The Lighter Side: Our Los Angeles Staycation

As summer vacation approached, my kids started to come home from school with stories of exotic vacations that their friends soon would be enjoying: France, Italy, South Korea, Washington, D.C., Hawaii, and even Orlando to see the new Hogwarts Castle at the Harry Potter Theme Park. It was no great surprise to our children that we had no such plans. We had been on a tight budget for a while and that was not changing anytime soon. But they claimed they just wanted to relax and sleep in.

But I knew from past experience that after about a day of relaxing, I would start to hear grumbling about how they had “nothing to do” this summer. So, to prevent that from happening, I announced we were going to have an “L.A. Staycation.”

The fact that people from all over the world come to vacation in Los Angeles was lost on them. But I would not be deterred. “Listen, I got $100 dollars out of the bank. Let’s do all the tourist things we never do. But forget theme parks because we can’t afford them.”

It had been years since I had been to Olvera Street, so I decided that would be our first tourist outing. I invited a friend and her daughter to join my three daughters and me. We took the Metro to downtown from Pasadena. The kids seemed to enjoy the novelty of taking the train. Arriving at Union Station, my friend and I were quick to point out the Art Deco architecture to the kids. I’m not sure why we thought they would care. Not many kids go gaga for architecture.

As we arrived at Olvera Street we tried again to take the fun out of things by regaling the kids with interesting historical facts. The kids cared more about the thousands of trinkets at the colorful shops. But they were also hungry, so we stopped at the El Paseo Inn for kid-friendly Americanized Mexican food. My family’s share of the tab came to $38. Add that to the $12 in Metro fairs and I had already blown half of my budget for the week and it was only Day One.

I didn’t have a plan for Tuesday, so I made the mistake of asking the kids their opinion. Since my three daughters range in age from 7 to 15, I should have realized they would never come to an agreement.

After about an hour trying to decide, I completely lost it. I began yelling, telling my kids that they were clearly spoiled and “ …didn’t know how lucky they were that I was offering to take them anywhere when there were kids in the world who were toiling away in sweat shops or getting married off to relatives twice their age!” But then, I collected myself and announced that we were going to the zoo, because clearly I needed some fresh air.

We waited until after lunch to head over so that I could avoid paying for another meal and because I knew that groups of camp children on field trips tended to leave the zoo at about 1 or 2 p.m. Even still, the zoo was more crowded than normal, likely because of the new Elephants of Asia exhibit.

I inadvertently directed my kids to the steepest hill of the zoo amid complaints of heat, hunger and thirst. I knew I was in trouble when I saw the sign that said, “Five minute walk to next animal,” so I promised a snack when we got back to the civilized part of the zoo. Only $14.25 later, we stood gawking at the giraffes and chimps while holding a bag of popcorn, one ice cream and drinks for two. We completed the main loop of the zoo and probably looked at about 65% of the animals within a couple hours.

On Wednesday we took a minor break from our staycation because of some previously scheduled doctor and dentist appointments. I graciously informed the kids that I would not deduct the $30 co-pay from our entertainment budget.

Thursday morning the older girls asked if we could go shopping at the Glendale Galleria and the Americana, using their birthday gift cards and allowance to pay. I agreed because I figured this qualified as a low-budget activity, but insisted we go right at 10 a.m., with their stomachs full of breakfast and well before they’d cry out for lunch.

The girls enjoyed making their own purchases and it was nice to see them budgeting their money. Walking around the Americana, with its upscale shops, piped in swing music and park-like setting, was enjoyable. These were my people. Well, except these people could actually afford to buy things in the shops and dine at the attractive patio restaurants.

Too tired for another big outing, we opted for the discount movie theater for later that afternoon. I had heard about a theatre in Pasadena that runs older movies for bargain prices. For only $2 a ticket the older girls were able to see the slightly old “Pirates” sequel and my youngest daughter and I saw the only slightly painful “Rio.” My youngest, who apparently plans on being wealthy some day, vowed never to return because of the theatre’s dilapidated condition. Yes, it was a little run-down, with tape on some of the seats, but there was no beating the price. Even the snacks seemed cheaper. Our two small bags of popcorn and one bottle of water totaled only $8.75. I will definitely return.

On Friday my husband had a day off from work and joined us for our last outing. Our two younger girls pushed for going to the Science Center by USC after a friend told them that there was an aquarium in the ecosystem exhibit. Admission was free, but parking was $8 and there was a suggested donation of $5 per adult, which we paid. By about 3 p.m. the girls had exhausted their interest in the Science Center, which was just fine because we were glad to be back in the car before the onslaught of rush-hour traffic downtown.

In the end, I obviously spent more than my $100 budget. But for about $160 I was able to keep the kids entertained and stave off the grumbling about boredom.

I was interested to listen in as my eldest daughter and her friend discussed their vacations in our summer school carpool the following Monday. After hearing all about the wonders of Hogwarts Castle, my daughter listed the many places we went on our week-long staycation. Her friend seemed genuinely impressed. “How fun! That’s so cool,” she exclaimed.

“Yeah, it was,” my daughter agreed.

Very cool indeed.

KRISTEN HANSEN BRAKEMAN lives in La Cañada Flintridge. She can be reached at

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