Things for families to do in Carlsbad

Most people think of Carlsbad, California, as the town where LEGOLAND is located. The theme park is certainly a main attraction, but Carlsbad has much more to offer, including many unexpected charms, as our family discovered on a recent trip.

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About 90 miles from Los Angeles, or two to three hours by car depending on traffic, Carlsbad can be a day trip or a great weekend getaway. We visited during the summer, which is a popular time for families, because the kids are out of school, but it’s also a great time for other reasons, including great beach weather, and not to mention it is peak strawberry season.

We started our weekend vacation early at the LEGOLAND Park, and the kids loved the newest attraction at the park, Heartlake City, especially appealing to girl guests. It featured live musical performances with ‘tween-themed dance numbers, with lots of girls in frilly pink costumes.

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img_6124We first started coming to LEGOLAND when the kids were five, and while we expected our kids, age 7, to outgrow LEGOLAND at their age, we were thrilled to see they were still excited to ride the Dragon roller coaster, which we were able to experience at least five times, thanks to the short lines early in the morning, and they had not yet tired of the LEGO Technic Coaster, which they were now tall enough to ride on their own.

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img_6128As we do every visit, we loved racing other families in the Police and Fire Academy relay, though as usual, our rig came in last. As a special treat, we got tickets to visit the water park adjacent to LEGOLAND, which was a great way to cool off after a day of traipsing around the park in the sun. Our favorite waterslide is always the orange rush, because all four of us can ride together as we spin down a giant slide and ride the walls of a huge half pipe.

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After a full day at the theme park and water park, we discovered a strawberry field right near the freeway exit. We decided to do a little impromptu strawberry picking. For $20, we got a bucket that the whole family could fill up, and we were told we could eat as many strawberries as we wanted while we were picking them. Since it was late in the afternoon, the heat had dissipated, and it was perfect timing for us to be out in the exposed fields.

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The kids loved competing to find the most outrageously large strawberries in the most bizarre shapes. We ate so many strawberries we almost didn’t have an appetite for dinner, but when we told the kids we were going to Bistro West, suddenly they were hungry again.

Bistro West is one of our favorite restaurants in Carlsbad. It’s just a few miles from LEGOLAND, and they have a terrific farm-to-table fresh summer harvest menu. Chef Jason also prepares a great kids menu with many healthy choices, and they even have a Bow Wow Hour on the patio for guests with pets. They also have an expansive vegetarian menu and a gluten-free menu of over 20 items. As always, the kids ordered their favorite calamari appetizer with dipping sauces, and the grown ups shared one of their unique signature pizzas, topped with pear Gorgonzola and prosciutto. Besides the excellent food, the kids also love watching the “bubble wall” fixture in the restaurant that mesmerizes them with is changing colors.

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We told the kids we wanted to make this Carlsbad trip an educational experience, and at first they grumbled, but once we arrived at the Museum of Music Making, they changed their tune. While the antique instruments were more captivating to the adults, the kids gravitated immediately to the experiential area of the museum, where they got to put on headsets and play the drums so that only they could hear the sound effects.

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The kids were enjoying themselves so much they hardly realized they were learning as they explored all of the hands-on exhibits. We lucked out, and the day we visited the museum was hosting a drum circle. This was a new experience for all of us. Each of us chose a drum from an assortment offered to us, and a leader set the pace and chanted and sang while we beat our drums in rhythm.

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As the kids were getting antsy about being indoors in such a beautiful day, our next stop was to a local skate park. My son had been in skateboard camp for the last two summers, and he thought he had seen the best skate parks Southern California had to offer, until we drove up to Alga Norte park.

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The skate park, the largest in San Diego, features more than 10,000 feet of curved and flat ramps, two pyramids, two stairways, several bowls and pipe grinding ledges. It was skateboarder’s heaven. While there were a number of teens at the park, there were also a good number of younger skaters, and there was a beginner’s area, which parents like myself favor, since at some parks the littler kids often get run over by the older, more experienced skaters. Best of all for parents, there was a shaded picnic area where we could sit and spectate.

