southern california road trip

A visit to the San Diego Zoo is a road trip must-do. (Photo: Alamy)

San Diego

Go Beyond Theme Parks on This Southern California Road Trip

If you plan to visit Southern California with kids, taking on every single theme park will definitely be a major part of the agenda. But with so many to hit between San Diego and Los Angeles, why not enjoy the drive along the way with stops at some other SoCal family-friendly destinations.

A bonus for fall travelers — October is “kids visit free month” at a bounty of attractions.

San Diego

Theme park aficionados will point to San Diego’s plethora of offerings, including the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (check out the Roar and Snore program), SeaWorld and, of course, the San Diego Zoo.

The zoo is located in Balboa Park, a charming destination that’s well worth a stop and is home to myriad attractions, including museums with model railroads, mummies, rockets, puppets, prehistoric creatures … oh, and a carousel and miniature train.

southern california road trip
Let the wee ones play on the Whammock at The New Children’s Museum. (Photo: Philipp Scholz Ritter)

A downtown venue not to miss: The New Children’s Museum. Here, a Rain House lulls with tin-roof melodies, a tree-house-like labyrinth invites exploration and an old truck begs young artists to add signature touches via paintbrush. Afterward, catch a San Diego Padres baseball game at Petco Park.


Drive just 40 miles north of San Diego to Carlsbad and the bricktastic LEGOLAND California Theme Park. Still, this idyllic beach town has a lot more in store for families. Music fans will want to visit the NAMM Museum of Making Music, aka MOMM.

Its exterior appears to be all business park; inside, though, is pure rhythm. MOMM takes visitors on a journey through music’s history with exhibits calling visitors to get hands-on with instruments and create soundtracks of their own.

southern california road trip
Get your musical groove on at MOMM. (Photo: MOMM)

A Carlsbad hillside awash in nature’s colors is an “open” sign unto itself. Open to visitors from March 1 through mid-May, The Flower Fields at Carlsbad Ranch dazzles with 50 acres of giant tecolote ranunculus. There’s also live music, a maze of sweet peas and tractor rides through flowers representing every hue of the rainbow.

When the urge to splash around strikes, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, aqua cycles, paddleboats and WaveRunners await at Carlsbad Lagoon. There are endless opportunities to commune with nature (keep an eye out for seabirds) or get downright drenched with cohorts. Take a picnic and sprawl out at one of the shoreline tables. Word to the wise: Don’t. Forget. Sunscreen.

Orange County

Disneyland Park, Disney California Adventure Park, Knott’s Berry Farm, Knott’s Soak City these are the famous theme parks of Orange County (the OC) — some of which will likely be family road trip must-do’s.

But continue to travel north along the I-5 to happen upon other OC delights. Case in point: Irvine’s eye-catching giant orange balloon located in Great Park. Floating 400 feet above the park, it’s possible to spy other park attractions, including a carousel, the massive sports complex where the OC Soccer Club competes, a four-rink ice-skating facility and the outdoor FivePoint Amphitheater.

Nearby at the Irvine Spectrum Center things are more refined at the Hello Kitty Café and its exclusive Bow Room. Have a hankering for afternoon tea and cookies? This is your place.

Head further north and baseball and hockey fans will be lured by the Honda Center to see the Anaheim Ducks play (great concerts are held here, too) and Angel Stadium where home runs are the norm for the Los Angeles Angels.

Long Beach

Long Beach’s seaside location lends itself to attractions like the Queen Mary ocean liner and the Aquarium of the Pacific. The Queen Mary has treasures to discover, including a LEGO replica of this majestic ship. Festivals and events often take place here, as well, from the annual haunted Dark Harbor to its transformation into a CHILL Ice World.

The acclaimed Aquarium of the Pacific is another favorite spot of the younger set. Stats that will rev up excitement: There are more than 100 exhibits, 19 habitats and nearly 500 species to meet, jellyfish, frogs and sharks among them.

Los Angeles

Depending on the route you take from Long Beach, families can swing by Raging Waters in San Dimas to dive into wave pools and water slides before plundering L.A.’s Universal Studios Hollywood and Six Flags Magic Mountain.

Popular among families, too, is the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, Griffith Observatory, and Huntington Gardens’ Children’s Garden. Not to be left out: museums.

Yes, all ages will love the California Science Center, Natural History Museum, The Broad Art Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and La Brea Tar Pits. These just skim the surface of L.A.’s outstanding museums.

Two museums created specifically for kids are Pasadena’s Kidspace Children’s Museum, with features like an outdoor stream, rope bridge and multistory climbing towers, and Santa Monica’s Cayton Children’s Museum, with its interactive exhibits, mesh web of ropes and massive ball pit.

Perhaps encompassing a little bit of all of Southern California’s family-friendly goodness, though, is the Santa Monica Pier, which holds sway over the Pacific Ocean. Jubilation can be heard echoing from both the historic merry-go-round and Pacific Park with its arcade, Ferris wheel and amusement park rides. Beneath the pier is the Heal the Bay Aquarium, where starfish and octopi reside.

Step outside to hear waves drifting ashore, mingling with the sounds of a concert underway on the pier. There are many ways to conclude this SoCal journey. Perhaps the most idyllic — and family-friendly: donning a pair of rollerblades, hitting the Marvin Braud Bike Trail and skating off into the sunset.

Hitting the road soon? Use Road Trip Search* to book hotels along your route, find pet-friendly properties, on-site EV charging, and more – only on the Marriott Bonvoy® App. Download today.

*Road Trip Search feature only available on iOS.