Top 10 Family-Friendly Weekend Destinations on the West Coast

Traveling is one of my favorite ways to create family memories. We’ll forgo a new car, a bigger TV, or more dinners out if we can get a chance to explore new cities together. While the craze over the latest toy or video game will soon end and be forgotten, the memories of a family trip can truly last a lifetime—it’s not just a saying! Traveling with your family doesn’t have to involve far-off destinations either. Though I live near Santa Barbara, California, my family has had a blast over the last few years discovering parks, museums, attractions, and accommodations right in our own backyard. Check out ten of my family’s favorite West Coast weekend destinations. Let’s travel!


Disneyland Holiday Castle and Fireworks

image: Getty/Barry King

Best time of year to go: shoot for a mid-week visit during mid-September to mid-November, mid-January to mid-March, or mid-April to mid-May for the lowest crowds.

Where to stay: Hilton Garden Inn, Anaheim

Why kids love it: it’s Disneyland! Mickey, Minnie, and the whole cast is there.

Why parents love it: a guaranteed family memory-maker!

Don’t miss: the three new 60th Diamond anniversary nighttime shows: World of Color – Celebrate!, Paint the Night electric parade, and Disneyland Forever fireworks show.

Insider’s tip: nab a FastPass for your favorite rides and shows to save time standing in line.

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Santa Cruz California Beaches and Boardwalk

image: Getty/Stephen Dunn

Best time of year to go: a weekend in the fall or weekdays between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Where to stay: Hampton Inn Santa Cruz

Why kids love it: thirty-four rides and attractions plus mini-golf and an arcade.

Why parents love it: the throwback vintage vibe will take the stress out of your vacation.

Don’t miss: a ride on one of the two National Historic Landmarks: the world-famous 1924 Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster or the 1911 Looff Carousel.

Insider’s tip: save money on ride and attraction combos by purchasing tickets ahead online or at various Costco locations.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Families enjoy looking at jellyfish duri

image: Getty/Gabriel Bouys

Best time of year to go: you’ll find fewer crowds in fall and winter, but if you visit during the summer, try to go midweek or in the afternoon between 2 PM and 6 PM.

Where to stay: Hilton Garden Inn Monterey

Why kids love it: adorable otters, great white sharks, rooms full of jellies, and touchable sea stars.

Why parents love it: a great blend of exhibits, activities, and information to keep tots through grandparents entertained.

Don’t miss: the animal feedings—especially the Kelp Forest exhibit where a diver hand-feeds sharks, eels, and other sea creatures in a twenty-eight foot tall tank. Check the daily schedule for times.

Insider’s tip: the Aquarium’s restaurant and café can get packed during the lunch hour. Instead, take advantage of the aquarium’s in/out ticket privilege and take a picnic lunch to San Carlos Beach or head two blocks off Cannery Row for more affordable dining options. We like Gianni’s Pizza on Lighthouse Ave.

Santa Barbara, CA


image: Getty/Holly Harris

Best time of year to go: with an average high of 74°F, there isn’t a bad time to visit, but fall offers the perfect blend of warm days, fewer crowds, and lower hotel prices.

Where to stay: The Fess Parker Santa Barbara Hotel – a DoubleTree Resort by Hilton

Why kids love it: Santa Barbara Zoo, Ty Warner Sea Center, and the gigantic wooden play structure at Alameda Park.

Why parents love it: shopping, eating, and people watching on State Street.

Don’t miss: the touristy but family-fun LAND SHARK tour, a narrated ninety-minute land and sea tour adventure in an aquatic vehicle.

Insider’s tip: buy an SB Nature Pass and enjoy unlimited admission to both the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and Ty Warner Sea Center for two days for one discounted price.

Carlsbad, CA


image: Getty/Cultura/Corey Jenkins

Best time of year to go: visit in late summer or early fall for the best beach days.

Where to stay: Cape Rey Carlsbad, a Hilton Resort

Why kids love it: LEGOLAND!

Why parents love it: seven miles of pristine SoCal beach—without the San Diego crowds.

Don’t miss: breakfast at Beach Plum Kitchen (try the raspberry-mascarpone french toast!)

Insider’s tip: avoid paying full price for LEGOLAND tickets by purchasing your tickets in advance (at least seven days) or searching for deals like a child free with a paying adult coupon. When you visit, have your child bring a LEGO minifigure—they can trade with park employees who have minifigures on their name tags.

See the remaining 5 destinations on the next page…

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