California for Families: San Diego to San Francisco

The Hollywood Walk of Fame. Photo by Sylvain Grandadam/Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd/Alamy
Southern California is one of the premier family destinations in the country thanks to its warm beaches and multitude of theme parks, including the one that seems to capture every child's imagination, Disneyland. On this highlight of sights between San Diego and San Francisco, you'll stop by the mesmerizing Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Santa Cruz's beachside boardwalk.

Photo Caption: The Hollywood Walk of Fame.
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Koalas at the San Diego Zoo. Photo by Brett Shoaf
Your first stop is the world-famous San Diego Zoo, best visited in the morning before the crowds arrive. Founded in 1916, the zoo currently houses 4,000 animals from 800 species, including rare species like giant pandas and African lowland gorillas. Double-decker bus tours roll by the various habitats, especially useful if you have small children.

Photo Caption: Koalas at the San Diego Zoo.
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Spreckels Organ in Balboa Park. Photo by Charlie Manz
Spend some time wandering through Balboa Park and its many museums. Especially good options for kids include the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, the Air & Space Museum, the Model Railroad Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Miniature Railroad and Carousel.

Dolphins, otters, sea lions, and seals perform at SeaWorld, but the rock star is Shamu, the jumping and splashing killer whale. You'll also find sharks, manatees, and a variety of penguins, as well as rides with Sesame Street characters.

Photo Caption: Spreckels Organ in Balboa Park.
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A giraffe at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Photo by Brett Shoaf
Thirty-four miles north of town, you can slip away to the wild savannahs of Africa at the 1,800-acre San Diego Wild Animal Park, where 3,500 animals -- lions, zebras, elephants, cheetahs, and rhinos -- roam "freely" within vast natural landscapes.

Photo Caption: A giraffe at the San Diego Wild Animal Park.
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A Legoland neighborhood. Photo by Larry Brownstein/Ambient Images
LEGOLAND California, in Carlsbad, is an absolute must for kids obsessed with LEGO blocks -- and even for those kids that aren't -- with over 50 interactive exhibits, shows, and great role-playing rides where kids become knights, firefighters, skippers, and aviators. Even jaded adults will marvel at the intricate models of American cities.

Photo Caption: A Lego version of New Orleans.
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Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA. Photo by Gunter Marx/Alamy
Some die-hard Disney fans could happily spend a whole week at Anaheim's Disneyland, but we'll budget a day for each of the two parks. Opened in 1955, the original Disneyland is the result of Walt Disney's personal vision and still works its magic on children as well as nostalgic adults with classic characters and impossible-to-forget rides like "it's a small world." The newer California Adventure showcases the glory of California, thematically anyway, with roller coasters and virtual reality rides. If your kids are tweens or teens, you could swap the day at Disneyland for Knott's Berry Farm, which is smaller, but offers more thrill rides.

Photo Caption: Sleeping Beauty Castle, Disneyland.
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The globe at Universal Studios Photo by Peter Ravallo/Alamy
Start your day in Los Angeles early at Universal Studios Hollywood. The slick one-hour tour may be a bit hokey (compared to say, the in-depth Warner Brothers or Paramount studio tours), but kids will enjoy pass- ing through the "sets" of War of the Worlds, King Kong, and Fast & the Furious. The best rides are The Simpsons virtual roller coaster, the Jurassic Park jungle boat ride, and Shrek 4D, a multi-sensory film using 3-D animation.

Photo Caption: The globe at Universal Studios
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Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Photo by Richard Cummins/Lonely Planet Images
Head to Hollywood to gawk at the superheroes and crazy costumed characters in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and walk along the Walk of Fame. Across the street, the gorgeous El Capitan Theater plays the latest blockbuster movies by Disney and Pixar. If you have a chance, catch a show; the pre-show hoopla features organ music, dancing Disney characters, and a rain of confetti
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La Brea Tar Pits at the Page Museum. Photo by Martin Shields/Alamy
At the La Brea Tar Pits, the oozing black asphalt and skeletons of wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers never fail to excite kids, although you may have to ex- plain why there aren't any dinosaurs (for dinosaurs, take a detour downtown to the Natural History Museum).

Photo Caption: La Brea Tar Pits at the Page Museum.
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Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier. Photo by Walter Bibikow/DanitaDelimont.com
End the day at the Santa Monica Pier, an amusement park with a century of tradition. Take a spin on the solar-powered Ferris Wheel, which takes you high over the Pacific Ocean. Ride the colorful, hand-carved horses on the 1922-built carousel in the Loof Hippodrome, a National Historic Landmark.

Photo Caption: Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier.
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Jellyfish at Monterey Aquarium Photo by Verity Warne
Arrive in Monterey by early afternoon to have ample time at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, quite simply one of the world's best and largest public aquariums, and a must-see for families. The Outer Bay features a 1.2 million-gallon tank where kids can "ooh" and "aah" in front of dolphinfish, hammerhead, and Galapagos sharks. The sea otters and penguins are also popular sights.

Photo Caption: Jellyfish at Monterey Aquarium
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The charilift above Santa Cruz, CA's boardwalk. Photo by Frommers.com Community
Santa Cruz's biggest family attraction is the Beach Boardwalk, originally built in 1907 when seaside amuse- ment parks were all the rage. There are plenty of new thrill rides, but the boardwalk's consid- erable charm comes from its throwback vibe, with two of its vintage rides -- a 1924 wooden roller coaster called the Giant Dipper and a 1911 Looff Carousel -- designated as national landmarks.

Photo Caption: The charilift above Santa Cruz, CA's boardwalk. Photo by SonjaRB/Frommers.com Community
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Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Photo by Thornton Cohen
For the quintessential San Francisco experience, hop a cable car at the turnaround at Market and Powell and enjoy the crisp air and thrilling views of the city on the way towards Fisherman's Wharf. Unless you're with very young or easily fright- ened children, take a tour of Alcatraz, the infamous island prison. The ferry ride to the island provides a perfect view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Photo Caption: Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
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Walkthrough Aquarium at Golden Gate Academy of Sciences at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, CA Photo by Ken Cedeno
Frolic in the city's beloved Golden Gate Park, where a million trees fill a thousand acres. Highlights include the Conservatory of Flowers; Stow's Lake, where you can rent boats, the Japanese Tea Garden; the Bison Paddock; and the Children's Playground, which is home to a 1912 carousel. Curious minds enjoy the excellent California Academy of Sciences, which is a combination aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum.

Photo Caption: Walkthrough Aquarium at Golden Gate Academy of Sciences at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, CA
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