From bright lights and mouse ears to desert skies and golden beaches, Aleney de Winter coasts through kid-friendly Southern California.
Highlights of a Southern California road trip
From bright lights and mouse ears to desert skies and golden beaches, Aleney de Winter coasts through kid-friendly Southern California.
Dodging roller skaters and roaming buskers, we stroll down the Venice Beach boardwalk past psychedelic street art, surf shops and pop-up stalls bursting with bedazzled t-shirts, giggling happily at the eccentric oddballs that proliferate the beachfront. We make a brief stop to watch snapback-capped skaters ride the snake run and drop into the two huge bowls at the oceanfront Venice Skate Park.
Then it is back on our (rented) bikes to cycle along the 5.6 kilometres of beachfront boardwalk to chic beach-town soul, Santa Monica. But first we must join the throngs on its iconic pier, navigating through the rainbow of flashing arcade lights to ride the West Coaster and take the Pacific Plunge before filling up on Bubba Gump Shrimp and slushees: doing it in reverse order being extremely ill-advised.
First stop LA – La-La Land
Los Angeles is the closest entry point into mainland America for visiting Aussies, and from Hollywood to Hogwarts, the A-List city boasts so much to see and do. After getting our fix of people watching and salty air on the beachfront, we’re ready to soak up a little of its famous razzle dazzle.
We make the pilgrimage to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the Hollywood Walk of Fame to size up the hand prints of our favourite celebs and try our luck at star spotting, albeit unsuccessfully. In lieu of seeing stars, we join a Warner Bros. Studio Tour to see where they shine brightest. This working movie and TV production lot, complete with backlots, sets and soundstages, offers a sneaky behind-the-scenes peak at shows such as The Big Bang Theory, Gilmore Girls and Friends. You can even kick back on the real Central Perk couch.
We’d rather superhero it in to explore the evolution of Batmobiles and ride a bat-pod through Gotham City using green-screen technology. But it’s the exhibition of real costumes and props from the DC Universe and the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films that drives us utterly potty.
Our LA day has been liberally sprinkled with stardust, so it seems appropriate to end it at the Griffith Observatory, to soak up epic city views and search for stars of a different kind.
More movie magic awaits at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ at Universal Studios Hollywood™, a must-visit for Potter-loving muggles. We fill up on Butterbeer and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans and nab an interactive wand from Ollivanders Wand Shop. With the flick of the wrist and a few secret incantations, our wands make magical things happen all around Hogwarts. We even ride a fantastic beast on Flight of the Hippogriff and soar above the castle grounds on the thrilling Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
Of course, there’s more to Universal Studios Hollywood than Harry. The only working movie studio and theme park in the world, there are plenty of adrenaline-pumping rides. My crew rate Ultra-HD movie motion-simulator ride, Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem and brand-new Jurassic World – The Ride. Me? I have a secret soft spot for The Simpsons Ride, a virtual reality rollercoaster rollick through Krustyland.
With so much to see and do in this sprawling city, the best way for families to experience the highlights is with Starline Tours – La-La Land’s largest tour company. Along with city-wide tours, movie location tours and celebrity tours to see where the stars shop, dine and live, Starline operates CitySightseeing Hop-On Hop-Off doubledecker open-top bus tours to help visitors easily navigate the city.
Their Starline Express also provides inexpensive round-trip transportation that delivers you straight to the door of everpopular Universal Studios Hollywood, Disneyland Resort and Knott’s Berry Farm, saving time, money and sanity.
There’s no way we can miss a visit with Mickey and his mates at Disneyland Resort, a place where fairies, flirtatious princesses and flying elephants are real, and little one’s hearts pound with excitement as they come face-to-face with their Disney idols.
The rides at the two parks – Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park – are spectacular, as are the stories they tell. While the boys go wild on the Indiana Jones Adventure, I brave Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT, its gut-wrenching drops turning me the same fetching shade of green as Gamora. There’s plenty here for little ones too, Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure and morning tea with Minnie Mouse keeping a certain wee girl happy.
We’re all enamoured with Disney Pixar Pier and its Incredicoaster and Toy Story Midway Mania! But it’s Disneyland’s brand new, and utterly fantastic, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge that has added a galaxy full of extra shine to the already dazzling Disneyland experience.
Dusting off our lightsabers and fashioning our hair into bagels, we guzzle blue milk, dodge snarky stormtroopers and co-pilot the “fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy” on an interplanetary smuggling run, bashing and crashing into errant spaceships along the way. A second ride, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance will open in January 2020.
As night falls, both parks transform once again into a glittering fantasy world of fireworks and colour. Daring heroes and iconic Disney villains do battle on an epic scale in the rebooted classic Fantasmic! at Disneyland Park, while at Disney California Adventure Park a further flurry of mist, fire and lasers brings Disney characters soaring into life in World of Color.
