This kid-centric tour of Los Angeles is brought to you by Jennifer Miner, who blogs about traveling with her two school-age daughters at The Vacation Gals. The helpful tips were first published on Expedia in 2012 as part of the Kids in the City summer travel campaign highlighting family-friendly urban destinations throughout the United States.
Los Angeles is one of the five most popular United States 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.
Los Angeles 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.
What to do with kids in Los Angeles
Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal CityWalk: Not nearly as big or sprawling as Universal Studios Orlando, this relatively compact theme park is a huge draw for families. The place has upgraded and added state-of-the-art new rides in the past five years: 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 from which to choose, and almost all of them are child-friendly. Live music, an IMAX theater, and a lively crowd set the scene. There are also lots of shops and carts in the area, so it might be smart to set some ground rules about souvenirs with your kids before heading over.
Viewfinder Tip: Traffic in Los Angeles is as bad as people say it is; allow plenty of time to get from place to place by car.
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. The facility has been renovated since then—reopening to the public in 2009—and now it’s a great spot for out-of-towners who want a Southern California beach club experience (without having to pay spendy membership fees). Today’s Beach House sports a children’s play area and splash pad for nonswimmers, as well as a pool. The pool opens on Memorial Day, and well, the ocean is open year-round. 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.
The Griffith Observatory: Located in Griffith Park, this 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. 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.
Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens: LA’s zoo is a very popular place for families, and, 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. The facility also offers a fantastic, outdoor World of Birds show featuring raptors and rare, exotic birds that fly around. It fun for everyone.
The Autry National Center: This modest museum is home to 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 more than 500,000 artifacts and pieces of art. On weekends, 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.
Venice Beach Pier
Where to stay with kids in Los Angeles
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 (the park literally is across the street), and the higher floors on the west side offer a lovely view of Los Angeles (the east side has views of Universal Studios). 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, but 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 (I don’t want to spoil a surprise, but there’s a reason the hotel staff would like to know your kids’ names). The hotel is home to Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant, Cut. It also is 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: This Loews is across the street from the beach—not directly on it—but this actually keeps the atmosphere a little more laid back during summer months, when the beach gets crazy. 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. Through the Loews Loves Kids program, teens get age-appropriate treatment with entertainment, music download cards, beach activities, and Teen Education learning vacation packages. The Santa Monica Pier is a 10-minute walk away, and lots of restaurants and shopping are close to the hotel.
Mann’s Chinese Theater
Where to eat with kids in Los Angeles
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. This is soul food at its best, 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 by right outside. 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. When it’s warm out, outdoor dining with the sound of waves crashing a few yards away can’t be beat. 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.
What do you like to do with children in Los Angeles?