Los Angeles is one of the five most popular US vacation destinations, and for good reason. From the beaches,to the mountains, to historic downtown Los Angeles and fabulous Hollywood, there's an almost endless array of fun things to do in this sunny city.
Now traveling anywhere exciting with children can overwhelm them, especially younger kids. Los Angeles, in particular, has such a diversity of family-friendly activities that it's easy to overschedule your vacation days. But this can exhaust parents as well as kids. On the day you go to Universal Studios Hollywood, don't plan any other big adventures. One major travel experience a day is enough! The rest of that day can be spent engaged in more-low-key activities: your children, and you, will be thankful for the downtime.
Here are just a few of the many, many things to do, places to eat, and spots to stay in Los Angeles.
Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal CityWalk: Not nearly as big and sprawling as Universal Studios Orlando, this relatively compact theme park is a huge draw for families. It's upgraded and added state-of-the-art new rides in the past five year: King Kong in 3D and Transformers 3D may be too visually intense for young children, but older kids will love them. Kids of all ages get a kick out of the multisensory experiences of The Simpsons Ride (watch out for Maggie's baby powder!) and when families begin to get tired, the Shrek 4-D experience in a theater with rumbling seats will perk them up.
There are more rides and experiences to fill up a day at this theme park, including the famous Studio Tour of a real Hollywood back lot, still in use today—who knows who you'll see? When you're ready for a sit-down meal, Universal CityWalk has a plethora of great restaurants to choose from, almost all of which are child-friendly. Live music, an IMAX theater, and a lively crowd set the scene. There are also lots of shops and carts on Universal CityWalk, so it might be smart to set some ground rules about souvenirs with your kids before heading over.
Annenberg Community Beach House: You're visiting Los Angeles; naturally you've got to spend some time on the beach. The most child-friendly, accessible stretch of sand isn't in Venice, where "Muscle Beach" and some questionable characters may make parents of impressionable young children nervous. Instead, try the Annenberg Community Beach House. It's a public beach club on five acres of Santa Monica beachfront, originally built by William Randolph Hearst for the actress Marion Davies in the 1920s. Needless to say, it's been renovated since then, having opened to the public in 2009—and it's perfect for out-of-towners who want a Southern California beach club experience, because there's no membership required. There's a children's play area and splash pad for nonswimmers, and a pool. The pool opens on Memorial Day, and well, the ocean is open year-round. Classes have a fee, but getting a taste of LA beach culture is a must for any family vacation here. It's also an easy matter to get from the Annenberg Community Beach House to the Santa Monica Pier: a small but well-run and family-friendly amusement park where a hands-on, touch tank aquarium (just one room) is a highlight.
Griffith Park: A family can spend its entire vacation at Griffith Park and have a great time. The Griffith Park Observatory is iconic to the area, but the park also has the Los Angeles Zoo, Autry National Center, Travel Town, pony rides and a merry-go-round, and the Greek Theater on property. There's also an equestrian center, bike rental, and Griffith Park Southern Railroad. Whew!
The Griffith Observatory is a public astronomy center with many space-related displays, along with a giant pendulum and other exhibits of a scientific nature. It's a popular filming location due to its views of all of Los Angeles, from downtown, to Hollywood, to the Pacific Ocean. Hikers abound. A renovation in 2006 made it more tourist-friendly, with a gift shop and cafe. It's free to enter the building and stroll the grounds, though of course donations are appreciated. While it's not specifically intended for children, many kids have a natural fascination with space and enjoy taking some time to explore the observatory.
The L.A. Zoo is a very popular place for families; at 133 acres, it's no small affair. The spread-out, natural property allows for the Campo Gorilla Reserve, Elephants of Asia, and other exhibits to be much more comfortable for the animals than cages. The Winnick Family Foundation Children's Zoo is best suited for tots and young kids. There is a fantastic, outdoor World of Birds show featuring raptors and rare, exotic birds that fly around—it's fun for everyone. World of Birds shows are at 11:30 AM and 2 PM on weekdays (no Tuesdays) and 11:30 AM, 2 PM and 3:30 PM on weekends and holidays.
The Autry National Center contains the Museum of the American West, which takes guests through the history of the American West and how its truths and myths shaped movies and television. Billy the Kid, buffalo stampedes, wagon trains, "wild west" shows and much more is on display here in a fun learning environment. This is the only museum devoted to Western history and culture, with over 500,000 artifacts and pieces of art. Every weekend from 11 AM to 3 PM, kids can try their hand at panning for gold, and the third Sunday of every month is Western Heritage Family Day. There are plenty of other family activties here, as well.
Travel Town is a favorite for locals with small children (especially boys). It is right on Zoo Drive, so many families combine a day at the zoo with a stop here. The concept is a "train petting zoo"—in other words, a very hands-on, outdoor railroad heritage museum. There is a scale replica of a steam engine that little kids love to ride around the perimeter of the museum. If you want to use the barbecue facilities and have a picnic, please call ahead, as this is a very popular picnic spot.
