Los AngelesSure most Northern California families take a family vacation to S. California every so often to hit the theme parks and landmarks most associated with the south of the Golden State. But some gems along the way are often missed. When traveling to S. California’s highlights, a discerning family needs to think a little outside the box to create a truly unique and unforgettable S. Cal experience.

Along the Way to Southern California

When heading South from Sacramento on I-5 towards Los Angeles, a funky little generations-old hidden gem provides our family and others, refreshing and refueling in the Apricot Tree Restaurant where Carlos Delgado has been serving up Apricot specialties since most moms and dads were carrying lunchboxes. I’ve been going there since I was a kid traveling with my folks. Think outside the box (no pun intended); no fast food drive-thrus here.

In Firebaugh, California, visible off the freeway, our favorite family eatery and gift shop provides impeccable service and clean ambiance with the added fun of thousands of vintage lunch boxes and Thermoses lining the walls and ceilings. While your clan picks out their favorites or guesses which ones mom and dad used to carry to school and recess, be sure you order the Apricot Club, Apricot Omelet, Apricot Shake, Apricot Chicken, and especially the fries they have been known for, for decades. This great little retro eatery also incorporates fresh local ingredients whenever in season and also makes their own homemade fudge. The gift shop provides the perfect place our kids love to pick up souvenirs or past times for the miles ahead.


Staying in proximity to the S. Cal theme parks, again think outside the box. Sure the Anaheim chain motels are fine but why not enjoy the trip, sleep well, eat well, and get the most out of the parks with all the added extras? Think value here. We were glad we did.

Where to Stay and Eat in Southern Californian on a Family Vacation

A true hidden treasure in Anaheim is the Hotel Menage. Such a gem in fact, that the corporate folks from Disney bring their clients there to watch the fireworks and have food and cocktails. One visit and we were certain why. This beautiful tropical Asian flared property is literally across the street from the staging area for the Disney fireworks and parades. Kids can recreate in the lavish pool or spa while mom and dad enjoy cocktails in the patio by the pool, while all take in the parades and fireworks. One of the only 24 hour pools in California, no matter what time you return from the park you can enjoy the pool as well as the extravaganza Disney provides.

The rooms and suites are huge, comfy, and very classy yet kid-friendly. Extras like free internet and a spacious work out room really round out the experience.

The food at K’ya on property is likely the highest quality food for the most economical price you could find within miles. All plates at K’ya, located inside Hotel Manage, are less than $10 and the offerings are phenomenal. Simply outstanding dishes from a half dozen different countries are artfully and delightfully prepared to satisfy the most famished post-Disney appetites. It’s a classy place with outstanding food, where the kids can bounce around in the booths without notice while the parents unwind with a cocktail or some appetizers.

If something closer to the freeways is desirable because you plan to do hopping between Disney parks as well as Knott’s Berry Farm and Universal Studios, then the Embassy Suites North might be just the ticket. Again, think outside the box. Instead of the crowded, over priced hotels right on the strip by Disneyland, try this nice property where every room is a suite, a full-service, cooked to order breakfast is served daily, a manager’s cocktail reception, complete with Roy Rogers and Shirley Temple bar, and a shuttle to the parks, all make everything relaxing, convenient, and affordable. Our shuttle driver Ray was worth the visit as he enchanted all the kids with card tricks, appropriate jokes, and made the long day a true pleasure on the way back to the hotel.

This is your most important “think-outside-the box” assignment. On the Downtown Disney District lies a gem for dining beyond compare in Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen. Nothing could be better after a long day at the theme parks than an impeccable dining experience which mirrors the legendary dining of Brennan’s in New Orleans.

Literally flawless, yet a place to take the entire clan, locals and tourists alike flock to this spectacular Anaheim diamond where southern comfort food, seafood, and exquisite desserts are taken to another level for surprisingly reasonable prices, given the exceptional quality.

Horseradish Crusted Salmon, Seafood Jambalaya, Stuffed Artichokes, Oyster Creole, Beignets, Crab Cakes, Chocolate Souffle, and so much more are truly a mouth watering delight with each and every morsel. The service is wonderful, ambiance fun, and our entire clan enjoyed the pampering after a long day on our feet.

PCHAgain, thinking outside the box, if you want to mix it up a bit and stay near the ocean while visiting S. Cal’s best theme parks, Redondo Beach and Huntington Beach make great choices, both within a short drive of the parks. The Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort in Huntington Beach (Surf City USA) provided us a wonderful family-friendly option where we were glad we allowed time for a family bike ride along the beach.

In Redondo Beach, both the beautiful Portofino Hotel and Yacht Club with it’s gorgeous views of the harbor and boats, and the Crowne Plaza Redondo Beach with it’s comfortable rooms, spa, and excellent dining, offer perfect choices for families who want to blend the theme park experience with a real S. Cal immersion into the coastal lifestyle.

Time to Play in Southern California

Disneyland and California Adventure still remain the focal point of theme parks. We schedule mid week visits, and strategically plan out our day by hitting the big attractions at the back of the parks first, early in the morning, and working our way forward to the shorter line rides as the day progresses.

Knott’s Berry Farm continues to be a great all around, all ages attraction with thrill rides for the older kids and lots of excellent shows and rides for the tots. Staged train robberies, stage coach rides, and western themed shows added to our fun.

Universal Studios is better than ever with new high tech, 3D attractions as well as behind the scenes looks at the effects that make it all possible. We found the VIP pass to be worth the cost, especially since our kids are fascinated with effects and loved to stay after the shows and performances to meet and interact with actors and to learn the ropes and gain inside secrets to the special effects.

Just ten minutes from Universal Studios, we took a short diversion before heading back to the hotel for the night. We strolled downtown Hollywood, looking for our favorite stars on the walk. We took in a tour of Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, where for nearly a century, anybody who is anybody, has seen the premiere of their movies in this architectural and historical wonder.

Big Bear LakeUnique Southern California Fun For Vacationing Families

Many visitors to Southern California aren’t aware that an hour and a half from the Disney Resorts lies a discovery of all S. Cal discoveries, Big Bear Lake. Think, or even ski outside the box, where a visit to Big Bear allows families to ride thrills and attractions at S. Cal’s best theme parks and the same day to ski, or take off road adventure treks in some of the state’s most beautiful back country.

Big Bear Lake is our favorite outdoor lover’s paradise with a zoo, Nordic slide, skiing, tubing, snowboarding, off road treks, outstanding multi-cultural dining, lazer tag, fishing, boating, and so much more. This all season paradise is in a class all its own.

It really is possible to have it all on your next trip to S. Cal: theme parks, a taste of Hollywood, the beach scene, and even alpine fun as well. Just think outside the box; the possibilities are limitless.