Equal parts elated and exhausted after two days of dedicated Disneying, we’ve only scratched its very shiny surface, so would suggest three or even four days to make the most of the magic.
But Disneyland is not the only theme park in town. The Knott’s Berry Farm is California’s oldest theme park and the birthplace of the boysenberry. The Wild West-themed park boasts dozens of rides, a water park, fun shows and some top shelf attractions stretched across four themed areas. We take a break from the heart-pumping rides like GhostRider, Coast Rider and HangTime to devour one of Knott’s Berry Farm’s delicious boysenberry pies with a side of cuddles form Snoopy and friends.
Six Flags Magic Mountain
Those souls seeking more scream-inducing thrills should gravitate towards Six Flags Magic Mountain, north of Anaheim. With over 100 rides, games and attractions, including 19 heart-thumping, stomachchurning coasters, Six Flags Magic Mountain holds the world record for the most rollercoasters in an amusement park.
Some of the biggest thrills can be found on Riddler’s Revenge, the world’s fastest stand-up rollercoaster, the disorientating fifth dimension X2 rollercoaster with 360-degree rotating seats and head-first, face-down drops, and CraZanity, a 17-storey pendulum ride that will blow your hair back at staggering speeds of up to 120 kilometres per hour. And because thrill seekers come in all sizes there are plenty of whirling, twirling, magical rides for littlies including Looney Tunes-themed attractions and four junior coasters.
Home to both DC Comics and Looney Tunes characters, you can catch them in exciting live shows, get face to mask with Batman, wax philosophic with Wonder Woman or nab a selfie with Bugs and Daffy.
All theme-parked out, we popped in to the Anaheim Packing House, two storeys of gourmet dining, to nibble on the best Mexican in town. There’s also time for a little all- American sporting action, complete with mandatory hot dog at Angels Stadium. We can’t leave without dipping our toes into the surf at Huntington Beach. Known as Surf City USA, we stroll the length of its magnificent pier under a brilliant blue sky, watching surfers do their thing until a sexy Cali sunset signals it’s time for us to roast sticky s’mores over the firepits on the beach.
Just over two hours west of Anaheim and famed for its mid-century-modern architecture, bubbling springs, pool parties, Sinatra and classic martinis, Palm Springs still oozes style and laid-back charm from its every pore. And while its retro “ring-a-dingding” may be lost on the kids, this town gets under their skin too. If the vintage toy shops, sprawling resort pools and water parks hadn’t already done the trick, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway does. It’s the world’s largest rotating tramcar and the 10-minute journey up the cliffs of Chino Canyon leaves us breathless, as do the hiking trails of the pristine Mount San Jacinto State Park that await at the top.
For my crew, the highlight is the dense stands of towering palms, trickling streams and water caves, twittering birdlife and electric blue-tailed lizards of Indian Canyons. An oasis of lyrical beauty, our Desert Adventures jeep and hiking tour offers us a side of cultural edification with a smorgasbord of scenic delights. Our guide not only points out the fascinating native flora and fauna but shares stories and legends of the Agua Caliente Cahuilla people – who called these canyons home for thousands of years – that are as eye-popping as the vistas.
Just a short distance east of Palm Springs at Joshua Tree, the high Mojave Desert collides with the low Colorado Desert to create a place like nowhere else on earth. Modernist architecture is supplanted with weather-smoothed boulders, and in place of the beautiful people of Palm Springs, this eclectic community is full of colourful characters.
Many of them appear to have congregated at Pioneertown, a quirky community of artists, eccentrics and retirees that was once a Western movie set. The Old West cottages may have been built with movies in mind but now operate as small boutiques and stores. While Western fans may recognise the town from the cinematic likes of The Cisco Kid, younger visitors will enjoy it more for the occasionally campy gunfight that breaks out in front of its faux-frontier buildings.
Joshua Tree National Park
Of course, the star attraction is Joshua Tree National Park, an otherworldly landscape of rolling hills scattered with pretty flowers and palms, a cacophony of kooky cacti, scattered boulders, and dramatic vistas of mesas, mountains and valleys. Oh, and its gnarly Joshua trees – you know, the ones that look for all the world like they were illustrated into the desert by Dr Seuss. We tiptoe through the cacti, meander through oases of palms, stumble over boulders like less graceful Desert Bighorn Sheep and stop to gaze over the Coachella Valley. But it is those implausibly fabulous trees – some standing proud, others kinking and curling at outrageous angles like they’ve been frozen in place during a game of Twister – that steal our hearts.
