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'San Angeles': California's Kid Zone

By Ruth Marcus
The Washington Post
Sunday, January 10, 1999; Page E01

The good news about visiting California with our two young children was that they quickly adjusted to West Coast time and stayed up until the appropriate hour. The bad news was that they continued to wake up on East Coast time--a situation that left us with plenty of hours in the day to fill with amusements for Emma, then 2, and Julia, eight months. Luckily, as we have learned in two child-centered visits in the past two years, Southern California--more specifically, the coastal area embracing both Los Angeles and San Diego--is kiddie Heaven. The weather is fairly reliable year-round. We went at Thanksgiving and Christmas and had glorious weather both times, though not quite warm enough for days by the pool or on the beach, an added attraction of a Southern California trip in another season.

With planning, the air fare--even for a family of four--isn't too daunting: We bought three tickets for the four of us and flew round-trip to Los Angeles and back for under $1,000. The obvious attractions--Disneyland, just south of Los Angeles, the San Diego Zoo and Sea World in San Diego--are no less fun for being obvious. And even without that touristic trinity, the area offers an abundance of child-friendly activities--from the carousel and pony rides at Griffith Park in Los Angeles to seeing the seals on the beach at La Jolla near San Diego.

After two trips in two years, we haven't even begun to exhaust the possibilities of the area you might call "San Angeles."

We started in Los Angeles, staying at the Westwood Marquis, near UCLA. We had a spacious suite, the staff was unfailingly gracious in carrying our stroller up and down the entry stairs, the two pools looked lovely, and we could easily walk to restaurants. Noodle Planet, where we had dinner with two friends and their son for under $40, was a particular favorite, with its heaping platters of Asian noodles and unpretentious student atmosphere. Nearby was a branch of Noah's Bagels, ubiquitous throughout L.A. and open early enough to accommodate our Eastern time zone waking hours.

On our last visit, we started in Los Angeles with a destination that could easily occupy the better part of a day: Griffith Park, an enormous park in the city that boasts a carousel, pony rides, zoo and miniature train, among other attractions for the preschool set. Emma demanded two rides on the beautiful old merry-go-round--the first of five we sampled on our trip--and then looked as proud as if she had tamed a mustang as she sat astride her real live pony as it walked docilely around a circle. (Pony rides for older children are at another location, near the miniature train.)

Also in Griffith Park is a zoo, complete with petting zoo for children, and Travel Town, a transportation museum with vintage firetrucks, old milk wagons and a train yard full of cabooses, steam engines and passenger cars.

We also spent what passes for a full day with toddlers in Santa Monica. The 1908 pier has--of course--a carousel and a good number of other children's rides--flying elephants for the little ones, bumper cars for those a bit bigger. For children who haven't been on amusement park rides before, Santa Monica is good preparation for Disneyland, giving parents a way of judging whether their little ones will be scared of the Disney rides before braving a 45-minute line.

Depending on the weather, you can also spend some time on the beach in Santa Monica; at the very least, bring beach shoes and a change of pants because--at least if your children are like ours--they will insist on going onto the beach and putting their feet in the waves. A few blocks away, the Third Street Promenade was a virtual street festival on the Sunday afternoon we were there, complete with a Cheez-Doodle-eating monkey, a clown making balloon animals, a man pretending to be a robot and police officers on (very tolerant) horsies. The Puzzle Zoo on the promenade is a particularly well-stocked toy store. And a child-friendly place to stop for lunch or a snack there is the Broadway Deli, which offers everything from corned beef to quesadillas.

(Our other favorite Los Angeles deli is Nate n' Al's in Beverly Hills, if you're window-shopping on Rodeo Drive and want to take a break; you might have to wait, but the food is as authentic as it gets on the West Coast and the waitresses cleverly tie a bagel to your child's high-chair so she won't drop it.)