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img_6172Onto the second to last stop of our whirlwind tour, we headed to Carlsbad State Beach, which was directly across from our hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn. Even though we live in LA, less than 15 minutes to Venice and Santa Monica beaches, Carlsbad beach remains one of our favorites in Southern California.  We were able to find easy metered street parking, though there were a number of parking lots near the beach. We accessed the beach from a paved path down from the sidewalk along the shore, and we set up our base camp near the water.  Even though it was a mid-summer weekend, we were delighted to be one of just a few dozen families in sight, and we felt like we had our own little slice of beach to ourselves.

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img_6052The kids played in the sand with some buckets and shovels we brought along, courtesy of the hotel, and we watched some surfers who seemed to be catching some decent waves. The kids loved that near the restrooms there was a tower of showers, were all the surfers and beachcombers rinsed off the sand, and the kids got to help some surfers wash off their boards.  We were very impressed at how friendly the local surfers were and considerate of their little admirers.

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After the beach, we headed for the Harbor Fish Cafe. Despite its humble appearance, this little restaurant is one of the hottest spots in town. It’s popular with both locals and tourists, though it is known less for its great seafood than its awesome views, especially at sundown.  As we experienced the vivid pink orange hues of the sky as the sun set over the water, we were happy that the kids were already starting to nod off at the restaurant.

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Back at the hotel, we all crashed, like the waves on the beach. We had considered a day trip to Carlsbad, but we were glad we had opted to make it a weekender.  The Hilton Garden Inn is an affordable option for families, with suites that have separate living areas with pull-out sofas and private patios. They also have fabulous views of the ocean across the street, and a large outdoor pool and whirlpool, plus free Wi-Fi throughout the hotel, so while the kids slept I was able to get some work done.

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The hotel is also two miles from LEGOLAND, which was the primary reason we felt the location was ideal for us, but little did we know the park was just one of many terrific family attractions close by, including an adorable beach community and shopping Village that we had overlooked on previous trips, because we were focused on the theme park.

As we took a final stroll along the beach and got some smoothies for the road before we headed back to LA, a group of motorcycle riders on Harleys rode by us down the main drag. As a fan of Sons of Anarchy, the TV series about a bad boy motorcycle club of a town called Charming, I was intrigued to get a closer look at the riders. But instead of tough guys, these riders looked like retired corporate executives, sporting shiny luxury bikes, as they rode in orderly formation and pulled up to the juice bar where we were sitting. As the cyclists joined us at the yellow painted picnic tables, and we enjoyed our smoothies in the sunshine, I snickered to myself, that really, this was the town that truly should be called Charming.

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Everythng is Awesome at LEGOLAND Movie Experience at LEGOLAND Resort

If your kids love building ingenious LEGO building brick creations and they could not get enough of the LEGO Movie, they will be thrilled to go where everything is awesome at the new LEGO MOVIE EXPERIENCE at LEGOLAND California Resort.  The attraction features a behind-the-scenes look at the LEGO Movie set where kids can step onto a LEGO soundstage and see the amazing collection of LEGO models that were featured in the 3D animated adventure.

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Visitors can view more than three million LEGO bricks that make up the models on the set and relive the adventures of the hero Emit, one perfectly ordinary LEGO minifigure who follows a calling to stop an evil tyrant, and he learns that he is a lot more special than he ever imagined.

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While the LEGOLAND park operates on a limited schedule with shorter hours off season, the advantage to visiting during winter months is that the crowds are sparse.  On a cool and rain-sprinkling Sunday in March, we were able to get on the most popular rides with a wait of just a few minutes.

