the Chinese Theater courtyard, even the most indifferent kids end up sticking their feet in someone's shoe prints or grabbing friends to point out a favorite film idol's signature.
Kids may also like some of the tourist attractions, like Ripley's Believe It or Not, Guinness World Records Museum, or Madame Tussaud's wax museum.
A Night at the Movies
Normally, taking the kids to the movies while on vacation would be boring, but the El Capitan Theatre is a don't-miss destination. It's a classic, gorgeous movie palace built in 1926. Because it's owned by Disney, the films are always family-friendly and they sometimes do sing-along versions of classic Disney films.
Inside, you'll see a live stage show and get a chance to gawk at the gorgeous surroundings before the show starts. Then a real, velvet, swishy curtain goes up, starting the show with real a dramatic flair. For all of its old-fashioned look, the movie experience is purely modern, with a Dolby ATMOS sound system featuring over 100 speakers, super-bright digital projection, and ultra-realistic digital 3D.
After the film ends, your family can head upstairs to the Hall of Fame, which features photos, props, and costumes from movie premieres held at the theater. Ranging from Citizen Kane to Marvel's Avengers, there is a little bit of Hollywood magic here to impress a movie fan of any age.
Finally, you can end the night on a sweet note with a visit to the Ghirardelli soda fountain and chocolate shop right next door.
Live Puppet Theater
If live theater is more your family's speed, check out the Bob Baker Marionette Theater. Their puppets-on-strings are darling. Everyone seems to love the experience, especially when they come into the audience and sit on your lap or tap your knee.
Farmers Market and The Grove
How do an old LA standby and a new shopping/dining/entertainment complex get along? Quite well, if it's the Farmers Market and The Grove at Third and Fairfax. The Los Angeles Farmers Market and The Grove blend tradition with modern shopping-center-cum-nouveau-downtown. If you have picky eaters and shoppers with you, this is a great place to go.
Trendy restaurants and shops face the central park area of The Grove, where a water fountain dances to musical medleys. When you're hungry, head for the Farmers Market.
The Farmers Market maintains a strong connection to its past. It's always full of tourists and Hollywood locals who still buy meats and produce here. The air fills with mouth-watering smells from Cajun-flavored Gumbo Pot and the market's international food stalls. Everyone can order what they want and then gather around a table, sitting in those classic green-painted folding chairs to share your meal. Two wine/beer bars provide "adult" beverages if anyone wants to partake.
Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive
Rodeo Drive draws more up-market clientele and is better for fashion-conscious pre-teens and teenagers than for little ones.
It's pronounced roh-DAY-oh (there are no cowboys here). The streets aren't paved with gold, but the shoppers who frequent this three-block haven of haute couture must have plenty of that precious metal, judging from the Lamborghinis, Rolls Royces, and Bentleys parked curbside. Despite its high-falutin' reputation, tourists outnumber shoppers, so don't be embarrassed to join in the window-shopping and jaw-dropping.
Even grown-up kids can't resist the Cupcake ATM at Sprinkles bakery just off Rodeo Drive. This little convenience is continuously stocked freshly baked cupcakes, cookies, and even cupcakes for your dog. It's a fun treat just watching that cute little box appear with a cupcake inside.
If you and the kids want to do a movie star homes tour, skip the boring, expensive, and often-inaccurate ones on Hollywood Boulevard and hop on the Beverly Hills Trolley instead. Discreet tour guides won't say who lives there now, but they do dish up tidbits about former residents.
Los Angeles has a large selection of fascinating museums and aquariums to tempt any visitor. Kids may balk at doing an educational activity on vacation, but many LA museums are so much fun, your kids won't even realize how much they are learning.
La Brea Tar Pits
Hang around Los Angeles long enough and you may wonder if the place is cracking up. At the La Brea Tar Pits, it is. Rock fissures have channeled sticky tar to the surface here for more than 30,000 years, trapping uncounted giant sloths, woolly mammoths, and saber-toothed cats in its gummy grasp.
The George Page Museum displays the most interesting finds. Kids like the What It's Like to be Trapped in Tar exhibit, and when a docent is on duty, they can hunt for fossils, too.
At the Skirball Cultural Center, you can take the kids to Noah's Ark. The floor to ceiling replica of the Ark is packed things for the kids to do: play, build, climb, explore or make music and do crafts projects.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
LACMA is possibly LA's most kid-friendly museum. They offer Family Days and a free admission NextGen program for kids. But that's just for starters.
Kids can get mesmerized by Chris Burden's Metropolis II, an intense kinetic sculpture, modeled after a fast-paced, modern city. Band by Richard Serra invites hide-and-go-seek, and it's also a great place to teach "look but don't touch" museum manners. Throw in a ride in a really big elevator, a romp in a sculpture made of rubber tubing and a stop at the cafe for a pastry and you've got a perfect day.
Kidspace Children's Museum, Pasadena
The kids can play in the garden, play in the water, learn a little science in the physics forest, or stretch their creativity in the Imagination Workshop. It's designed for children ages 1 to 10.