Pony Rides at Griffith Park are on a closed loop track. While other parts of the park are horse-accessible, this area is intended for younger children who are perhaps getting their first experience riding a pony. There are separate areas for different pony rides, from very slow to pace/trot/fast jog rides. Only children between the ages of 1 and 13 are permitted to ride the ponies. This is best for a quick stop rather than a destination in itself, while spending a day in Griffith Park. Similarly, the merry-go-round is in the Park Center, and is also a quick stop rather than a major attraction. However, it is a classic merry-go-round, built in 1926, and still maintains its old-timey feel.
The Greek Theater is an outdoor theater, like the Hollywood Bowl, but with seating for only 5,700, the concerts feel more intimate. Everyone from the Russian Ballet to Alicia Keyes have performed here: Check the schedule to see if a family-friendly concert coincides with your travel plans.
Hilton Universal City: If you're going to be spending significant time at Universal Studios Hollywood, this is the best hotel for you and your family. It's the closest hotel to the theme park, and the higher floors on the west side offer a lovely view of Los Angeles (the right side has views of Universal Studios). It's not hard to walk right across the street to the theme park. The free shuttle runs four times an hour, and other buses can take your family to the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood; once in Hollywood, there's plenty to do. This is a AAA four-diamond hotel, but at a price point most parents are comfortable with considering the practically built-in entertainment. The pool and whirlpool allow for relaxation on the property, as well. A hotel package here includes a Universal Studios Hollywood 7-day Unlimited Pass, an off-peak Front of the Line Pass, and a VIP Experience—however, the latter two are not valid during the summer travel season.
Beverly Wilshire: Here's the big splurge. The Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills is a Four Seasons Hotel. But it's an incredibly child-friendly hotel for one of its class, as families are treated like royalty. Call ahead and tell the front desk your kids' names and ages: child-size bathrobes, a welcome amenity for children, high chairs for toddlers, infant furnishings, complimentary use of the DVD library, and a couple other details add to the extra-welcoming touch given to families staying at the Beverly Wilshire (don't want to spoil a surprise, but there's a reason the hotel staff would like to know your kids' names). There's a pool needless to say, and the hotel is home to Wolfgang Puck's restaurant Cut. It's right across the street from the most famous part of Rodeo Drive, so you're sure to get the complete Beverly HIlls experience. (Many teenagers will appreciate that.)
Loews Santa Monica Beach: Loews is across the street form the beach, not directly on it, but this actually keeps the atmosphere a little less hopping during the summer, when LA beaches are most crowded. The signature restaurant, Ocean and Vine, is a popular spot in itself; local farm to table cuisine ensures both incredible freshness and sustainability. The pool (with a kids' menu at the poolside grill) and restaurants have ocean views. The Loews Loves Kids program is the best hotel-based children's activities program of all beach hotels in the area. Teens get age-appropriate treatment with entertainment, music download cards, beach activities, and the Teen Edu-cation learning vacation packages. The Santa Monica Pier is a ten-minute walk away, and lots of restaurants and shopping are a walkable distance from the hotel.
Roscoe's House of Chicken' N Waffles: There are three Roscoe's House of Chicken' N Waffles restaurants in Los Angeles; one in Hollywood, one on Pico near La Brea, and one on Manchester (there is also one in Pasadena and the original in Long Beach). Roscoe's serves up such delicious, fantastic fried chicken and waffles, mac and cheese, greens and cornbread that if there were only one restaurant, locals would try to keep it a secret. This is soul food at its best, in other words, and kids are welcome at the casual restaurant. It's been an LA staple for decades, and remains authentic to its spirit of Harlem soul food and ambience. Even rowdy kids won't cause a scene in the festive atmosphere.
Gladstones: This restaurant is right on the beach, off Pacific Coast Highway. A long bank of windowed booths allows for viewing the ocean, and seasonally, dolphins and whales pass right by. Gladstones has great seafood, of course, (get the clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl), but part of the excitement for families dining here is absolutely the view. Outdoor dining with the sound of waves crashing a few yards away can't be beat when it's warm out. Seating along the booths is highly desired at sunset, so plan accordingly. There is an outside area set aside for toddlers to play, which is useful during peak travel season's wait time for a table.
Empress Pavilion: This is the most tourist-friendly of Los Angeles' Chinatown restaurants, and as such, it's a fun place to bring children who want to try a little bit of everything. Dim sum (small plates) is the name of the game here, and kids enjoy having carts constantly rolling up to their tables so they can choose a dumpling or other interesting-looking item.
Note: Yeah, you want to take your kids to an In & Out Burger, but you already knew that, right?