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It’s not hyperbole to describe the Golden State as awe-inspiring, especially for young travelers visiting for the first time. The landscapes here—from the desert and the mountains to the sea and the urban grid—are like no other. This is also where theme parks bring movies to life and Pacific adventures abound. All around the state are a handful of exclusive, only-in-California experiences that will leave lasting impressions on children of all ages. Here are some of our favorites.

Kids’ Programs at Yosemite
A visit to Yosemite National Park, the oldest national park in the state, is the most awe-inspiring place to introduce kids (ages 7 to 13) to the Junior Ranger program. The park also hosts regular art classes for kids at the Happy Isles Art and Nature Center, as well as interpretive programs through some of the top lodges in Yosemite Valley. Bicycle and tag-along bikes for children (and trailers and helmets) are available for rent at Yosemite Valley Lodge and Half Dome Village. The two-mile round trip from Half Dome Village is a great kid-friendly ride that brings riders past Mirror Lake and a working horse stable.

Universal Studios Hollywood
VIP Theme Park Experiences
Inside Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland, kids ages 3 to 12 can receive the ultimate character makeover at the Bibbidy Bobbidy Boutique. The salon sits behind a secret door and offers a variety of dress-up packages. The “Princess Signature Dress Collection” gives kids the chance to transform into their favorite character and return home with a personalized gown and tiara. Reservations are highly recommended and can be made up to 60 days in advance of your visit. Before you explore Universal Studios Hollywood, reserve the VIP Experience to bypass long lines and enjoy valet parking and backlot access.

The view from Nepenthe, off Highway 1 in Big Sur
Wildlife Watching

California offers some of the top wildlife experiences in the entire United States. Starting in Southern California, book one of the country’s premiere zoo tours, the Exclusive VIP Experience at the San Diego Zoo. In Orange County, go whale watching with expert guides from Dana Wharf Whale Watching to spot blue whales, orca whales, or grey whales on their annual migration north to Alaska from Mexico. On a road trip along coastal Highway 1, from San Diego to San Francisco, kids can spot harbor seals and sea lions from overlooks, beaches, and oceanside cliffs. In Northern California, check out Año Nuevo State Park outside of Santa Cruz, where giant (and loud) elephant seals come year-round to lounge, mate, and slough skin before returning to sea. Travelers can work with expert guides to customize a visit based around kids’ interests.

Museum Sleepovers
Who doesn’t dream of spending a night (or two) at a museum? Cultural and scientific institutions around the state now have programs that enable youngsters to do just that. In San Diego, the Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park adds an IMAX movie to a similar special-access offering.  And the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles also offers sleepovers to families. In San Francisco, the California Academy of Sciences hosts a regular “Penguins+Pajamas” program; kids can enjoy special access to the planetarium and some of the exhibits right up until bedtime in the museum.