Legoland was supposed to be a pit stop before the big Disneyland trip, but I misjudged where Lego ranks in the life of a six-year-old boy: at the very top.
That was only one of the subtle (but crucial) lessons I learned last Christmas, when my wife Mel and I accompanied our son Gus to San Francisco, Venice Beach, Santa Monica and La Jolla, partly to enjoy California, but more important, from Gus's perspective, to experience California from the point of view of a six-year-old boy.
I have to admit, even though the floor of our house is an homage to the stuff, I didn't see Legoland coming.
In Carlsbad, Calif., between Orange County and San Diego, Legoland is a theme park devoted entirely to Lego in all its glorious variations. There are all-Lego dioramas that recreate some of the most famous American destinations (Vegas, New Orleans, New York), (non-Lego) rides, a 4-D movie and interactive exhibits where kids are encouraged to build things with the house Lego. And they'll even pick up after them! (They've also recently opened an aquarium, and in June are opening a water park.)
Walking around the park on a fine Tuesday in late December, only to stumble upon a 2.1-metre-high Bionicle -- a kind of Lego Transformer -- blew the minds of Gus and his five-year-old cousin Dylan. You could almost see the thought bubble form in his head (Awesome, dude!) -- just the way it had for me, 35 years earlier, when I visited Disneyland, only my thrills were Mickey and Goofy, not Bionicles.
There were other nuggets gleaned along the way: hotel double nicely as bouncies, and there's no such thing as too many Happy Meals in a row when you're six and they're giving out cool, flashing, blue Avatar toys.
In a nutshell, here's a bit of what I learned and what we saw.
Check in to the Hotel Del Sol, a former Best Western that has been reinvented as a kid-friendly hotel in the Marina district. (It has free strollers, in-room Pixar DVDs and board games.) It's walking distance from Fisherman's Wharf, trolley rides, Alcatraz and The Exploratorium. Stop for breakfast at The Grove Cafe on Chestnut Avenue, a gorgeous, relaxed San Francisco hangout. (Fireplace, free Wi-Fi, $2 fresh fruit cups, free dog snacks!)
Head for The Exploratorium, San Francisco's science museum. It's dedicated to the exploration of the human senses. There's plenty for kids to touch, watch and listen to -- like the heat camera and particle accelerator. You can also dissect a cow eye or gaze into a cylindrical mirror. (Scientific American Magazine rated The Exploratorium the best science museum in the world.) The cafeteria has an organic vegetable salad bar to complement the hotdogs and pizza.
Oh, and before you leave town, race your kid up and down some of the hilly streets of San Francisco. They're practically a tourist attraction in themselves.
Venice Beach and Santa Monica
Before you hit the Venice Boardwalk, try breakfast at Flake on Rose Avenue. It has every kind of old-school cereal a kid, or a nostalgic parent, could possibly hope to dine on. The walls of the diner are decorated with framed cereal-box covers, as well as a large, satin Captain Crunch.
Check out the Santa Monica Pier, if only for its appeal as a throwback to another era.
Down the street from the Pier is the Third Street Promenade, an outdoor mall that is a Southern California classic. The Promenade offers three hours of free parking and is terrific for shopping, noshing, movies and occasionally, celebrity-spotting. (It also boasts a boulevard with hedges in the shapes of water-spouting dinosaurs).
A couple hours south, Torrey Pines State Reserve Park is 12 kilometres of beautiful hiking trails wrapped through a series of low-lying hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean, set on eight square kilometres of the most undeveloped stretch of the Southern California coast. There's a large chaparral plant community, a lot of rare Torrey Pine trees and a lagoon full of migrating seabirds.
Legoland vs. Disneyland
Legoland doesn't quite have the art of the theme park lineup down like Disneyland, which we (unfortunately) visited during the week between Christmas and New Year's, when it was jam-packed.
While the crowds were daunting, Disneyland is still a pretty magical place to visit. There were impressive rides in Tomorrowland, namely Astro Blasters, an ode to Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear. The Jungle Cruise was cool, too, even though each ride required a 30-minute lineup.
His final word on Disneyland: It was half fun (the rides) and half boring (the lineups).
Bottom line: Whether it's your kid or the kid in you, California is still full of thrills for just about everyone.
-- Canwest News Service
IF YOU GO
-- The Exploratorium: 3601 Lyon
St., San Francisco, 415-561-0360.
-- Hotel del Sol: 3100 Webster
St., San Francisco, 415-921-5520.
-- The Grove Cafe: 2250 Chestnut
St., San Francisco. 415-474-4843
-- Flake Cereal Bar: 513 Rose Ave.,
Venice, 310-435-9556 www.
-- Torrey Pines State Reserve:
16500 North Torrey Pines Rd.,
San Diego, 858-755-2063. www.
-- Legoland: www.legoland.com/
-- Disneyland: Anaheim Exit off
the I-5 at the Disneyland Exit.