Bless the children. They’re too young to understand what a trip to the Third Street Promenade in the middle of summer means. Too young to know about traffic, tourist traps and six-level parking garages. Bless them for being able to make the trip to the Westside without losing their minds. Their reward is the Cayton Children’s Museum, which recently relocated from mid-Wilshire to Santa Monica Place. If “museum” sounds boring, don’t worry — it’s actually a sprawling play place. At $14 a person, it’s not cheap, and admission lasts just two hours. But for our purposes, that’s perfect — we’re halfway to four fun hours in Santa Monica.
2 p.m. Let your kids explore the museum, at 395 Santa Monica Place, and see if you can blow off some steam while you’re at it. The children are too young to be spooked by a metal detector and armed guards at the entrance. But the guards greet you with smiles, as if inviting you to check your worries at the door. Inside, your kids can dance in dinosaur and princess costumes and sing along with a hipster strumming songs about gratitude and love on a banjo. They can stop at stations to play with sand and water, sit for arts and crafts, even play on an American LaFrance fire engine. There’s a VCA-sponsored stuffed pet hospital and supermarket shelves stocked with play foods that kids can drop into their mini shopping carts. Bless them for being fascinated by everyday tasks we find mundane. And if the checkout line is too long, they can ditch their cart and jump in the ball pit. Why can’t Ralphs be like that? The museum stimulates physically, creatively and intellectually: A flipboard shuffles between letters, numbers and quotes from the likes of Confucius, Victor Hugo and Maria Montessori. The kids’ own quotes also make it on the wall, written on sheets that say, “My hope for the world is ...” One kid wrote: “I wish that I will get whatever I want.” Bless you, child, for on this side of town, wishes like that really do come true.
4 p.m. The museum is at the southeast end of Third Street Promenade, which provides plenty of opportunity for shopping after you leave the museum. But if you brought young kids, you might want to just leave your car at the museum and walk on over to the Santa Monica Pier, which has rides, games and street performers. Not to mention ice cream, funnel cakes and the $5 churro. If the prices are too rich for you, stop at McDonald’s on the short walk along Colorado Avenue and grab a soft serve cone for less than $2. If you saved money on snacks, treat the kids to a carnival game or ride on the midway. Rides range from $5 to $8, or you can buy an all-day pass ($18 for kids 7 and younger, more for the rest of us). Let the kids try Shark Frenzy or Wave Jumpers, then steal a moment for yourself and swing high in the sky on the Sea Dragon — high enough for a view of the coastline. Some carnival games are cheap — $2 for a single play — and my daughter won a stuffy on her first try. If the rides or prices make you faint, don’t forget that you’re on the beach. Take some selfies or get in the sand and surf. (It helps if you planned ahead and packed towels, sunscreen and hats. But vendors will sell you anything you neglected to bring.)
5 p.m. After the pier, stroll Ocean Avenue. There are places to eat with an ocean view — and plenty of tourists — but skip that and go to Cha Cha Chicken southeast of the pier at 1906 Ocean Ave. This colorful street-corner shack serving “Caribbean food with a Latin twist” since 1996 has no parking lot, so walking was the right call. Its self-titled dish is tempting, but get the coconut fried chicken ($10-$28) that comes with both sweet mango and jerk dipping sauces. If rice and beans and plantains are not enough sides, order the spicy Cuban fries ($3.50) with a watermelon agua fresca ($3.75) — though this place is BYOB, so next time bring beer and wine instead of kids. Head back to the garage with a full belly, but be prepared to pay almost $20 when you get there. If you feel that familiar anxiety stir in your soul, swallow hard and remember you did this for the children. Bless their little hearts.