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
The name sounds stuffy, but don't get hung up on that. The Natural History Museum is the place to go if your kids are hooked on dinosaurs, with more than 300 real fossils and 20 complete dinosaurs and ancient sea creatures. They also have pavilions full of spiders and butterflies—plus a whole host of other exhibits.
California Science Center
Next door to the Natural History Museum is the California Science Center. This place was a lot of fun before the space shuttle Endeavor arrived.
Aquarium of the Pacific
The Aquarium of the Pacific is located on the Long Beach waterfront and it's continually improving the visitor experience. Not only is it one of the country's largest indoor aquariums, it offers a wide variety of ways to enjoy the sea creatures including lots of touching pools. For older children, they also have some great animal encounters which include sea otters, seal and sea lions, or sharks—or you can feed a bat ray.
Santa Monica Pier
If a driver's brakes failed to approach the end of legendary Route 66, they might have sailed right past the carousel and onto Santa Monica Pier. It's as far west in Los Angeles as you can get. Locals and tourists crowd the pier on hot summer nights, so thick that their voices all but drown out the sound of the surf. The rest of the year, there seems to be enough room for everyone.
The pier is home to one of the few surviving amusement parks built on a pier: Pacific Park. It's not a big, fancy theme park like LA's more famous attractions, but it has a gorgeous carousel, beautiful Ferris wheel, and a roller coaster, along with some tamer rides that the younger kids might enjoy.
On the clifftop above the beach, you'll find street performers to watch and a real curiosity: The Camera Obscura. It's one of the earliest optical inventions and a fun way to "spy" on passersby. You can also rent a bicycle on the waterfront and pedal south to Venice Beach, which is about 3 miles away.
If the kids still have energy after all that, head across the street from the pier to Tongva Park, where there's a fun playground.
Another Way to Enjoy the Ocean
In spring and summer, at high tide and just after a full moon, banana-sized, silver-colored grunion fish rush ashore to spawn for just 30 seconds before returning to the ocean.
Children under 16 years old and California fishing license-holders can scramble to grab the critters before they head back out to sea. With the only allowed fishing gear being your hands, it's almost as much fun as Disneyland.
Griffith Park sprawls over 4,107 acres of natural terrain covered with California oak trees, wild sage, and manzanita. It is the USA's largest municipal park and it has lots of f un things for the kids to see and do. These include the Griffith Observatory, where you can see star shows and exhibits. The Observatory also has great views of downtown LA. The Los Angeles Zoo is also located in the park. The Winnick Family Children's Zoo is a great destination for your family if you have young kids with you. In Travel Town, kids can explore various travel-themed experiences, like the popular miniature train ride. Finally, Shane's Inspiration Playground is a destination designed to be accessible to kids of all abilities—it's no wonder why it's the most popular playground in Los Angeles.
Another Great Park
If outdoor spaces are your family's thing, you might also want to check out Huntington Library and Gardens in Pasadena. While a public garden may not be the first thing that comes to mind for children, this is a great place to take the stroller set. They have such a fun-looking Kids Garden that it will make you wish you were five again, just so you can play there.
If you have a little one who enjoys the idea of afternoon tea, they serve a nice one in the cafe.
Activities for Teenagers
More grown-up teens and tweens might be more interested in special-interest offerings like real Hollywood studio tours—not the Universal Studios Backlot tour—or less structured activities like the opportunity to explore weird, wacky Venice Beach.
Other suggestions that might pique your teen's interest include the Peterson Automotive Museum, which might be heaven for a car-obsessed teen. The Peterson has a fantastic collection of cars, including some famous movie vehicles, making it an interesting destination even for non-gearheads.
If any of your family members are shopaholics, Fashion District and Santee Alley is the place for them. It's so much more fun than an outlet mall, but you can find deals just as good. Melrose Avenue is another hot spot for anyone who loves to shop. This shopping street is lined with fun boutiques and is big enough that you can truly shop until you drop
General Tips for Seeing LA With Kids
No matter what you decide to put on your itinerary, travel smart in LA with these final tips.
Doing It All For Less
Depending on how many of these activities you and your family want to enjoy, you could save some money when you go to LA with the kids by getting the multi-attraction discount Go Los Angeles Card. If your trip is heavy on theme parks, check out the Southern California CityPASS, too.
If you're really looking to keep your spending in check, it's good to know that there are some things you can even do for free in Los Angeles.
More Things to Do
There's a lot more to do in Los Angeles than just what is included on this list. Look into visiting some of the less well-known LA attractions to have fun and escape the crowds.
If this is your first time in LA, know that it's not always sunny. If you find gray skies and rain dimming your vacation, find out what to do in LA when it's raining.
Things Not to Do
There are some tourist traps you may want to avoid in LA, but you also don't want to get arrested, surf at the wrong beach, sound like a doofus, or freak out over weird driving. It's best to learn how to avoid unpleasant experiences ahead of time.