Definitely worth the trip, especially if the weather is not the best, is the Los Angeles Children's Museum. Be sure to check the hours, and be warned, parking underneath is pricey ($1.10 for 20 minutes, though weekends are $3.30.) But for 2 and up, the museum is a blast. One room, the Shadow Box, lets children paint shadow pictures of their bodies on the wall; the light flashes and freezes the shadow in place. Emma demanded to go back three times. There is a "City Streets" zone complete with bus and police motorcycle, a Lego play zone for those missing their toys at home, and an art studio where children can select a bagful of recycled materials and glue them into an art project. For older children the museum offers both a recording studio and a Zoetrope room where children can draw the reels that were the first form of animated pictures.

One thing that we've learned is that day after day of Disney-level activities is too intense for children. When you're ready for something a little more laid-back, we would suggest a visit to Storyopolis, a particularly delightful children's bookstore that also sells original artwork from children's books, from Dr. Seuss to David Kirk, author of the "Miss Spider" series, to Rosemary Wells, author of the "Bunny Planet" books. I enjoyed daydreaming about having the decorating budget of a Hollywood star and outfitting the children's rooms in original drawings. Check with the Storyopolis folks to see if you might be able to hit story hour or an arts-and-crafts class.

If you go to Storyopolis, you'll be making a mistake if you don't combine it with a meal at the Newsroom Cafe just across the way--very comfortable and very California, with its offerings of various fresh vegetable juices (we tried a Ginger Rogers, with carrot and apple juices and ginger). It serves breakfast all day, along with an assortment of salads, pastas, sandwiches and comfort foods like chicken pot pie and Cajun turkey loaf. Emma was especially taken with watching the wheat grass go into the blender. "Look, Mom, they're drinking grass!"

Two restaurants that are activities in themselves are Cartoonsville Eaterie & Fun House in Bel Air, and Dive!, Steven Spielberg's submarine-themed restaurant at the Century City Shopping Center.

Cartoonsville is Chuck E. Cheese gone Brentwood, a kind of upscale Discovery Zone and eatery where the furniture looks like something out of "The Jetsons," waiters and waitresses dress like cartoon characters, cartoons play from television monitors, and a separate play area features rides, skee-ball and an intricate two-story maze for kids to climb through. Warning: It's a little scary for younger kids--or at least for their parents--because you can't always see where your child is. The food was basic, burgers and such, and not bad.

Sorry for the gender bias, but Jon and I thought Dive! would be Heaven on Earth for 5-year-old . . . boys. It's shaped like a submarine, complete with water bubbles running up the windows, fish videos flickering on the screen and intermittent announcements, "Prepare to dive!" It serves, of course, submarine sandwiches, and even the pizza comes in a submarine shape. Again, the grown-up food--we had chicken Caesar salads--was fine.

If you can free yourselves of child-care duties one night, we had a fantastic if expensive New Year's Eve dinner at Wolfgang Puck's Chinois on Main, and a less memorable though still enjoyable dinner with friends at Indochine. And if you can't ditch the little ones and are still craving an authentic Los Angeles dining experience, we found the staff at Spago incredibly indulgent when we brought Emma for an early Sunday dinner when she was 18 months old; they happily produced a high-chair and plied her with cookies. But I wouldn't recommend trying this at a more civilized hour.

A note on Disneyland. On our first trip with Emma, when she was 18 months and already obsessed with Winnie the Pooh, we passed it up, figuring she was way too young. And we weren't sure about whether it made sense to bring a 2 1/2 year old, even one with a well-stocked library of Disney videos. It did. We had a blast. Some hints: Go as early as possible, especially if you're visiting during a crowded season, as we were. We headed straight for Sleeping Beauty's Castle and Fantasyland and got enough rides under our belt that we didn't feel the need to wait in very long lines for any more when the place really became crowded. We did the flying Dumbos, Alice's teacups and Pinocchio and basically had our fill--especially after we topped it off with two boat rides, a train ride and a trolley car.