Calico Ghost Town
Once the site of a lawless mining boomtown that, during its glory days, boasted a whopping 500 mines and 20 saloons, San Bernadino County’s Calico Ghost Town is another must visit for families who want to add a little wild to their Old West experience.
Founded in 1881 following the largest silver strike in California’s history, the town’s population oscillated with its fortunes and after the boom, came the bust as miners exited en masse and left the town deserted.
In the 1950s Calico was purchased by Walter Knott, of Knott’s Berry Farm fame, who restored the remaining shacks and shafts to look as they did back in the 1880s, albeit with a touch of poetic license, eventually rebuilding the town and donating it to San Bernardino county. In 2005, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed Calico as California’s official Silver Rush Ghost Town.
For families who love a side of history with the adventures, the click-clack of the historic Calico Odessa Railroad, rollicking through town on a horse-drawn stagecoach, delving into the restored 19th-century mines, and getting down and dirty panning for gold are sure to thrill. Even eating is old school here, with a feed of sarsaparilla and pot pie just the thing to fuel the family.
To fully immerse your little cowboys and cowgirls into the Wild West, make an overnight stay of it at the Calico Ghost Town’s desert campsite. You can even head to the general store to stock up on candy and all the ingredients to toast up the perfect s’mores over a blazing campfire.
And for those older kids ready for a few chills with their Wild West thrills can join a spooky night time tour to hear the truest accounts of its history and hauntings. You never know, you might even bump into some of the town’s original raucous residents, said to haunt the town.
Go San Diego, go
With more than 100-kilometres of sparkling coastline, year-round sunshine, sprawling parklands, hiking trails filled with incredible sights and sounds, thrilling theme parks and museums for days, San Diego appears to have been custom-designed for kids. Water babies will want to grab beach towels and slather on the sunscreen for a visit to one of the dozens of glittering beaches.
Coronado Beach, flanked by majestic mansions and the iconic Hotel del Coronado is one of the best, literally sparkling thanks to the mineral mica in its golden sand. But it is its great location, gentle surf and proximity to the MooTime Creamery and its irresistible ice-cream tacos that make it a must. La Jolla Shores, with its reef breaks and gentle bay-like location and playground, is another great spot to dip your toes into silky sand and sea. And Ocean Beach proves a winner with its snoozing sea lions, sunset views and easy access to eateries serving up San Diego’s ubiquitous fish tacos.
Suitably sun-kissed, it’s time to explore San Diego’s other numerous delights. At San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum, kids can connect with science and nature in interactive exhibits. The USS Midway Museum is another must see. Located at Navy Pier, your crew can experience life at sea aboard maritime masterpiece the USS Midway, one of America’s longest-serving aircraft carriers. Fly babies will enjoy the ship’s hangar with its restored aircraft and testing their skills on a flight simulator.
There’s more to explore at San Diego Zoo, located in Balboa Park, a museum-packed, urban cultural park that’s more than worthy of exploration in its own right. Home to more than 3,500 animals, the zoo is renowned for its conservation efforts. Enclosures are thoughtfully designed to replicate natural habitats and the zoo is passionate about educating visitors about habitat destruction, poaching and the wildlife trade.
Along with its many geographic zones, there’s a children’s zoo exhibit, where they can get up close with creepy crawlies and an animal nursery where they can meet the zoo’s youngest residents. Be sure to take advantage of the zoo’s bus tour and Skyfari® aerial tram to ensure your little wildlife warriors don’t run out of puff.
Wild about marine wildlife? SeaWorld San Diego, known for its hands-on education programs, boasts an oceanarium, outside aquarium and marine parks. There’s a raft of rides, tours, underwater adventures and fishy family fun. Little visitors can undertake a deep-sea adventure to unlock the ocean’s deepest secrets at Ocean Explorer while older kids might prefer San Diego’s tallest and fastest coaster, the Electric Eel, or the horizontal, infinity-loop coaster, Tidal Twister.
Trip the light fan-plastic into LEGOLAND California Resort, a colourful, creative world constructed from 60 million LEGO bricks. Delve under the sea by submarine to discover real sea creatures and treasures, undertake ninja training or muster up your inner knights to conquer the wicked Dragon Coaster. There’s even an opportunity to go behind-the-scenes to look at the soundstage and models used in The Lego Movie.
In fact, with more than 60 rides, shows and attractions including multiple rollercoasters, its very own water park and the educational and interactive Sea Life Aquarium, this rock around the blocks will leave your crew wanting more. The solution? Make a night of it and nap like a ninja in a Lego Ninjago-themed room at the LEGOLAND Resort. But if you’d rather command a kingdom, the LEGOLAND California Castle Hotel has more themed rooms that will prove just the trick.
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