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For those staying overnight to visit LEGOLAND Resort, the new LEGOLAND Hotel bordering the park offers terrific convenience, but another great option is one of the best little hotels anywhere, West Inn and Suites.  This boutique hotel offers a great value at a reasonable price starting at $159.00.  West Inn & Suites is located just few minutes away from LEGOLAND on the outskirts of an industrial park and close by the McClellan-Palomar Airport and the railroad tracks.  Despite the unusual location, this terrific inn is smartly decorated and features top-notch friendly service.

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The large king or queen suites are appointed with classic contemporary dark wood furniture, desks outfitted with outlets for computer and a pull-out queen sofa bed in a separate sitting area perfect for kids.  This place has everything a traveler could need and more:  heated pool and Jacuzzi, wi-fi, lighted make-up mirrors, wet bar, mini-fridge and in-room coffee maker.  Families with young kids abound in this hotel, due to its nearness to LEGOLAND, so it makes sense that the staff were so understanding when the our kids locked the in-room safe, and security had to come up to open it; or when we needed a fan for white noise to help the kids sleep.  Other kid-friendly amenities include a game system and two TVs, and fresh-daily cookies served with cold milk every night along with a hot breakfast buffet served daily.

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Two restaurants adjacent to the property are the popular local and tourist dining destinations:  the gourmet West restaurant and the more causal Bistro West.  Both source their produce from a local three-acre farm where fresh veggies are plucked each morning and brought to the restaurant’s kitchen. Image

Bistro West sees plenty of families enjoying the restaurant’s satisfying comfort food post-LEGOLAND.  The kids menu features typical mac and cheese and chicken strip fare along with a nice kid-portioned filet mignon for the little foodie sophisticate.

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For grownups, some of the featured favorites are the calamari fritti two ways with Asian seasonings and a wasabi cocktail sauce and classic fritti with roasted garlic aioli.  For entrees the local white sea bass served with pickled baby carrots and black olive tapenade over farro and hearty pastas like the spaghetti in vodka tomato cream with sautéed shrimp are winners.

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The white chocolate and Tahitian vanilla bean crème brulee duo or the made-for-sharing mud pie loaded with layers of Oreo, ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce are delicious finishers.

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Cool Off During SoCal’s Indian Summer at Local Theme and Water Parks

Get Dunked and Cool Off on Slides and Rides that Blow Your Hair Back

School has started for most kids in Los Angeles, but summer fun doesn’t have to end.  SoCal’ Indian summer often lasts through early fall, so jump in the car this weekend and head to local theme parks and water parks to chill out.  Here is a short list of the coolest rides and slides and best places to stay and eat for the most awesome endless summer ever.

Park it Here

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Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier includes 12 rides and an arcade of midway games

Pacific Park at the Santa Monica Pier is close to home for many Angelenos, and the cool ocean breezes are always a welcome escape from inland neighborhoods.  The park includes 12 rides and an arcade of midway games, like the Tub Toss, where my son took home a beloved Despicable Me Minion (the trick is to aim high and to the side).  The Sea Dragon that swings riders in a 180-degree arc in a rising and plunging boat is a favorite with teens and daring younger riders, and the West Coaster steel roller coaster that cascades over the coastline offering views from 55-feet up is a great first roller coaster for kids.

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The Pacific Park West Coaster

The Pacific Wheel solar-powered Ferris wheel gives you spectacular views of the Pacific.  All-day unlimited-ride wristbands are $15.95 for kids and $22.95 for 7 and older, or rides are priced at $3 to $5 each.  The park is in full operation through September and then partial and limited operations in the fall, and full operation on weekends.  The pier is in the midst of an ongoing renewal project to maintain the 100-plus-year-old historical landmark, but Pacific Park access is unaffected, and the huge 40-ton crane parked at the pier actually is a sight to see in itself.

