Myles McGuinness

11 Tips for California Family Vacations

11 Tips for California Family Vacations
Plan your Golden State trip with these family-friendly travel hacks

Sun, surf, mountains, and roller coasters: The Golden State is big and beautiful, whether you want to play at the beach, ride your way across California theme parks, or camp at one of California’s national parks. The state’s size and variety of offerings mean that a California family vacation will call for some solid preparation. Here are 11 tips and family-friendly travel hacks to help you build your family’s trip, with an eye toward keeping the fun quotient high and missed opportunities to a minimum.

Planning a Golden State road trip? Check out our special road trip tips for that too.

1. Pack and dress in layers. In Southern California, a sunny 70-degree day can feel like 80 or hotter to people from other parts of the country, while a cloudy 60-degree day can feel much chillier, thanks to ocean breezes. In Northern California—especially San Francisco—summer can mean a lot of morning fog and temperatures in the 50s that turn into warmer temps in the afternoon. All over the state, it’s a safe bet to dress in layers and keep a sweater, sweatshirt, or light jacket in your day pack.

2. Don’t pack beach gear. Your hotel may have toys and gear on hand to borrow or rent. You can also buy boogie boards—an easy-to-learn way to play in the surf—for as little as $10 at any drug store or discount store near the beach. That’s also a budget-friendly way to pick up sandcastle-making toys, sunscreen, hats, and flip-flops.

3. Maximize your time at the theme parks. Staying at one of the on-site hotels can get you early entry—usually an hour earlier than the scheduled opening time—but sometimes just buying your tickets online (like at Universal Studios Hollywood) can get you an extra hour with shorter lines. Also, check the park’s website for express-lane services (like Disneyland Resort’s Fastpasses) so that you can make the most of your time all day.

4. Expect (some) admission discounts. Kids and teens often get in free, or at a discount, at most museums and other attractions around the Golden State. That said, don’t expect much of a break at theme parks, where the full-price admission may start as low as age 10.

5. Measure your kids. Before you commit to a theme park for the day, check out the rides page on its website to see the height minimums, to make sure there are enough rides that your children will be able to enjoy. Also, get the lay of the land from the theme park’s online map, to plot your day’s path efficiently and delay the onset of tired feet.

6. Book ahead for camping. National parks such as Yosemite have well-established schedules for opening up camp sites for reservations, and good spots can go fast—up to six months ahead of time. For last-minute spots, check a park’s campgrounds online to find availability.

7. Don’t miss the Junior Ranger programs at state and national parks. The free handouts and activities available at California national parks and state parks give kids a fun, hands-on way to explore the park. At Lassen Volcanic National Park, for instance, the activity booklet lists different hot springs and volcanic rocks for kids to look for and check off. At Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve, meanwhile, a nature-oriented bingo card motivates kids to keep an eye out for lizards, meadowlarks, and beetles, as well as California’s state flower. Ask for any handouts at the park’s visitors center, or download them from its website.

8. Plan a ski trip that moves at everyone’s pace. California ski resorts offer a wide range of age-specific lessons and activities—some with kids’ clubs that last half or full days, so that everyone gets plenty of time to ski or board at their own skill level. At Squaw Valley, for instance, about 65 percent of the trails are suitable for beginner and intermediate skiers, and Sierra-at-Tahoe has an 11-acre learning terrain called Easy Street. Off-the-slope activities abound as well, like Mammoth’s beloved Woolly’s Tube Park, or the 30-foot climbing wall at Big Bear and Snow Summit’s Basecamp. Meanwhile, even if your kids’ spring break falls as late as April, you’ll still find plenty of California snow.

9. Bring lots of sunscreen. Beach days certainly call for solid SPF, but you’ll also need sunscreen while skiing. California’s ski resorts are known for their wealth of blue bird snow days, which results in plenty of reflection off the slopes.

10. Don’t assume that wine-tasting is off the table. Not all wineries and craft breweries welcome kids, but many do—offering games, play areas, and kids’ dining menus so that the family can enjoy a visit together. Check the individual wineries’ or breweries’ websites before you go to make sure kids will be welcome and happily occupied.

11. Don’t be afraid to take the kids to a nice dinner. In California, cutting-edge restaurants are often not white-tablecloth-type places, and many even have good kids’ menus—like the tamales and quesadillas at L.A.’s acclaimed Border Grill, or the prix fixe kids’ menu at San Francisco’s Rintaro, which Bon Appétit named one of the best restaurants of 2015. When in doubt, call ahead and ask when making a reservation; most hotels keep lists of reputable babysitting services at the front desk, and can help you hire a great sitter to come to your hotel room. 

