California's man-made wonders: Universal Studios, San Diego Zoo, LegoLand, Disneyland and more (photos)

Los Angeles, California - California has boundless natural attractions: mountains, beaches, deserts, forests. Much as we love those, on a recent family vacation we decided to sample some of the Golden State's man-made fun. Amusement parks, rides and the...

California's man-made wonders: Universal Studios, San Diego Zoo, LegoLand, Disneyland and more (photos)

Los Angeles, California - California has boundless natural attractions: mountains, beaches, deserts, forests.

Much as we love those, on a recent family vacation we decided to sample some of the Golden State's man-made fun. Amusement parks, rides and the San Diego Zoo were on our agenda this time.  

Some people like Orlando for all the parks it has to offer.  We found Southern California even more appealing as a family destination, thanks to the diversity of park offerings and the ability to explore so many other facets of California on the same vacation, making it a trip with something for everyone.

Here's the rundown of where we went, what we liked, where we stayed and how to get there:

Universal Studios Hollywood, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, 1-800-864-8377: 

Even before the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened last summer, this was our favorite California amusement park. From the delightful Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride to the Shrek 4-D experience to the truly terrifying Revenge of the Mummy indoor roller coaster and the Jurassic Park water ride, the park has thrills for all levels and ages of adventure-seekers. The "Fast and Furious"-themed studio tour is worth the price of admission alone, visiting the sets of "Jaws," "Psycho," "King Kong" and numerous other Universal releases. Unlike the Warner Brothers tour, this one is interactive and makes great use of studio special effects and tricks -- you really do feel like you're in the next installment of "Fast and Furious."

Beyond the rides, the whimsical design of Universal impresses, from the French market area to 221B Baker Street to the Simpson's Springfield area and Super Silly Fun Land.  Themed eateries in all the areas add to the fun, such as Luigi's Pizza and Duff Beer. The walk-through Walking Dead area recreates a different kind of milieu.

And then there's the Wizarding World. Opened in spring 2016, this immersive experience really does make you feel like you've landed in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. From the thrilling, and rather scary Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride to the Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster and the myriad wand, robe and trinket shops, it's a delightful, imaginative recreation. Don't miss Ollivanders wand store, where you'll be fitted for just the right wand. These wands launch magical experiences on specially marked spots through the area, the highlight of my 9-year-old's day -- and maybe year. 

 If you go: Tickets, $105 daily ($110 some Saturdays and Sundays), ages 10 and over. Two-day tickets begin at $129, a much better deal though Universal can easily be done in one day. Outside of the Wizarding World, we experienced very few lines when we visited late last summer.  Buying tickets online at saves money, too. There is ample parking available on site. 

LegoLand California, One Lego Drive, Carlsbad, 877-376-5346:

It was the Lego Friends who sealed the deal -- we had to visit LegoLand. My 9-year-old had built all the Lego Friends sets at home, so it was time to see the girls in action. But even if your Lego lovers are more Ninjago or Star Wars or Chima fans, there's something here for them, too.  Opened in 1991 about 45 minutes outside of San Diego, this experiential theme park recreates several Lego worlds with rides, shops and stage shows. It's aimed at a pretty young crowd, under 10, with many rides for children under 5.  The main draw here isn't wild rides, rather the full Lego experience. That carries over to the onsite hotel, where all rooms are themed.  We stayed in a, you guessed it, Lego Friends room. It included a separate alcove with a TV and bunk bed for kids, and in-room Legos to play with. The lobby was filled with Legos, too. A full buffet breakfast was included with the price -- as was a second day for free, one of many frequent deals the park offers.  We didn't get the aquarium access, but did opt for the water-park option.  I was glad we did.  With a wave pool, several lazy rivers and Pirate Reef Water Ride that allows you to shoot at unsuspecting passers-by, it made the day an even bigger splash.

If you go: Staying in the LegoLand Hotel really completes the experience. Tickets begin at $47.50 per day for amusement park only. Rooms start at $265, with several package deals available.

San Diego Zoo, 2920 Zoo Drive, San Diego, 619-231-1515:

The San Diego Zoo has been one of America's premiere park destinations for more 100 years, since 1916. With more than 100 acres and 3,700 animals, this is a zoo even for people who don't like zoos.  The thoughtfully cultivated park groups animals by habitat, such as rain forest, taiga, outback and tundra. Hop-on, hop-off buses take visitors around the gorgeous, landscaped grounds, as does a Skyfari gondola ride. 

The San Diego Zoo is one of the few in the country to house Giant Pandas. The only lines on the day we visited were in the panda area.  It was worth the wait to see the enormous, inquisitive Bai Yun, Gao Gao and Xiao Liwu.  Beyond that, the flamingoes, bears, tigers, penguins, hippos and others all made for a wonderful, inspiring day.

If you go: The "One Day Pass Plus" is the most popular option, $48 for kids, $58 ages 12 and over. It provides one visit to the San Diego Zoo, guided bus tour, kangaroo express bus, Skyfari aerial tram, all regularly scheduled shows and the 4-D theater.

We stayed at the nearby Lafayette Hotel Swim Club, less than a 5-minute drive and a perfect place for a visiting Clevelander. The renovated vintage hotel, built in 1946, features a restaurant named after Cleveland's own Bob Hope, one of the first guests back in the day. Most rooms open onto a lovely Olympic-size pool designed by Johnny Weissmuller. 2223 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, 1-855-213-0582.

Santa Monica Pier, Pacific Park, //

This old school park has one of the best addresses in the country -- make that world. Located on the Santa Monica Pier, Pacific Park offers several no frills pay-as-you-ride thrills, from the scrambler, pirate ship and "west coaster" to the main deal, the big wheel. There are few better views of the California coast than the one from the top of the Santa Monica Ferris Wheel, aka the Pacific Wheel.  There are also carny games and churros and other snacks on the park. The pier itself offers souvenir stores, restaurants, carousel, arcade and more.

If you go: Rides are $5 to $10 each; a better deal is a day pass for $16.95-$27.95 Purchase online for the best deal. Parking in city-owned lots is $6 to $15. The view from the end of the pier -- the end of North America: priceless.  

Disneyland, 1313 Disneyland Drive, Anaheim, 714-781-4565:  We didn't go to Disney on this trip west, but have on two previous visits. Some people prefer Disney World. I prefer Disneyland any day. The smaller, older park, opened in 1955, has all the classic charm of Disney, without the sprawl of Disney World. With just two parks, Disneyland and California Adventure, it's easy to do the West Coast Disney in a day. You can also drive and park yourself, and take a tram to the door, much easier than Orlando's elaborate bus system.  Disneyland has all the favorite rides, from It's a Small World to Space Mountain to Main Street U.S.A. Opening in 2019, there will also be a Star Wars area, taking the place of Big Thunder Ranch.

If you go: Anaheim offers several affordable hotels, but with the park less than a 40 minute drive from most parts of Los Angeles, we just took a daytrip from the city. Tickets are $97 for a one-day pass. The park is easily doable in one day.

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