Parental warning: The line to have your picture taken with Mickey is longer than you think. And though it may seem like a long stretch, hang in there for the afternoon character parade--and stake out a place along Main Street U.S.A. early. For children raised on Disney videos, the parade is the television screen come to life. And if you have lost all sense of self-respect, wave and make a lot of noise--the characters will come over and hug your children. Emma's still wearing her Mickey ears and telling me that we need to go back soon so she can do "the big kid's ride"--the flume.

If you head to San Diego, about 2 1/2 hours away, an easy way to break up the trip is to stop at the Wild Animal Park, about 45 minutes north of the city. The 50-minute monorail ride takes you through the South African veldt, the East African savanna and the highlands of Asia; binoculars aren't a bad idea if you have them, but you'll be able to see lots of giraffes, zebras, mountain goats and gazelles no matter what.

Don't miss the lorikeets, multicolored birds that will eat nectar out of cups you hold, and, if you're lucky like us, poop on Daddy's hand for extra amusement value. And speaking of poop, we witnessed quite an interesting display of gorilla aggression at the Wild Animal Park, where two male gorillas, apparently enraged by something, teamed up to throw poop at the human gawkers. The year before, we saw them dancing in the most charming display, so it's worth the risk.

In San Diego, we stayed at the San Diego Hilton Beach & Tennis Resort, with two adjoining rooms, one complete with kitchen area and refrigerator (saves cleaning out the minibar to make room for formula, a big plus in our book). We had a ground-floor room, which proved to be great, too--we could sit on the patio in the morning while Emma ran around on the lawn. The pool also looked lovely, although the weather wasn't nice enough to make use of it when we were there. A nice playground is less than a mile up the road.

The hotel-run Kids Klub offered some companionship, a video and arts and crafts on an unusual (for San Diego) rainy day, but it is not a baby-sitting service and children under 6 can't be left alone. Through the hotel, we arranged for babysitting, at $10 an hour. Although the promised college student turned out to be in high school, she seemed competent, and it allowed us to get in a little tennis and catch a movie.

The difficulty with visiting San Diego is that, with the Wild Animal Park, the zoo and Sea World, tourists have little incentive to check out anything else. Which is not to say that we don't love those. Emma's still talking about Sea World, though she mentions the ball pit (the playground area is terrific) more than Shamu, and at the Shamu show itself seemed more impressed with the fact that her grandfather was feeding popcorn to the pigeons than with the whale. Likewise, the zoo is not to be missed; we're particularly fond of the polar bear exhibit, orangutans and the petting zoo.

However, San Diego has more to offer. The zoo will take a full day, but it's situated in Balboa Park, which has an array of other activities. Right near the zoo are (yet another) carousel and a miniature train ride, and our family never passes up either. Toward the other end of the park is the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater, where we saw a lovely production of "Cinderella" and got to see the puppets up close afterward.

Balboa Park also has an impressive collection of a dozen museums that cater to a variety of interests: the Aerospace Museum and Hall of Fame, the Natural History Museum, the sports Hall of Champions, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, the Model Railroad Museum, which features the world's largest collection of mini-gauge trains.

We rode our fifth and final carousel at Seaport Village, a picturesque if especially ersatz collection of shops and restaurants. It which makes for a nice stroll, and you can look at the boats in the harbor and the bridge across to Coronado Island.

A fun morning excursion--about 15 minutes up the road--is to see the seals on the beach in La Jolla. After so much zoogoing, it's nice to sea something actually in the wild, and children are fascinated by watching them slither in and our of the waves. La Jolla is a charming place to walk around or sit at one of the ubiquitous juice bars. It also has an aquarium featuring a simulated deep-sea dive.

We did most of our San Diego eating at the hotel, but enjoyed a dinner at Wolfgang Puck's Cafe--slightly down-scale after Chinois on Main but still California funky and fun--at the Mission Valley Mall. And we made it without major incident through a dinner at a real grown-up restaurant, Fio's Cucina Italiana, where Emma got to watch the dinners being put together in the open kitchen and her parents prayed that Julia would stay quiet long enough for us to get through our entree. She did, barely, and we got the desserts to go. Fio's is in the Gaslamp Quarter, the restored Victorian era red light district; nearby is Horton Plaza, an outdoor mall that often features entertainment, has fun spaces for the kids to run around and also boasts an FAO Schwarz.