Welcome to Kidifornia
The “Welcome to Kidifornia” commercial offers a quick peek at some trip-of-a-lifetime family vacations in the Golden State—filled with beaches, national parks, theme parks, and more. 
Myles McGuinness

California: Family

ALL DREAMS WELCOME

What's Hot Now
Discover Orange County

With its laid-back vibe and unbeatable attractions, this vibrant city on the northwest side of Orange County has become a popular destination for visitors from all over...

Take a peek at some trip-of-a-lifetime California family vacations

Welcome to Kidifornia, a place filled with some of the greatest family vacations in the Golden State. Check out amazing views of the Golden Gate...

SPECIAL FEATURE
Find the cool spots featured in VisitCalifornia’s dream family vacation

The latest “Welcome to Kidifornia” commercial offers a quick peek at some trip-of-a-lifetime family vacations in the Golden State—filled with beaches, national parks, theme parks, and more.  ...

Myles McGuinness
Dave Lauridsen

Spotlight: SeaWorld San Diego

Amazing undersea attractions, thrilling rides, and interactive animal shows

From swooshing and swooping rides to interactive shows and million-gallon aquariums, this is one theme park that truly makes a big, big splash....

SPECIAL FEATURE
These theme parks and sights are perfect for toddlers and kids age 5 or younger

Bringing a toddler to a theme park is not for the faint-hearted. In fact, bringing a little kid anywhere can be a challenge at times. But don’...

Courtesy of Universal Studios Hollywood
Myles McGuinness

Kid-Friendly Guide to California Road Trips

Tips and ideas for taking the family on a Golden State getaway

California’s natural beauty and diverse attractions make it the perfect place to plan a family road trip. With so many places to see...

Courtesy of San Diego Zoo

Spotlight: San Diego Zoo

See rare and endangered species

Visiting this expansive zoo in San Diego’s Balboa Park is more than a chance to see animals from all over the world: it’s a chance to see one of...

Derrell McCain/Alamy

Best Kept Secret: Solano County

See why this Central Valley region holds its own in terms of good wine, pretty countryside, and cool activities

A treasure awaits about 20 miles east of Napa, in a lovely but largely “secret” area of sprawling countryside and bayfront beauty. This is...

SPECIAL FEATURE
These family-friendly eateries will make the whole clan happy

The Golden State is home to some of the best restaurants in the world, partly because of the long list of acclaimed...

Courtesy of Cheeky’s
SPECIAL FEATURE
Make memories at some of California's family-favorite beaches

Sand, water, and kids—it’s a natural combination for easy family fun. This sandy dozen offers appealing, family-friendly features, such as calm water for new swimmers, tide pools for intrepid...

12 Great Beaches for Kids
Alex Farnum
Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.
Walt Disney
Courtesy of Disneyland Resort

Spotlight: Disneyland Resort

Just saying the name sets a child’s face glowing

The undisputed granddaddy of theme parks has been leading the way since 1955, inviting visitors to spend the day in the ultimate land of make-...

Peter Alfred Hess/FlickrPlay at Redding’s 300-acre museum, arboretum, sculpture park, and forest camp

Turtle Bay Exploration Park

Play at Redding’s 300-acre museum, arboretum, sculpture park, and forest camp

Turtle Bay Exploration Park is exactly that—a mostly outdoor institution built alongside the shady Sacramento River, with creative...

SPECIAL FEATURE
Kids get an inside look at wildlife, space, and more

From cool ways for your kids to learn about wildlife, to an insider’s look at a space station, to a chance to walk through a rain forest or learn about the night sky, there’s a bumper...

Peter Alfred Hess/Flickr
SPECIAL FEATURE
On your next California vacation, take home a new skill as a souvenir

Kids always want something to bring home from vacation. But instead of picking up yet another stuffed animal or sweatshirt, get the kids a cool new experience—perhaps even a new hobby—...

© Monterey Bay Aquarium
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Lisa/ Flickr

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Spend the day at this seaside charmer

A wide beach and splashable waves are always inviting; add a colourful boardwalk with rides, games, and music—well, how can you say no? Not many...

SPECIAL FEATURE
Unforgettable views of amazing animals

From rainforest canopies to luminous kelp beds teeming with sea life, California’s zoos and aquariums give you unforgettable glimpses of amazing animals in naturalistic habitats. Watch giant...

Tim Evanson/Flickr