370 posts
  • Family-friendly
  • L.A. County
Pacific Wheel, Santa Monica Pier.
Pacific Wheel, Santa Monica Pier. (Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Unless you charter a flight or build a better jetpack, you won't get this view of Santa Monica, the bay and city, any other way.

What: The Santa Monica Pier went up in 1909, was largely rebuilt in the 1980s, and added an amusement park, Pacific Park, in the 1990s. Basically, it's the payoff at the end of Route 66. Its high point, about 130 feet up, is the Pacific Wheel, a Ferris wheel that started spinning in 1996.

On your way to the wheel, notice the carousel, which you might remember from  the 1973 movie "The Sting." Once you're aloft, take a good look at those bright lights all around you. They were amped up in May 2016. This is billed as the world’s first and perhaps only solar-powered Ferris wheel. Kids taller than 42 inches can ride alone.  

  • Family-friendly
  • San Diego County
Snacking flamingo, San Diego Zoo.
Snacking flamingo, San Diego Zoo. (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Because creatures are more interesting when gnashing their teeth near your fingers. And all the world’s creatures seem to be here.

What: For all its global fame, the San Diego Zoo boils down to about 3,700 animals on 100 acres, not unlike some colleges. And like some students, these creatures spend a lot of time asleep. Sadly, you can't order pizza for them. But you can plot your visit to see them eating, when they're livelier. You might even get to feed a critter yourself. On weekends, there’s an 11 a.m. sign-up in the Urban Jungle to feed giraffes (three biscuits for $15); and there’s a wolf-keeper presentation at 11:30 a.m. daily. Check the zoo’s online list of keeper talks and animal encounters list to see what’s up when. 

Or splurge on an added program. For $109 on top of the usual admission price, you can get in two hours early to see the pandas, which just might be chewing on bamboo. And the Animals in Action program (ages 5 and older) is pricey at an added $109 for an hour, but it usually gives visitors a chance to feed flamingos from a cup.

  • Family-friendly
  • Orange County
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Because no amount of tech bells and whistles can beat the scissors-wielding women and men who can cut a full silhouette in the time it takes to ask, “How long is the line at Pirates of the Caribbean?”  

What: Yes, Disneyland has decades’ worth of newer, fancier attractions. So what? Sit your kid or yourself down in the Silhouette Studio on Main Street, hold still for 60 seconds or so, and walk away with a paper profile your family will keep for decades. Then do the rest. The original Disneyland (85 acres, opened in 1955). Downtown Disney (20 acres of shopping, dining and entertainment, opened in 2001). Disney's California Adventure (about 70 acres of rides, shows and such, opened in 2001).

Where: Disneyland, 1313 S. Disneyland Drive, Anaheim,  27 miles southeast of downtown L.A.

  • Family-friendly
  • North Coast
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Of the three remaining drive-through trees in California, this one is the most handsome.

What: For about 80 years, giddy Californians have been steering their vehicles through the Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree in Underwood Park, the tourist epicenter of sleepy little Leggett.

But there’s no telling how long this opportunity will last. As John Stephenson, fourth-generation owner of the tree, pointed out, "It could fall over any minute, and we all go home."

  • Family-friendly
  • Deserts
Badwater, Death Valley National Park
Badwater, Death Valley National Park (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Why: Because Death Valley National Park's low point is also a traveler's high point.

What: Death Valley's Badwater, a salt-encrusted old lake bed between forbidding mountains, is the lowest point in North America. It's especially vivid and perplexing just after sunset when there's a prominent moon -- because how can there be a moon in the sky, when you seem to be standing on its surface already? You'll be sorely tempted to pose for an album cover photo.

Also, be sure to hike a few hundred yards out onto the salty flats, so that you can look up at the east canyon wall for the white sign that's 282 feet above you. That's where sea level is.

  • Family-friendly
  • S.F. Bay Area
(Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times)

Why: Nothing says San Francisco more clearly than a cable car climbing a hill.

What: The cable cars of San Francisco cover three routes: Powell-Hyde, Powell-Mason and California Street. You want a Powell-Hyde ride, and you want to begin at the turnaround at Powell and Market streets, near Union Square (where there's often a queue, along with buskers and beggars).

Also, you want pole position, standing on a running board with a hand-hold on the pole at the right front of the car (unless, of course, you have the opportunity to give a bright-eyed kid that spot).