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Southern California Adventures with Kids

by Elaine Sosa Labalme

Since southern California is bigger than many small-medium sized states, allow yourself a week, and a car, for your sally through Cali. Kids in tow? Even better, since the list of kid-friendly activities in the lower half of the Golden State is longer than Pinocchio's nose. We're not lying...here goes!

Santa Monica
This L.A.-area beachfront community is a playground for both Tinseltown's elite and the many families that flock here during the summer vacation season. Play it like the locals and head to Santa Monica Beach first, where mom and dad can warm up on the gym equipment (rings, parallel bars and a high bar -- really!) while the kiddos do laps on the warm, clean sand. A cooling dip in the Pacific will spiff sweaty bodies in a jiff. Renting a bike is also on the agenda, since there's a wide, 20+ mile bike path winding its way down to Palos Verdes. The Santa Monica part of the path is dotted with kid's playgrounds -- stop if you wish, or continue a mile or two to Venice, where the town's famed Muscle Beach is the place to ogle world-class bodybuilders. The vibe in Venice is decidedly funky, an assortment of tattoo parlors and greasy spoons that almost look inviting in the noonday sun. At the far end of town is Jody Maroni's Sausage Kingdom, a local landmark where the sausage and dogs provide tasty fuel for the ride back. Lording over Santa Monica's beach is the Santa Monica Pier, an amalgam of carnival rides and seafood dives that your children will insist on visiting, if only because the giant, solar-powered ferris wheel has been teasing them since they got here. The West Coaster is a hoot of a roller coaster that appears to slide over the ocean (after one ride, our son declared "we HAVE to do this like THIRTY times") while the Pacific Wheel has family-sized gondolas for ferris wheeling en masse. The miniature golf course is a nine-hole marvel -- winner buys soft-serve ice cream. When it's time to ratchet down the energy, the nearby Third Street Promenade, a pedestrian-only thoroughfare, is a shopping/dining mecca where street performers get their groove on to the delight of everyone. Stay Kids are greeted by M&Ms in a martini glass at the LeMerigot Beach Hotel and Spa, a full-service property mere steps from the beach. The spacious, sand-hued rooms are well-appointed and the hotel has wisely carved out conversation nooks at every turn. The "family-moon" package includes babysitting, massages, a personal trainer and a movie night for the kids -- who said the honeymoon was over once the kids arrived? 1740 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica (310) 395-9700; lemerigothotel.com. Doubles from $319. Eat At Ocean Avenue Seafood, families are seated close by a blue-green aquarium teeming with fish. The utterly fresh fish on your plate is the catch of the day and the menu is updated twice daily. The many kid's selections are available seven days a week. 1401 Ocean Avenue, Santa Monica (310) 394-5669. At Cezanne at the Le Merigot Hotel, an outdoor table is the table of choice, the better for kids to breathe in that relaxing salt air. As befits the name, there's a French-y flair to the California cuisine, tho kids can insist on their usual grilled cheese if they wish. (310) 395-9700. Jody Maroni's Sausage Kingdom, 2011 Ocean Front Walk, Venice (310) 822-5639. Play Bicycles can be rented from an array of shops dotting Santa Monica Beach. The Third Street Promenade is located on Third between Broadway and Wilshire, just north of the Santa Monica Place Mall.

