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10 Places to Take the Kids Without Dropping a Bundle

Top-notch tourist attractions that won’t break the bank.

PUBLISHED AUG 5, 2022 11:02 A.M.
The newly opened Presidio Tunnel Tops provides free entertainment in pricy San Francisco.

The newly opened Presidio Tunnel Tops provides free entertainment in pricy San Francisco.

Presidio Trust

California is known for its tourist attractions, including many geared toward children and families. However, as enjoyable as popular destinations like Disneyland or Great Wolf Lodge can be, they are also quite costly. Fortunately, there are plenty of more affordable options across California that should please the entire family. Below, find a list in descending order of admission price—all the way down to free.

1. Jellystone Park

Yogi Bear might not be as familiar to kids today as he was a few generations ago, but families still can have a great time at the various Jellystone Park locations across the country. In California, Jellystone Park is located at Tower Park in Lodi. Visitors can choose between RV camping, tent camping, or renting a cabin. The Tower Park Marina has fishing, boating, and jet skiing, while back at camp kids can explore the water park and parents can soak in hot tubs.

Heather Murphy, a mother from Elk Grove, visited Jellystone Park with her two daughters last summer. She told California Local, “I didn’t think I’d like Jellystone, as I usually prefer more intense camping and nature adventures. But my girls had so much fun—they are still talking about it and we need to be sure to visit again next summer.”

Jellystone Park also has various activities at the campground, including Wild West–themed laser tag, swimming, gem mining, exercise classes with Yogi Bear and his friends, miniature golf and more.

14900 West Highway 12, Lodi, CA 95242
(209) 369-1041 | reservations@towerparkresort.com | TowerParkResort.com

2. Newport Dunes

This beautiful Southern California destination is equal parts relaxing for you and exhilarating for the kids. Rent a cottage or RV camp while enjoying the dunes and marina. Newport Dunes offers an inflatable water park, as well as paddle boarding, boat rides, and more. In the summer months, there are movies on the beach and other kid-friendly activities. Those who prefer a “daycation” aren’t required to stay onsite in order to enjoy the amenities.

1131 Back Bay Dr, Newport Beach, CA 92660
(949) 729-3863 | info@newportdunes.com | NewportDunes.com

3. San Diego Zoo

The largest zoo in the world is right here in California. The San Diego Zoo isn’t just a zoo but also a wildlife alliance—it’s one of the country’s leading conservation organizations working on behalf of endangered species. Almost any animal one can think of resides at the zoo—or in its sister park, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido. Visitors can learn from wildlife experts and enjoy some entertainment, including a 4-D theater. The San Diego Zoo also offers additional ticketed VIP experiences, including the chance to hug a sloth or get a morning look at early-rising cheetahs.

2920 Zoo Dr, San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 231-1515 | Zoo.SanDiegoZoo.org

4. Calico Ghost Town

Located in San Bernardino County, this 1880s mining town is a California historical landmark with a few fun perks—you can rent ATVs, go on a hike, explore a real silver mine, pan for gold, visit the museum, or ride a train similar to those used in the era of silver mining. There is an $8 entrance fee to support the town’s preservation, and there’s plenty to do to fill the day. Depending upon the time of year, there are also restaurants onsite. It’s situated halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, which also makes it a good pit stop if you are road tripping to one of those destinations. 

36600 Ghost Town Road. Yermo, CA 92398
(760) 254-1123 | calicotown@parks.sbcounty.gov |
Parks.SBCounty.gov

5. Winchester Mystery House

Sarah Winchester, the Victorian heiress of the Winchester Rifle Company, struggled with a bit of anxiety and perhaps some supernatural houseguests as well. Local San Jose legend declares she feared retaliation from the ghosts of the people killed by her husband’s rifles. Her solution? Build additions to her house, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The result was a beautiful mansion with oddities designed to “trick” the spirits: staircases leading to ceilings, doors that open to dangerous freefalls, and more than 24,000 square feet of rambling house for the spirits to hopefully lose their way and leave Sarah alone. Today, the Winchester Mystery House offers guided tours, including nighttime flashlight tours around Halloween and every Friday the 13th. Rebecca Foster, a mother from Carson City, recently held her daughter’s 14th birthday party at the mansion. “What a great experience! The staff was amazing!!! Gene gave us a very theatrical tour of the house, Danielle did our Explore More tour with all of the entertainment and charm, and Sandy helped put the whole birthday tour together.”

