Walk around the leafy grounds of this suburban Sylmar sanctuary to see everything from monkeys to foxes—and school trips and birthday parties. For hands-on photo ops, request a close encounter with a porcupine, a Siberian lynx, a two-toed sloth or an impossibly adorable fennec fox. Make sure to say hi to Zeus, the starry-eyed blind owl in the gift shop.
San Fernando Valley
Nothing says childhood entertainment quite like a puppet show, and the longest-running marionette theater in the nation delivers, big-time. Tykes truly delight in watching the marionettes come to life in the darkened theater space—and afterwards being treated to free ice cream (and coffee for adults), plus a backstage tour.
This San Pedro rehabilitation center scoops up distressed marine mammals along the coast between Long Beach and Malibu in hopes of reintroducing them to the ocean. Though these stories can be sad—sudden blindness, a shark bite—the mood stays light thanks to a cordial crew of volunteers and a comical chorus of sea lion barks. Viewing is restricted to a sidewalk outside the fences—close enough to see the sweet faces of belly-flopping baby elephant seals.
The unique creation of owner Jessica Biel, Au Fudge is an exclusive kid-friendly restaurant that serves organic dishes in an upscale setting. Designed to put more fun back in taking kids out, the restaurant's menu features a mix of healthy and indulgent fare (and wine and cocktails for adults).
As the first universally accessible playground in the Western U.S. and the largest in the nation, this popular playground is a gem. Kids can make like astronauts inside the “Lucky Star Chaser” spaceship, man the controls in an airplane cockpit, access their inner pirates on the “Adventure Ship,” safely land on the soft, rubberized surface beneath the many slides, swings, monkey bars, zip lines, and much, much more.
This popular interactive children’s museum holds a wide variety of exhibits and entertainment, including the kaleidoscope entrance, educational gardens and the “splash dance” water feature in the central courtyard, the perfect way to cool down on a baking valley afternoon. Pasadena’s young ’uns are lucky to have it on their doorsteps.
Dedicated as much to education as entertainment, this spectacular aquarium more than justifies the drive down to Long Beach. Inevitably, the shark lagoon and its touchable habitat is the most popular exhibit. Other highlights include the adorable sea otter habitat as well as a low-key exhibition about whales. Much of the rest of the aquarium is divided geographically: loveable sea lions in the Southern California section, all kinds of garish fish in the tropical Pacific area and a variety of exotic creatures in the Gulf of California exhibit.
The northwest corner of Griffith Park is the destination for train enthusiasts and curious kids. Travel Town, open all week, is a railroad petting zoo full of historic rail stock that also does a good job explaining how the railroads helped build Southern California. Lovers of things that go choo-choo should be sure to visit the park on a Sunday, when the neighboring Los Angeles Live Steamers section is open for railheads. Kids clamor to come here again and again to ride a miniature train around more than a mile of track.
Part wildlife rescue center, part educational facility, this family-friendly enterprise practices what it preaches in terms of environmental awareness—it was even built from recycled materials. Staff provide care for unwanted exotic animals; families are welcome to pet an alligator or stroke a snake as they learn about endangered species, environmental concerns and how kids can make a change.
For tykes who prefer science and technology to ceramics and teddy bears—and who are at least seven years old—this place takes building your own toy to a whole new level. Specializing in after-school and weekend workshops, as well as birthday parties and holiday camps, they teach budding engineers how to construct, customize and battle their own mechanical creations.