1. Disneyland (and nearby): The obvious choice
Starting off with an easy one here — kids love Disneyland. Vacationing in a place with castles and rides and all of your favorite movie characters walking around giving you hugs is about as good as it comes. It’s a place where they get to indulge themselves to the point of exhaustion. And for parents, one of the great pleasures of a Disneyland trip is being able to share with their kids the same enduring experiences their parents shared with them when they were wide-eyed and under the spell of this magical universe.
If you’re planning a longer vacation and won’t be spending more than a few days in Disneyland, you’re in luck: You’re in Anaheim, which is a reasonably short drive from both Los Angeles (where you can visit Universal Studios Hollywood), and San Diego (SeaWorld and more — see #4 below). Sports fans can stay in Anaheim and go to an Angels baseball game (spring/summer) or a Ducks hockey game (fall/winter). And you also have a huge number of beaches that are only a short drive away. Pretty much a foolproof combo.
2. Yosemite National Park: Natural connections
If theme parks and cities aren’t quite your thing, and if you want your kids to grow up to be great nature lovers, your best option is Yosemite National Park. Not only is it one of the most staggeringly beautiful areas in the United States, but it’s remarkably kid-friendly.
First off, it’s relatively easy to get to: a four-hour drive from San Francisco, three from Reno, and just an hour and a half from Fresno. Second, the park runs the “Junior Rangers” program for kids between the ages of 7 and 13, and the “Little Cubs” and “Wee Wild Ones” programs for kids from 3 to 6. There are activities for kids within the park, and the programs also provide print and web materials geared towards kids for learning about the natural areas that Yosemite protects.
The park has stroller-friendly hike options for those with very young kids, as well as theater programs (“Ranger Ned’s Big Adventure”) and campfire storytelling sessions. For the older kids, there are some of the state’s best hiking, biking, and camping opportunities.
3. San Francisco and the Bay Area: You’ve got options
The childhood vacation I still count as my most memorable is when my Dad took me to San Francisco. What I recall most was how kid-friendly the main tourist attractions were. First off, you have Ghirardelli Square — a historic city square that’s dedicated to delicious chocolate. And a couple blocks down there’s Fisherman’s Wharf, where you can get excellent seafood and then go watch the colony of sea lions that hangs out by Pier 39.
Not too far from the Marina District are the California Academy of Sciences and, on the water, the Exploratorium, both great, fun options for packing a little education into the vacation experience. I also recommend Alcatraz for the kids. Yeah, it’s a bit of a creepy place, but kids love creepy stuff. Or at least I did — I became obsessed with the island after visiting, and even built a little model of it when I got home.
Just north of the city is Muir Woods (with its massively huge redwood trees), and the rest of the giant Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which includes beaches, parks, lighthouses, and a lot of scenic drives. Sports fans also have a ton of choices: For football fans, there are the 49ers and the Raiders, for baseball fans the Giants and Athletics, for soccer fans the Earthquakes, for hockey fans the Sharks, and for basketball the Warriors. It’s like a choose your own adventure in the Bay Area.
4. San Diego: For the animal lovers
San Diego is probably the best city in the country in terms of animal-based attractions: It’s home to SeaWorld and the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Its location also makes it pretty easy to integrate into other trips. If you want to, say, take your kids to Disneyland, you’re just a short drive away.
The San Diego Zoo sets the standard for the rest of the world. It pioneered the concept of having open-air habitats for the animals, rather than keeping them in cages. It has a collection of around 3,700 animals representing 650 species, and as an institution is deeply involved in conservation efforts. A short drive away is the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which has an amazing free-range semi-arid African habitat you can tour, as well as the world’s most successful California condor breeding program.
The zoo is about a 10-minute drive from SeaWorld San Diego, best known for its outdoor aquarium and orca shows, as well as its dolphins, belugas, polar bears, and walruses. Then, if you want yet another option, a half hour outside of San Diego in Carlsbad is LEGOLAND, with the incredible SEA LIFE Aquarium. And also Legos. You’re welcome, kids.
5. Santa Cruz: Classic beach vacation
If you want to keep it simple and fun, the choice is easy: Go for a beach vacation in Santa Cruz. An hour and a half south of San Francisco, it features the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk — the oldest amusement park in California, and one of the few beach boardwalks on the West Coast.
For the kids, there are the usual amusement park rides: roller coasters, freefalls, a mini-golf course, a video game arcade, laser tag, a climbing wall, a haunted house, and a bowling alley. And then right next to the boardwalk is the beach.
If you want to spend a few days at the beach and then maybe try something else, there are redwood forests nearby (multiple state parks are less than an hour’s drive away), day-trip opportunities to the Bay Area, and several hundred miles of what is probably the most beautiful coastline in the United States. Santa Cruz itself is a gorgeous town and is known for its excellent water sports (including some of the best surfing in California), and for being particularly bicycle-friendly — perfect for a relaxed, yet memorable, family vacation.