If your child is over five, he is likely to have heard of a place where pals named Mickey and Minnie hold court every day. This magical land opened its doors fifty years ago and believe it or not, its ability to enchant kids of all ages is still there today. So...go. Begin your journey to Disneyland with a visit to California Adventure Park, the newer of the two theme parks. It's surfin' U.S.A. at California Adventure every day, with a sweet beach vibe focused on good clean fun. Another plus: far smaller crowds than its theme park cousin right next door. Don't miss "Soarin'", a ride (make that glide) over the Golden State's greatest hits (Yosemite, the Napa Valley and so on). The "Mulholland Madness" roller coaster will make you feel like a pinball wizard on rails while the "Grizzly River Run" is a soak-em-up river ride your kids will never tire of (note to parents: take turns). While the requisite Disney characters are present at California Adventure, the mouse mania is kept surprisingly in check. Devote a day two to Disneyland Park, where Cinderella's Castle is at the center of a multi-spoked wheel leading you to Lands of Fantasy and Frontier, Adventure and Tomorrow. Steel yourself for the crowds -- even a midweek visit late in the summer provides little refuge. Your best bet is to arrive at the opening, the better to sneak in those few extra rides on the major attractions; also, make liberal use of the FASTPASS system, which allows you to book a time in advance at the most popular rides. Favorites like the mad teacups and "it's a small world" will enchant the youngest visitors while kids five and up are likely to be ready for an assortment of roller-coaster-style rides, everything from the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad to Splash and Space Mountains (all three of these rides have a mere 42-inch height limit). It's likely that you won't fit everything in on a one, two or even three-day visit to the park -- let the kids know this in advance and take advantage of the many opportunities to meet and greet Disney characters, autograph book in tow. Finally, consider a swimming/dinner break back at the hotel followed by a one-two hour return to the park later in the evening. Everyone will be re-energized and the place will be less crowded. Stay The Paradise Pier Hotel evokes the beach-and-boardwalk groove of the 60s and is a blissfully short walk from the theme parks. Insist on a room with a view of the California Adventure Park -- its major attractions are brightly lit at night and prove magical for kids. The pool's water slide would make the Beach Boys proud. 1717 S. Disneyland Drive, Anaheim (714) 956-6425; disneyland.disney.go.com. Doubles are $196. Eat The PCH Grill at the Paradise Pier Hotel offers American classics in heaping portions for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (714) 999-0990. A Disney Character Breakfast at Goofy's Kitchen at the Disneyland Hotel is a must during your visit. Catch Goofy, Pluto and their friends amid a sumptuous spread. PB&J pizza, anyone? Reserve well in advance. 1150 Magic Way, Anaheim (714) 781-3463. The LaBrea Bakery at Downtown Disney (adjacent to the theme park gates) is another great choice for breakfast while at Disneyland. Play For information on the Disneyland theme parks and the Downtown Disney shopping/entertainment complex, go to disneyland.disney.go.com. If your kids are "too cool" for Disneyland, let the whole family enjoy their vacation while relaxing at beautiful San Diego Hotels, less than two hours south of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles
In a city as sprawling as L.A., the name of the game is to find accommodations as close as possible to what you want to see and do. Choose the downtown Westin Bonaventure as your home base -- it's smack in the middle of things and the glass elevators that whiz up and down the circular towers are a blast for kids. First stop is the blocks-away Original Pantry Cafe, an ol' timer's joint where the pancakes are a must and the doors haven't closed in 80 years (yep, it's 24/7). Duly sated, amble over to Olvera Street, an old "pueblo" where the brick buildings speak to a time of settlers and missionaries and the marketplace is teeming with the kinds of treats, edible and otherwise, that kids love. A much newer edifice is the Walt Disney Concert Hall, where renowned architect Frank Gehry's swooping swaths of steel outside belie the keen acoustics inside. A tour of the hall itself is available, tho restless kids may prefer the outdoor Urban Garden Tour. A short drive away is Exposition Park, where kids will play eeny-meeny-miney-moe between the California Science Center and the Natural History Museum. Ready to get back outside? Dodger Stadium is in the neighborhood for the boys of summer, while the Staples Arena will soothe sports cravings (L.A. Lakers basketball, L.A. Kings hockey) during the fall and winter months. Hankering for superheroes? Take the family to Universal Studios, a quick drive (really!) up the 101 Freeway. It's all about ACTION! here, thanks to attractions riffing off of movies like "Waterworld," "The Fast and the Furious" and "Terminator 2." The iconic Studio Tour can't be missed and the Nickelodeon Splash Zone is the perfect way to beat the California heat (pack a swimsuit and towel). When it's time to go Hollywood, begin your day at the Griddle Cafe on Sunset, where the portions are huge and you may well spot a starlet or two. The Hollywood Walk of Fame is a star-struck stroll (see who can spot Kermit the Frog's star first) while comparing your tootsies to those of Fred Astaire and company in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre will prove amusing. The Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire is arguably the best museum in L.A. and certainly the one kids will favor most. Ogle hot rods and classics and guess which one belonged to Elvis (spotting Snoop Dogg's ride is much easier). Interactive exhibits, a gazillion hot wheels cars and the original Batmobile are also part of the fun. The Getty Center houses its formidable art collection inside a Richard Meier-designed building but it's likely you'll remain outside for a kid's program on the sweeping lawn. Children can also play "Getty Art Detective," the better to explore the architecture and gardens of this hillside facility. A Hollywood Bowl concert during the summer months is a great way to cap off an L.A. day, while the newly-reopening Griffith Observatory sheds a wonderful light on the night sky. Stay The Westin Bonaventure has been featured in "Die Hard" and countless other Hollywood films, which may be why its glass towers spanning a city block will seem oh-so-familiar. The 70s architecture inside is a bit passe but the Tower Suite, with its panoramic view, will prove the perfect family-friendly accommodation. 404 S. Figueroa Street, Los Angeles (213) 624-1000; westin.com. Doubles start at $139 (weekend rates at this property are generally lower than weekday rates). Eat Request an outdoor table at Cafe Pinot, tucked away between countless L.A. high-rises. The twinkling lights all around are the perfect accompaniment to the refined Cal cuisine and kids under twelve eat free. 700 W. 5th Street, at Flower (213) 239-6500. Canter's Deli offers the usual deli fare with a heaping side o'kindness. 419 N. Fairfax Avenue, Hollywood (323) 651-2030. The service at Nate 'n Al's Deli in Beverly Hills is decidedly brusque but the portions are larger, and better. 414 N. Beverly Drive (310) 274-0101. Pink's Hot Dogs is a Hollywood institution where the dogs are done more than twenty ways. Worth the wait. 709 N. La Brea Avenue (323) 931-4223. The Original Pantry Cafe, 877 S. Figueroa Street, Los Angeles (213) 972-9279. Griddle Cafe, 7916 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood (323) 874-0377. Play Olvera Street is part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument; olvera-street.com. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles (213) 972-7211; musiccenter.org. California Science Center, 700 State Drive, Los Angeles (213) 744-7400; californiasciencecenter.org. Free admission. Natural History Museum, 900 Exposition Boulevard, Los Angeles (213) 763-DINO; nhm.org. Los Angeles Dodgers, dodgers.mlb.com. Los Angeles Lakers, nba.com/lakers/. Los Angeles Kings, lakings.com. Universal Studios, Hollywood; themeparks.universalstudios.com/hollywood/. Hollywood Walk of Fame, Hollywood Boulevard between Gower Street and LaBrea Avenue and nearby on Vine Street. Grauman's Chinese Theatre, 6925 Hollywood Boulevard. Petersen Automotive Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; petersen.org. Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, #100, Los Angeles (310) 440-7300; getty.edu. Admission is free. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Avenue, Hollywood; hollywoodbowl.com. Reserve tickets well in advance for the summer concert series. Griffith Observatory, Griffith Park, Los Angeles (323) 664-1181; griffithobs.org. Re-opening scheduled for late 2006.

Elaine Sosa Labalme is a food and travel writer based in San Francisco, California. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and four-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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