Putting on the Break

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In car-crazy California, it's sometimes hard to see beyond the latest freeway traffic jam. Sure, your freeway-savvy 6-year-old likes to listen for SigAlerts on the way to school, but she's too hip to be intrigued by any old thing with wheels, and kids in double digits have become way too cool for Sunday drives that don't promise something at the destination.

But what if you could sell them on one-day family field trips built around a transportation theme? Take in a stunning view of the largest breakwater in the world from a boat tour of San Pedro Harbor, or enjoy a low-key excursion on the pedal boats or kayaks at Newport Dunes? .

Take a short trip on the mini-trains at Adventure City, or ride an Amtrak train along the coast to Santa Barbara's storied depot. Expose your children to the wonders of the high-performance internal-combustion engine at the Marconi Automotive Museum, or let them leap into a simulated jet cockpit at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino.

Wrap up your adventures by hopping on Angels Flight in downtown Los Angeles for a 60-second ride on the world's shortest railway.

OK, so they're not the Seven Wonders of the World. Think of them as seven ways to survive seven days--after all, spring break is just around the corner.

Day One: San Pedro Harbor Cruise

Can't interest them in boat tours? Try promising them something gothic, like an up-close look at Terminal Island Prison, one of the highlights of the excursions offered by Los Angeles Harbor Cruises.

Gene Meister, who runs the line, says he takes about 40,000 people on one-hour expeditions each year. "I never run out of things to point out to people," says Meister, who's run this route as a boat captain for 15 years. Besides a glimpse of the prison, "the kids love the fireboat," he said, "and they are most inquisitive about the boats in dry dock. They don't understand how you can get such huge boats out of the water to work on them."

Besides the world's largest breakwater, short-term voyagers also see the Coast Guard station and the world's second-largest container terminal (Long Beach ranks first) with foreign ships big enough to carry 5,000 containers, Meister says.

They travel under the Vincent Thomas Suspension Bridge, an L.A. landmark, and cruise the terminal, where ships from around the world are likely to be docked.

* Los Angeles Harbor Cruises, Village Boat House, Ports O' Call, San Pedro. Daily tours on the hour from noon to 4 p.m. Adults, $6; children 6 to 12, $3; under 6, free. No reservations necessary. (310) 831-0996.

Day 2: Pedal Boats at Newport Beach

Keep your eyes peeled for exotic birds while enjoying a scenic ride in a pedal boat around the lagoon of Newport Dunes Resort.

"There are tons of snowy egrets and great blue herons," says Andy Berry, president of Resort Watersports, which rents the boats. "Sometimes you might even see brown pelicans, which are endangered."

Berry said the pedal boats are really popular with kids, "probably because they have so much energy and don't get tired. Plus, I think they really enjoy the fact that they are making the boat go."

Berry said that kayaking is also popular, especially kayak tours of an ecological reserve.

The Back Bay kayak tour first introduces kayakers to the basics of kayaking, then takes them into the wildlife reserve, accompanied by a trained naturalist.

While hours for boat and kayak rentals are weekends only, Berr said the facility will open during other hours for any reservation, with a minimum of $25.

* Pedal boating at Newport Dunes Resort, 1131 Back Bay Drive, Newport Beach. Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. $12 an hour, $36 a half-day, $60 a day. (800) 585-0747.

Day 3: Air Museum

An interactive aviation exhibit for kids is the newest thing to land at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino.

"It's a hands-on area where kids can climb into models of aircraft, touch the controls and do all sorts of fun things," says Deborah Manning, office manager of the museum. Manning said war buffs, aircraft aficionados, school groups and families find their way to the museum at the World War II facility at Chino Air Park.

The museum's current collection consists of 140 aircraft, 30 of which are flyable. The collection includes a P-51D Mustang and a P-38J Lightning.

"I think one of the biggest draws of the museum is that these are World War II fighter planes," Manning said. "There's a lot of history here."

Patrons can take self-guided tours of the museum and check out the various aircraft, each with an information fact sheet.

The museum also has a Web site: http://www.planesoffame.org.

* Planes of Fame Air Museum, 7000 Merrill Ave., Chino. Mondays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adults, $8.95; children 5-11, $1.95; under 5, free. (909) 597-3722.

