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Need help planning non-theme park SoCal trip!

Princeton, New...
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Need help planning non-theme park SoCal trip!

Hello everyone!

I am excited to be heading to South CA for 8 days.

We will be staying in Costa Mesa and I'll have meetings in Laguna Beach on three days, but I'd love to use my time after meetings (afternoon- evening) to do something that's in the area, and obviously plan some great stuff for the other days!

I'll be traveling with two other adults and my 4 year old son. He is very polite and not complicated. He'll love time at the beach or in the pool. He is very good at sitting still at nice restaurants and is generally a pleasure to take places.

I am looking for lots of suggestions from locals or frequent travelers on what to do in the area.

We MAY consider 1 theme park for the little one, but we've already done a Florida trip with Disney and Sea World, and I am more interested in those things that are unique to SoCal, and although I definitely want to hear about interesting inside attractions and things, I am hoping to find lots of fun stuff to do outside as well.

I generally know that I want to travel between the LA area ( as far as Malibu), and down to San Diego. I want to see all the good beaches and 'not to be missed' nature, and I do not mind driving down a remote street somewhere if that means catching an awesome piece of nature, architecture, animals, or SoCal romance.

We are obsessed with dolphins and whales and would love any tips on that.

I am generally interested in seeing interesting neighborhoods, organic farmer's markets, nature nature nature, unique toy stores, healthy restaurants, and whatever else the area has to offer. I am sort of seeing how it'd be to live there.

So far all I know is that we are hoping to check out Cafe Gratitude in Venice Beach.

We'd love to pack in enough child friendly nature trips, action, and play for my little boy, but see enough beauty, romance and zen for the adults.

Also: IF you happen to be able to recommend some nice restaurants that cater to special needs like GF, dairy free, or raw foods, or anything like that... I'd love to hear about it.

And: Is there a downtown Disney kind of thing there? In Florida you can go there and eat and shop, without paying an entrance fee.

I'd love any tips and local tricks ;)

Thank you all!

Los Angeles
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1. Re: Need help planning non-theme park SoCal trip!

Just to answer a small part of this, for the moment, yes, there is a Downtown Disney at the Disney parks in Anaheim. Practically speaking you still need to pay to park there but there's no admission fee.

Anaheim, California
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2. Re: Need help planning non-theme park SoCal trip!

OK, with a 4 year old, for a day at a Theme Park, I would start with the LEGOLAND Resort in Carlsbad, great for little ones.

I would plan to drive the Southern California Coastal Highway route, lots to see and do, take the recommended detours in the link below, Point Vicente is known to be one of the best places to watch Whales from the land.

Whale and dolphin watching, the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach is a very good Aquarium, and they offer Whale Watching cruise as part of a combo ticket. Also check out he Newport Beach Balboa Pier area and Dana Point for other places to catch a Whale Watching cruise.

Plenty of great Shoppertainment Malls in the area, the Disneyland Resort, Universal Studios Hollywood and Knott's Berry Farm have shopping areas outside their gate.

You also might find places like the Anaheim GardenWalk and The Outlets at Orange good Shoppertainment Malls. (A Shoppertainment Mall has more entertainment and food options than a typical shopping mall.)

Anaheim, California
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3. Re: Need help planning non-theme park SoCal trip!

FYI, parking at Downtown Disney is free for 3 hours if you follow the signs to the Mall's parking lot and not the Theme Park parking locations.

Princeton, New...
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4. Re: Need help planning non-theme park SoCal trip!

Thank you both very much!

Good info! Keep it coming :)

Edited: 6:05 pm, August 21, 2013
Los Angeles
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5. Re: Need help planning non-theme park SoCal trip!

Downtown Disney is inland and not in Los Angeles. Universal Studios Citywalk is inland and in Los Angeles.

You've been given really good advice about "nature" places above, although you certainly aren't going to feel you are alone in nature somewhere between SD and Santa Monica, but you will certainly see some cool things. North of Malibu, you might find Leo Carillo State Beach (with its tide pools - check tide tables) to be quite a change of pace.

To really see "nature nature nature" I think you have to get away from the densely population coastline, but not sure that's in the cards for this trip. The little pockets of oceanside beauty though, are well worth seeking out. You could spend a couple of days just exploring Malibu and its surrounding mountains, really.

