It costs a lot to get there, especially if yours is a large family, but the cities and natural wonders in the Golden State are so varied and so at odds with what your children are used to experiencing in the east that for the money, it's a trip that's almost sure to deliver bang for your buck.
There are daily non-stop flights from Philadelphia to California on several airlines. It's a good idea to start shopping early, as the price of tickets can go up once planes start getting booked-up. As with any other route, travelers who are willing to fly at less desirable times and perhaps do a connection along the way can save. We've had decent luck over the years by pricing the flights six months or more early and then checking back frequently to get a sense of how the cost is fluctuating and what really constitutes a good deal. You can also sign-up to be notified via email when prices drop below a certain level.
Double the fun
The two main entry points into the state from the east are Los Angeles and San Francisco. If you're only going for a short trip (for example, eight days), I would suggest arriving in one of these cities and leaving from the other. It costs about the same to fly in and out of the two different destinations, and you can comparison shop for the rental car/van service that charges the least for dropping off at a different airport. This plan allows you to see more and avoid a day of back travel on a boring interstate. Ideally, I'd begin in Los Angeles which is more congested and generally less picturesque than San Francisco. Here, your main focus will be the entertainment industry. There are movie studios and production companies dotting the greater L.A. area, but the most tourist-friendly is Universal, which has built a theme park next to its Burbank Studios, similar to the one in Florida. The difference here is that part of your admission ticket gets you a tour of the studio back lot where dozens of TV Shows and films are shooting on any given day. The chances are slim that you'll see a celebrity walking around, but it's possible.
You can also be in the audience of a TV show, usually for free. The best way to do this is to write to the studio producing a given show in advance and request tickets for the date you're going to be there. But some shows are so desperate for an audience, you'll actually see people on Hollywood Boulevard handing-out free same-day tickets. When I was an actor living in L.A., I used to take visiting friends to Family Feud and occasionally, The Tonight Show. A caution about game shows, though: they usually tape a full week of programs in one sitting, and you're pressured to stay for the whole thing. By episode 4, your kids may be getting a little tired.
Other things to see include Hollywood Boulevard, where the star's stars are inlaid in the sidewalk, Mann's Chinese Theater where the stars' footprints and signatures are preserved in concrete, and the Kodak Theater, where they hand out the Oscars. The Kodak has a neat tour where they let you sit in the seats occupied by various celebrities at the previous Oscar night. You can also take a stroll on Venice Beach, where just about every sort of Los Angelino can be seen roller-skating or working out on the outdoor, ocean-side gyms.
The original Disneyland and its more contemporary amusement park, California Adventure, are an hour west in Anaheim. Allow two days for this experience.
What a ride!
Heading north on Route 101, Santa Barbara is a beautiful town with whale boat rides available and a lovely downtown with shops and restaurants. An old mission can be toured here (although, to tell you the truth, there are missions to tour up and down the coast and you may be able to research a better one). Next, take the coastal highway (Route 1) north. I used to stay in a little town called Morro Bay, marked by El Morro, an enormous rock that sits just off the coast. There's a nice, lonely beach for frolicking here. The next day, stop by Hearst Castle, the grand but ill-planned mansion built piecemeal by publisher William Randolph Hearst. The scene of many a Hollywood bash, the Castle and its builder served as the inspiration for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, thought by some film buffs to be the greatest movie ever made. There are several different castle tours available, but the main tour that takes you through the dining room and past the ornate pools is the most popular. You may want to book this tour before you leave home, as it fills up. In Monterey, be sure to take the famous 17-Mile Drive, which winds its way past mansions, golf clubs and some of the most stunning ocean views anywhere.
In San Francisco, a ride on a famous cable car is a must. Step off in Chinatown and eat at one of the dozens of authentic restaurants and browse a few of the interesting shops. Along the way, be sure to take a turn down Ross Alley and visit the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory. The word "factory" is an exaggeration---this is mainly a small, crowded store front that's been churning out the famous cookies since the 60s. But you can buy a bag of flat rejects and munch them as you continue your tour. We never miss this. Visit Fisherman's Wharf and take the boat trip out to Alcatraz Island where the National Park Service offers excellent tours of the famous old Prison. It's abandoned, but as creepy as ever. Grab an ice cream, a milkshake, or a bag of chocolates at nearby Ghirardelli Square. Part of the San Francisco experience, though, is definitely in the driving of it. Hold your breath and try motoring up some of the insanely steep streets in the neighborhood above the Marina District. The houses are amazing, the views of the Bay are stupendous, and the ride is mind-boggling. Seek out the famous Lombard Street which snakes downhill like a serpent. You'll wait in line, but it's a public street and you are allowed to drive down it. Golden Gate Park is a great place to unwind for a while. There's a Japanese Tea Garden there and a free rose garden. Finally, make sure to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge and stop off at the overlooks which are incredible. On the other side of the bridge, the seaside community of Sausalito is picturesque and fun.
If you leave out L.A., there are other sites near San Francisco that are worth checking out. The Muir Woods is only about an hour north of the city and features some of the most astounding Redwood groves in the state. A little farther north, Point Reyes National Seashore features wildlife and an exhibit about the San Andreas Fault, which you can actually stand on (but you might want to cross your fingers against the big earthquake scientists say is still coming). If you have a few days, one of my favorite National Parks, Yosemite, is about a half day's drive west on the California-Nevada border. If you can afford it, a couple nights at the Ahwahnee Hotel are worth it. You can book ranger tours from here and enjoy sandwiches and drinks at night at the outdoor café. The drive-to overlooks at the top of the canyon wall are amazing. The waterfalls are among the tallest in the world.
If you skip San Francisco, then San Diego becomes possible, home of the world-famous San Diego Zoo, Sea World, Lego Land, and the Gaslight District with its ornate architecture and night life.
Obviously, any one trip will not include everything discussed here; California offers so many options, you could visit four or five times and not see it all. But read-up online or consult a good tour book and then survey the family to see what holds the most interest for you and your kids. Then, head west, young family! It's a one-of-a-kind destination.
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