Day 4: Amtrak to Santa Barbara

You'll feel like a veteran of the rails when you hop on the train to Santa Barbara without a ticket; cash or credit cards are accepted when you board a train at an unstaffed station, such as the one in San Clemente. .

Once aboard, you'll see "parts of the coastline you can't get to see any other way," says Patrick Merrill, Amtrak's manager of the San Diegan Corridor, which runs from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. "It's kind of cool."

If you take the train beyond Santa Barbara, a top-secret mission is included: a trip through Vandenberg Air Force Base, something that usually can't be seen without a security clearance, Merrill adds.

From San Clemente, the trip to Santa Barbara takes a little under 4 1/2 hours; from Fullerton, about 3 1/2. At the train station on State Street in downtown Santa Barbara, you'll find information on area attractions--and a historic depot built in 1905 that's at the beginning of an 18-month restoration.

* One-way unreserved coach Amtrak fares from San Clemente to Santa Barbara, $21. ; from Fullerton, $18. Children 15 and under, half price. Call (800) 872-7245 for schedules.

Day Five: Mini-trains at Adventure City

Would-be engineers who board the train at Adventure City are all ages, "from babies to grandparents," says Allan Ansdell Jr., president of the park.

"This particular train has been around for more than 30 years, way before it came to us. It used to run on gasoline power but has been converted to electric."

The train circles the whole park, and when kids have a birthday they get to sit up front with the engineer and wear the engineers' cap and ring the train's bell.

"There is a portion of the track where the roller coaster actually goes over the train, and it also passes by a large waterfall," he said.

Ansdell said the park also has a "crank and roll" train, a replica of a locomotive.

"Kids use hand pedals to pedal it around the track," he said. "I think kids really enjoy it because they get to be the engineer on their own train."

* Adventure City, 10120 Beach Blvd., Stanton. Open Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission: $10.95, all rides; $4.95, shows only, no rides. Single-ride tickets for the train: $1.25 each. (714) 236-9300.

Day 6: Marconi Auto Museum

Kids, teens and even their minivan-driving moms will get an adrenaline rush gazing at the more than 70 race cars and vintage autos at this cavernous Tustin industrial space turned automotive shrine.

Entrepreneur Dick Marconi, a racer himself, and his staff have scoured the globe for this ever-growing collection, and they are pleased to let folks ogle--and even touch!

In recent weeks, Marconi has purchased and put on display a '97 550 Maranello Ferrari reported to be one of only four privately owned in the United States. Ferraris are a big thing with Marconi; at last count there were about 20 of various vintages on display. There's also a handful of classic cars, such as a 1929 Ford Model A and a spiffy-looking 1937 fire engine.

True motorheads will appreciate the operating race shop adjacent to the gallery, where you can watch master technicians fine tune the magnificent machines.

* Marconi Automotive Museum, 1302 Industrial Drive, Tustin. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; tours by appointment. $5; children under 12 free with paying adult. (714) 258-3001.

Day 7: Angels Flight Railway

If you ask your children, "Can you say 'funicular'?" you'd better be prepared to tell them what it means.

Angels Flight, the restored railway on downtown Los Angeles' Bunker Hill, is one of the world's dwindling number of funiculars, a railway that is counterbalanced so that one car rises as another descends.

About 1.5 million people have paid a quarter apiece to travel the 298 feet that make up the shortest railway in the world since it reopened in February 1996, says John Wellborne, president of Angels Flight Railway, the nonprofit foundation that keeps the historic cars running.

Built in 1901, Angels Flight was primarily used as a way for Bunker Hill residents to get to shopping at the bottom of the hill, and it operated continuously for 68 years, Wellborne says. The restoration effort moved the railway half a block south and revived the original station house, complete with Victorian carvings.

A ride can be like time travel, Wellborne says. "Sometimes, it's like being on Main Street in Disneyland. People will actually talk to each other about the last time they rode the railway before it closed."

* Angels Flight Railway is open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. One-way fare is 25 cents. (213) 626-1901. To get to the line on Bunker Hill, consider taking Metrolink to Union Station, then the Red Line subway to 4th and Hill streets, across the street from Angels Flight. All Metrolink lines run Mondays through Fridays. Only San Bernardino and Santa Clarita lines run on Saturdays. None run on Sundays. (800) 371-5465.

Also contributing to this report were freelance writers Lisa Addison and Corinne Flocken.

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