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Construction at the Pier does not impact Pacific Park, but the 40-ton crane does add a site to see

Water Water Everywhere

Aquatica in Chula Vista, is one of the most exciting and beautiful water parks around.  Recently acquired and remodeled by SeaWorld, which is about 25 minutes away, the former Knott’s Soak City features six water rides and five water play areas, including Big Surf Shores wave pool, Loggerhead Lane lazy river and Walkabout Waters four-story play area.  Our family’s favorite ride is the Walhalla Wave, in which up to six people can ride together in a raft down a 78-foot half pipe.  For kids over 48 inches tall, the HooRoo Run boasts an 80-foot vertical drop that will thrill even the hardcore water park enthusiast.  For younger splashers, the expansive kiddie play area with waterfalls, water cannons and small slides will keep them occupied for hours.  The facilities are clean and well kempt, though along with the new ownership and makeover came higher prices, from overpriced snacks like $6 ice cream cone to $12-$20 lockers.  Entry costs $38 for 10 and older, $30 for ages 3 to 9, and free for 2 years old and under.  Open through weekends through November.

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The whole family can ride Orange Crush at LEGOLAND Water Park

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Lots of of kiddie areas at LEGOLAND Water Park offer little ones a play place to splash

LEGOLAND Water Park adjoining the LEGOLAND theme park offers plenty for water fans of all ages.  The family sized Orange Crush is one of the most popular rides, featuring 312-feet of twisting splashing fun for up to four riders.  Unique to LEGOLAND is the Build-A-Raft River where riders can gather floating oversized LEGO blocks to attach to their innertube.  Several kiddie play areas with open and enclosed small slides, waterfalls, fountains and sprinklers offer lots of splashing fun in wading-depth water and a sandy beach.  At LEGOLAND you have the option of mixing up the fun at both the theme park and the water park.  The theme park also features wet rides that cool you off, like the Pirate Reef and Splash Battle in Pirate Shores that will get you soaked.  Buy ponchos to help keep you dry, or for $5 for a few minutes of hot air use the stand-inside dryers to dry off, or bring a change of clothes, as bathing suits may not be worn in the park. Admission starts at $76 for adults and $66 for kids 3-12, which includes both the theme park and the water park.  The Water Park is open daily through early September and then on weekends as weather permits.

Where to Stay

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The play area at LEGOLAND features nightly live entertainment

LEGOLAND Hotel is the coolest new place to stay in Carlsbad.  The hotel features themed rooms and surprises inside for kids.  The kids’ bunk-and-trundle bed combo sleeps up to three kids, and adults sleep in an adjoining semi-private room.  The lobby features a LEGO pit for community building, and an elaborate pirate-ship play area offers many fun features and live entertainment in the evenings.  Fun features include a disco elevator, a giant whoopee cushion, talking bathroom mirrors and LEGO model decorations throughout the hotel.  Guests also enjoy one hour early admission to the park.

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Themed rooms and bunk-and-trundle beds for up to three little ones makes staying at LEGOLAND Hotel a fun adventure

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The pool at Hilton Carlsbad Oceanfront Resort & Spa is just one of the many ocean view amenities

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The garlic fries at Chandler’s at Hilton Carlsbad Oceanfront Resort & Spa

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One of the tastly seafood entrees at Bistro West

Hilton Carlsbad Oceanfront Resort & Spa (10 minutes from LEGOLAND and 30 minutes to SeaWorld) is a convenient base for visiting nearby amusement parks.  The hotel is located across the street from a spectacular stretch of beach, and “ocean view” is the operative description for just about all the resort’s amenities: ocean view pool, ocean view restaurant, ocean view bar and lounge area (with outdoor ocean view  fire pit), ocean view meeting rooms, and of course, ocean view guest rooms with ocean view balconies.  The hotel’s restaurant, Chandler’s, offers panoramic seating for viewing gorgeous sunsets amid a succulent dessert garden.  Besides addictive pretzel balls, standouts on the menu include fresh-caught sea bass and swordfish entrees and parmesan garlic fries.

