7 Central Coast Hidden Gems for Families

With its beaches, kid-friendly attractions, and year-round mild weather, California’s Central Coast is a crowd pleaser for the whole family. But for road-tripping families, there’s even more fun than meets the eye.

The Theme Park with Tree Art

Gilroy Gardens’ mix of rides geared to younger kids, splash pads for water play, and extensive gardens offer an unexpectedly mellow alternative to the typical amusement park experience. It’s also home to the Circus Trees—trees that were grafted into whimsical shapes starting in the 1920s and have grown into sculptural works of art in shapes resembling hearts, arches, baskets, and other surprising shapes.

A Prehistoric Peek

The Santa Cruz Natural History Museum offers a dino-thrill that’s sure to impress kids. Included in the museum’s displays is the tooth of a Megalodon, a prehistoric shark known as the largest predator to have ever lived. The museum’s other offerings include an intertidal touch pool, an observation beehive, and a life-sized grey whale sculpture.

Movie Fun for the Family

Galaxy Theater in Atascadero offers movie-theater amenities to please the whole family. The only theater on the Central Coast to offer DBOX motion chairs, the Galaxy delights kids who can feel like they’re part of the movie as their seats move along with the onscreen action. And adults will appreciate the theater’s VIP lounge that serves wine and beer.

Sea Otter Spotting

Sea otters make their home in the waters along California’s Central Coast, but it’s often hard for landlubbers to get a good look at the cute creatures. Morro Bay, however, offers great sea otter viewing spots that can yield patient families the chance to see the animals in their natural habitat. Head to the southeast side of Morro Rock or try Coleman Beach for the chance to see adult and baby sea otters playing, grooming, and snacking their way through the day.

Big Birds You Can Feed

Bird abound in Buellton at OstrichLand USA. Home to 50 ostriches and emus, the center offers families the chance to see these large birds up close. You can feed the animals or simply stand back and watch them run and play. Time your visit right and you might even get to see some baby chicks.

Family Friendly Floats

When the family is ready to get beyond the beach, head to Ventura where you can rent a pedal boat, surf bike, kayak, or electric boat and head out onto the water. This family- and dog-friendly adventure offers the chance to spot seals, sea lions, and birds while gaining a whole new perspective on Ventura Harbor Village.

California's Central Coast consists of:

VENTURA REGION: Ventura County, Camarillo, Conejo Valley, Heritage Valley, Oxnard, Simi Valley
SANTA BARBARA REGION: Santa Barbara County, Buellton, Carpinteria Valley, Lompoc Valley, Los Olivos, Santa Maria Valley, Solvang, Santa Ynez Valley
SAN LUIS OBISPO REGION: San Luis Obispo County, Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Cambria, Cayucos, Grover Beach, Harmony, Morro Bay, Nipomo, Paso Robles, Pismo Beach, San Simeon
MONTEREY BAY REGION: Monterey County, Santa Cruz County, Carmel, Carmel Valley, Gilroy, Hollister, San Benito, San Juan Bautista

About Central Coast Tourism Council

The Central Coast Tourism Council (CCTC) is a non-profit organization comprised of Destination Management Organizations (DMOs; Convention & Visitor Bureaus, Chambers of Commerce, etc.) throughout the California Central Coast. Comprised of tourism and hospitality professionals, the mission of CCTC is to jointly promote the entire California Central Coast as a destination. The four regions that comprise California’s Central Coast include Monterey Bay, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura. The CCTC also serves as the Central Coast’s voice in Sacramento, and as a partner with Visit California’s global marketing and advertising campaigns.