There is also a rifle museum, children’s shooting gallery, beautiful gardens, and gift shop. 

525 S Winchester Blvd, San Jose, CA 95128
(408) 247-2000 | winchestermysteryhouse.com

6. The Exploratorium

Located in the heart of San Francisco is one of the best children’s museums in California. This huge complex features hands-on exhibits that teaches kids of all ages various science concepts—and it’s just a lot of fun, too. Exhibits rotate, but include sun painting, an indoor tornado, a toilet drinking fountain, an animation station, and more. Reserve tickets in advance; the Exporatorium is well-known even outside of California. Michelle, a mother from New York who recently visited, says, “We spent five hours here and didn’t even want to leave. There was a lot to learn and play with. We spent about an hour at the illusion section alone.”

Pier 15, Embarcadero at Green Street, San Francisco, CA 94111
(415) 528-4444 | Exploratorium.edu

7. The Mystery Spot

Located in the picturesque redwood forests of Santa Cruz, the mystery spot is a science oddity that will amuse all ages. The Mystery Spot was discovered in 1939, and almost immediately became a tourist attraction. A walking tour highlights its gravitational anomaly, which is a circular area of about 150 feet. Here you’ll watch a ball roll uphill, find yourself walking diagonally, and more fun variations of height, gravity, and perspective. Some people are skeptical of the Mystery Spot’s authenticity, but this just makes it more attractive to others.

Ben Baer, a California teacher, says, “After avoiding this tourist trap for almost 50 years, I went about three years ago. Totally worth the price of admission. I absolutely knew what the gimmick was going in, but loved the presentation! The kids had a blast too.”

Is the Mystery Spot what it seems or is it all just a carefully executed illusion for tourists? You’ll have to visit to figure it out for yourself. Kids will love running through the beautiful (and always comfortably temperate) redwood forest while you wait for your tour to start or visit the snack bar and gift shop. Don’t forget to grab one of the Mystery Spot’s iconic neon yellow bumper stickers while you’re visiting.

465 Mystery Spot Road, Santa Cruz, CA 95065
(831) 423-8897 | MysterySpot.com

8. Jelly Belly Factory

The most famous jelly bean in the world is manufactured right here in California, and kids can experience the factory through a whimsical tour and interactive exhibits. Located in Fairfield, between Sacramento and San Francisco, the Jelly Belly factory is a fun and nostalgic adventure for all ages. Visitors don a factory worker hat and tour the facility, observing jelly beans being made (if you visit during weekday working hours). There is also an art gallery featuring portraits made completely out of jelly beans, a snack bar and ice cream shop, and special events throughout the year—such as visits with the Easter Bunny and Santa. Be sure to check out the gift shop for free samples of sometimes outlandish jelly bean flavors, and purchase a bag of “belly flops”—misshapen jelly beans that didn’t quite meet visual standards but still taste delicious.

One Jelly Belly Lane, Fairfield, CA 94533
(800) JB-BEANS | jellybelly.com/california-factory-tours

9. Be in a Studio Audience

Hollywood is obviously known around the world, and kids living in California have the opportunity to be part of a live studio audience for some of their favorite shows. From game shows to sitcoms, many shows allow children to attend filmings. Best of all, tickets to live filmings are almost always free. Be sure to check the age restrictions prior to reserving seats—many are for children over 8 or 10, and some are adults only. And there are other freebies in Tinseltown, such as the stars on Hollywood Boulevard’s sidewalk, the Forecourt of the Stars at the Chinese Theatre, and the occasional street performer dressed up as a movie icon.

To get started and select a show, try a website like On Camera Audiences.

10. Presidio Tunnel Tops

A new tourist attraction in San Francisco that just opened in July 2022, Presidio Tunnel Tops offers million-dollar views of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge, picnic areas, a campfire circle, gardens, trails and meadows—all for free. This $118 million addition to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area has a two-acre play area called the Outpost where kids can play on structures built from fallen tree trunks, boulders, and other natural materials. There’s indoor fun as well at the Field Station, named after the base camps where scientists do research, and the Crissy Field Center, which hosts learning labs and youth leadership programs.

103 Montgomery St, San Francisco, CA 94129
(415) 561-5418 | PresidioTunnelTops.gov

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