We had a wonderful, if exhausting, time--and some difficulty explaining to Emma why daily life couldn't continue to be quite so exciting. The morning after we got home, she lifted her head from the pillow, and asked in that groggy early-morning voice, "Mom? Can we go to Sea World today?"

Details: 'San Angeles' With Kids

GETTING THERE: Numerous airlines offer service from the Washington area to San Diego and Los Angeles. Round-trip fares generally start at around $300.

GETTING AROUND: Southern California is car country. You need one. We've had terrific luck over the years with Bob Leech (1-800-679-2727), a rental company that will send a van to get you at the airport, drive you to its headquarters a few miles away and rent you a car for a considerably better price than the majors.

WHERE TO STAY: In Los Angeles, the Westwood Marquis Hotel and Gardens (930 Hilgard Ave., 1-800-421-2317) has one-bedroom suites starting at $239 per night. We also enjoyed the Wyndham Bel Age in West Hollywood (1020 N. San Vincente Blvd., 1-800-424-4443, one-bedroom suites from $214), which was elegant and child-friendly. In San Diego, we stayed at the San Diego Hilton Beach and Tennis Resort (1775 E. Mission Bay Dr., 1-800-445-8667, doubles from $185). Friends with a small child recommend the Hyatt Islandia in Mission Bay (1441 Quivira Rd., 1-800-233-1234, rooms from $139, one-bedroom suites from $300).

WHERE TO EAT: In L.A., tops on our list for kid-friendly restaurants are Nate n' Al's Delicatessen & Restaurant (414 N. Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills), Dive! (10250 Santa Monica Blvd.), Newsroom Cafe (120 N. Robertson Blvd.), Broadway Deli (1457 Third St. Promenade, Santa Monica), Cartoonsville (2121 Wilshire Blvd., Brentwood) and Noodle Planet (1118 Westwood Blvd.).

In San Diego, Wolfgang Puck's Cafe (1640 Camino del Rio North in Mission Valley Center) also has a movie theater. And we were tolerated graciously with the children at a grown-up restaurant, Fio's Cucina Italiana (801 Fifth Ave.).


In Los Angeles:

* Griffith Park has a merry-go-round, pony rides, the Griffith Park & Southern Railroad (213-664-6788) and Travel Town (213-662-5874), an outdoor train museum.

* The Los Angeles Zoo (213-644-4200) features Adventure Island, a children's zoo.

* The Los Angeles Children's Museum (310 N. Main St., 213-687-8800).

* Storyopolis bookstore (116 N. Robertson Blvd., 310-358-2500) has craft and story hours, but you need to reserve in advance.

* Disneyland (714-781-4560, has a one-day "passport": kids 12 years and over, $38; 3 to 11, $28; 2 and under free.

In San Diego:

* The San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park (15500 San Pasqual Valley Rd., Escondido, 760-747-8702,

* The San Diego Natural History Museum (619-232-3821, is just south of the zoo in Balboa Park, near the intersection of Park Boulevard and Village Place.

* Other Balboa Park museums are the San Diego Museum of Man (619-239-2001), with exhibits on human development over the ages; the Aerospace Museum and International Aerospace Hall of Fame (2001 Pan American Plaza, 619-234-8291), with World War I and II fighter planes; the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (619-238-1233); and the Model Railroad Museum in the Casa de Balboa (619-696-0199).

* Sea World (I-5 and Sea World Drive, 619-226-3901,

* Stephen Birch Aquarium-Museum (2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla, 619-534-3474).

INFORMATION: The Web site ( has links to parents' magazines in Los Angeles and San Diego that offer calendars of children's events. Or you can pick up copies of those magazines at toy stores or other places. We also found handy Frommer's "California With Kids." If you're looking for a regular guidebook, we like Fielding's "Los Angeles Agenda" and "San Diego Agenda."

--Ruth Marcus

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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