Where to Eat

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Bistro West in Carlsbad has locals and tourists lining up for fresh local fare

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The bubble wall at Bistro West mesmerizes kids and grown-ups alike

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A new kids menu at Bistro West features healthy options for kids

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Bistro West’s Chef’s Eugenio Martignago and Jason Connolly pride themselves in creating beautiful and healthy dishes from local sources

Tourists and locals alike line up at Bistro West, one of the hottest restaurants in Carlsbad.  The delectably tasty menu features healthy and locally sourced gourmet comfort food, vegetarian and gluten free options, and a healthy kids menu.  Highlights include a generously portioned calamari starter with zesty dipping sauces, thick Kobe beef burgers, classic homemade lasagna, homemade soups, exotic-topping pizzas from West’s stone hearth oven, an assortment of generously sized dinner salads, like the satisfying Manciata New York Steak Salad, and decadent desserts such as Bistro West Mud Pie for Two or warm fig and cherry bread pudding served with bourbon sauce.  The crowd is multi-generational and well-dressed, and the atmosphere is casual chic, with modern but comfortable décor and a color-changing bubble wall fixture that mesmerizes kids and grown-ups too.  Fido won’t feel left out either, with a pet-friendly Bow Wow Hour on the patio.

Over Land Over Sea

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SeaWorld’s Return to Atlantis is one of the wet rides that guests flock to ride in the hot weather

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Madagascar Live at SeaWorld is one of the park’s newest shows

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Cirque de la Mer at SeaWorld features acrobats performing tricks on seadoos and flying in physics-defying aerial acts over water

SeaWorld is most famous for its animal shows, but with last year’s addition of the Manta diving-and-looping rollercoaster the park has become more popular with thrill ride seekers.   Bring a change of clothes so you can enjoy all the wet rides, like Journey to Atlantis, a half-roller-coaster half-boat-ride where park guests blast you with water cannons at the end, and Shipwreck Rapids, a winding, swirling ride down rapids and under water falls, and then dry off to hit the dry rides and shows.  To shorten your wait time at popular rides, grab a Quick Queue pass. Get a schedule of daily shows online or at the gate.  Ironically, one of the most popular shows at SeaWorld, Madagascar Live, is a sing-and-dance along musical that has little to do with the sea.  The park’s mainstay shows include SeaLions LIVE, where sea lions jig to pop songs like Gangnam Style; One Ocean, starring legendary killer whale Shamu; and the amazing Cirque de la Mer, where acrobats perform tricks on seadoos and fly in physics-defying aerial acts over water.  Online deals for admission for a single day are $64 for both adults and kids 3-9, or kids go free with an adult who pays full-price ($79).

Where to Stay

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The water taxi picks up passengers at Paradise Point and drops them at a private marina gate at SeaWorld

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Lucky water taxi rides sometimes get a glimpse of Cirque de la Mer performers warming up on the docks

Paradise Point is an island oasis just a few minutes from SeaWorld.  The resort’s bungalows feature lush courtyard and beachfront locations with access to a public beach where kids love the nighttime tradition of toasting marshmallows and making s’mores around the beach fire pits.  The central Island Market store rents bikes to explore the island, and the elegant Baleen restaurant and more causal Barefoot Bar and Grill offer dining at the marina.  Through early September the resort offers a water taxi that drops guests at a private marine entrance to the park for $10 for adults and $6 for children.  If you happen to arrive at just the right time, you might catch SeaWorld’s Cirque de la Mer performers warming up “backstage” on the marina docks.