Ventura and Oxnard have whale-watching trips, and Channel Islands National Park is a scenic wonder accessible by boat from both places (Santa Barbara may have rides out to the Park, too - but it's further north). I've never not seen a whale on one of the Island Packer trips during watching season, it's quite amazing to be out on a boat and see one. How a 4 year old would do on the boat, though, I don't know.

Citywalk and Downtown Disney certainly have unique toy stores (and theaters and performance artists and so on).

Griffith Park has the famous observatory (from Rebel Without a Cause), which has a kid friendly museum. There's also a zoo there and the Museum of the American West.

Anaheim, California
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6. Re: Need help planning non-theme park SoCal trip!

One option, drive down the coast to San Diego, but on the return, use I-15 to the Temecula area, and then drive west on Highway 74 through the Cleveland National Forest, some really nice views and places to stop (Catch the 74 in Lake Elsinore, just north of Temecula.

You might want to stop at Old Temecula for a bit and stretch your legs.


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7. Re: Need help planning non-theme park SoCal trip!

If you are down there for 8 days and have meetings for 3, why not spend time and actually stay on the beach or around nature. Costa Mesa, Downtown disney and the citywalk would not be anyone's idea of nature nature nature except for that one poster who managed to push all the theme parks in a non-theme park SoCal trip -- but in all fairness you did ask about Downtown disney.

Distances and long drives are the main issue for visitors and it would be a pain to spend 1-2 hours in a car just to get to the destination.

Laguna Beach, Newport and Huntington beaches would be fun to visit -- I presume your son will be with others when you are in meetings. We spent hours with kids at LB and will be doing it really soon.

Cafe Gratitude was a pleasant surprise for me a few years ago when I went with a colleague from LA who is a Vegan.

The Aquarium in Long beach would be fun as would be the other museums in Orange County.

Edited: 6:51 pm, August 21, 2013
Santa Monica, CA
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8. Re: Need help planning non-theme park SoCal trip!

I really like the Cabrillo MarineAquarium


Although it is not large, like the Long Beach aquarium, it is delightful with children. So is the small aquarium beneath the Santa Monica pier.

A drive up PCH through Malibu is wonderful. Stop often (easiest on the way back down the coast as you will be on the ocean side). Definitely check out those tide pools. We've been doing that with our kids for years.


I know there is a good children's museum in Santa Ana:


But for spectacular, try the LA County Natural History Museum. It has a world-class dino hall that will delight all ages:


You could go out on a boat in the hopes of seeing whales and dolphins. I believe there are good outings from Dana Point and Newport Harbor.

Santa Monica mountains have some great hiking trails. We've taken our kids since they were in baby backpacks, so I know these are very good with kids: Malibu Creek, Solstice Canyon, Charmlee, Escondido Falls, Sycamore Canyon, Decker Canyon (which can be accessed from Leo Carillo's parking lot/campgrounds), Zuma Canyon, Paramount Ranch (very cool buildings used in lots of western TV shows). Temescal Canyon, Topanga Creek, and Will Rogers are also good for hiking, but too crowded for my taste. Be aware that we had a very poor rainy season this year, so hiking this fall will be dry, brown, and hot.

Have you ever visited botanical gardens? We have done this all of our childrens' lives. Nothing more fun! They can run around, look for lizards and bugs, and are usually delighted with all the trees and plants. Never underestimate how much pleasure your family can get from a garden! Try South Coast Botanical Garden or Fullerton Arboretum, as they are closer to where you are staying.

Finally, please be aware that Venice Beach is not geared toward children. It is decidedly grubby and attractive to a twenty-something crowd. Of course, check it out, but adjacent Santa Monica is far more family friendly.

Have a blast at the farmer's markets. Just do a Google search to find the closest to you. They are very popular and, IMO, a must-do. My 23 yo son was just visiting from college (he goes in Florida). I handed him some sliced nectarines and the shock and delight on his face when he bit into it was priceless. By the way, he went to Venice Beach at least 6 times while he was visiting; it really is geared toward that age.

9. Re: Need help planning non-theme park SoCal trip!

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