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The spacious rooms at Hotel Indigo feature kitchenettes and courtyards along with vaulted ceilings and designer decor

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One of the two pools at Hotel Indigo

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A pool at Hotel Indigo from the above at Oceanview Restaurant and Lounge

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A lounge area outside Oceanveiw at Hotel Indigo

Hotel Indigo in Del Mar is a great option for families with sophisticated tastes but moderate budgets.  About 20 minutes from LEGOLAND and SeaWorld, and 35 minutes from Aquatica, Hotel Indigo is an incredible remodel of the Stratford Inn, transformed from a sleepy lodge into a fabulous and swanky but kid-friendly boutique hotel, exquisitely decorated and featuring excellent service.  The spacious rooms feature kitchenettes and beach-inspired designer décor  and horse racing artwork in homage to the nearby Del Mar track.  The rooms open into landscaped courtyards with private patios or balconies. The happening Oceanview bar and restaurant features an inviting outdoor lounge area with gas bonfire pits overlooking one of the two pools.  Del Mar is a short drive from Carlsbad or San Diego and a terrific option for families making a weekend of their LEGOLAND or SeaWorld visit.  The hotel a 10-minute walk from Del Mar Beach, a beautiful , expansive sandy beach where surfers, families, locals and tourists play in harmony.

Where to Eat

At the festive Café Coyote in Old Town San Diego, screaming kids are as welcome as raucous margarita drinkers.  In this landmark multi-storied restaurant featuring countless dining rooms, neither can be heard over the din of large parties, gathered to celebrate everything from birthdays to bridal showers at this immensely popular watering hole and landmark famous for its offering of more than 100 tequilas.

Chillin’ at Disney

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Cars Land has put California Adventure back on the map

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The adorably rendered Cars Land features a shop with cone head hats

Disneyland and California Adventure are the mecca for SoCal theme park fans, but with great rides come great lines, except off-season.  Cars Land has put California Adventure back on the map, and the blow-your-hair-back Radiator Springs Racers is a must-ride attraction.  For a great cool off, float and splash down the Grizzly River Run whitewater raft ride, or for a blast of indoor AC, head into the friendly and scenic skies on Soarin’ Over California simulated flight ride.  At Disneyland, a wild dash in the dark on Space Mountain is a great escape from the heat, or take a cool plunge on Splash Mountain, or for a blast of fresh air, the Matterhorn Bobsleds climbs up and away into icy caverns to meet the abominable snowman.

Another great spot to cool off on a warm day is the Disney Animation Building, in Hollywood Land at California Adventure. Indoors with air conditioning, guests can learn all about animation — from the Toy Story Zoetrope to projected animation all around the lobby to “learn to draw” character sketch sessions throughout the day. And more: fun exhibits to find your inner Disney character and interact with other characters, along with the family favorite show, Turtle Talk with Crush.

Next door at the air-conditioned Hyperion Theater, the popular stage show plays several times a day – “Aladdin, a Musical Spectacular,” complete with a flying carpet!

To minimize your wait times, plan your day of rides in advance and master using the FASTPASS.  A great tool to gauge expected crowd size at the parks is http://www.isitpacked.com/disneyland-crowd-forecast-predictor-calendar/.  Admission starts at $86 for ages 3 to 9 and $92 for ages 10 and up for a one-day visit, though park hopper a multi-day tickets are your best value if you have a couple of days for your visit.

Where to Stay

Kids Fun Zone & Pool

The pool at Hilton Anaheim sports a water feature that includes a kiddie water slide, water cannons and a 200-gallon drench bucket

The Hilton Anaheim is a known as a premier convention hotel, but it’s also a terrific family hotel, and its location just two blocks from Disneyland and California Adventure makes it an appealing option for guests visiting the parks. The on-site Disney help desk sells park passes and can help guests plan their Disney day with insider tips, and guests can upgrade to Disney view rooms to see the Disney lights and fireworks nightly.  Kids love the swimming pool with a water feature that includes a kiddie water slide, water cannons and a 200-gallon drench bucket.  The hotel’s Kidz Korner offers supervised activities, and their babysitting service is a great option for parents who need some grown-up time off.

Where to Eat

Hilton Anaheim’s Mix restaurant offers upscale dining and cocktails, or nearby there are more causal options, including a food court and several family friendly restaurants within the Garden Walk plaza, which is walking distance or a short shuttle bus ride away.


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