Santa Barbara with Toddlers
We spent three weeks staying at Thousand Trail’s’ Rancho Oso, about 30 miles outside of Santa Barbara. I was excited about spending time in this area since it was one of the first places on our journey that neither Ross or I had ever been to before. We knew Santa Barbara was considered wine country, and there was a lot of adult fun to be had, but what family activities would we be able to find in Santa Barbara? Being January, sitting at the beach and splashing in the waves for three weeks straight wasn’t a realistic plan. After a little research and advice from other travelers, we found some excellent ways to fill our days as a family in Santa Barbara. Here are a few of our favorites and must sees if you find yourself in Santa Barbara with little ones!
The MOXI is a wonderful children’s/discovery museum located just a few blocks away from the coast and Stearn’s Wharf. It is a contemporary museum devoted to science, technology & the arts, with a focus on interactive exhibits. We had a lot of rainy days during our time in Santa Barbara, and we were so happy to get the recommendation to visit the MOXI from another fulltime RV family.
Since it was raining, we parked in a covered garage just across the street from the MOXI. There is some street parking, but the parking garage wasn’t crazy expensive, and the covered parking spot would be ideal for our picnic lunch on the tailgate after the museum. Finn’s ticket was $10, Hazel was free (being two years old), and Ross and I were $15 each. We later learned the MOXI is part of the ASTC Passport Program, which gives you free/discounted admission at more than 300 museums across the country. So if you are even visiting two museums throughout a year, go that route.
The museum is two stories, plus a rooftop deck, filled with interactive and hands-on exhibits. There are multiple areas meant to inspire kids of all ages in different ways. Areas include the Sound Track where we were able to pluck a giant guitar and make our own movie soundtracks to the Sky Garden where the kids were able to have some fun with water and learn about the sounds of weather. I think our favorite area was the Speed Track where the kids built their own derby cars and race them down a track. I’m pretty sure this was Ross’s favorite exhibit as well :)!
The kids had a blast exploring through play. Most of the exhibits seem geared towards kids older than two and four, but Finn and Hazel still had fun!
After our time at the MOXI, we went back to the truck for our picnic lunch then hit McConnell's Fine Ice Creams right across the street. It was delicious and the ice cream on the cake of our fabulous morning at MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation.
If you don’t know by now, we love playgrounds. They are a great way to burn off some energy when not going for a big adventure or sightseeing. Not to mention, they are free! Located in the northwest corner of Alameda Park in downtown Santa Barbara, Kids World might be the playground of all playgrounds. Definitely, the best one we’ve seen so far. Kids World is an 8,000 square foot playground with a castle, swings, slides and more. It was built by the locals of Santa Barbara in 1993. It is an oversized wooden castle containing twists, turns, tunnels, bridges, and slides. There is a toddler area great for tiny kids needing fewer stairs and shorter slides, and a bigger kid area that’s even big enough for parents to get in on the fun!
During our three weeks in Santa Barbara, we visited Kids World a handful of times. The playground is completely fenced in with a large wooden gate, keeping tiny ones from easily escaping. I felt totally comfortable taking a seat on a bench while letting the kids go to town without me needing to follow them around and know their every move. There were a number of picnic tables surrounding the play structure that provided a perfect place for lunch.
We visited at different times of day and found the mornings were best for our little kids. Afternoons, big kids and school groups came to play, making it harder for toddlers to navigate through the castle. If you are looking for some free, very kid friendly fun, Kids World is the place!
We didn’t go to Santa Barbara with the intention of visiting the zoo. I had read it was a smaller zoo, so I didn’t think it would be worth the admission fee. Granted Hazel was free and Finn only $11, I still wasn’t into paying $18 for myself. But, my dad, AKA grandpa, happened to be coming to visit us in Santa Barbara and he wanted to show the kids a good time. So zoo on grandpa it was!
I am so happy we visited the Santa Barbara Zoo! Even though it was little, it was spectacular. It was a Tuesday morning, we were literally the first ones to enter the gates, so it was uncrowded, to say the least. The animals are pretty much the animals you’d find at most zoos: playful elephants, silly monkeys, and snakes in the reptile house. But, what blew me away with the Santa Barbara Zoo, was the enclosures and viewing areas. Every animal had a beautiful place to call home. We’ve seen some zoos that have made us want to stop visiting zoos altogether, but what they’ve built for these animals is truly amazing. Not to mention the areas where we as spectators can watch the animals — for instance, the gorilla area. You can walk through and see the gorillas from a replica of Jane Goodall’s treehouse. She even visited the zoo to help recreate the viewing area. The giraffe exhibit allows visitors to get almost within touching distance of the beautiful animals. In fact, they offer a feeding experience where you ARE able to get within touching distance and feed the giraffes!
We ended our morning at the zoo with a ride on the Zoo Train. I am not one to splurge on the extras at the zoo, but again, grandpa for the win! I’m so happy we took the train ride, because not only did the kids love the ride itself, you can get such a different look at some of the zoo’s best exhibits. We had a real life Lion King moment with Chadwick, the 18 year old African Lion. He stood on top of his rock den, faced the sun as it beat down over the Pacific ocean (which is just across the street), and let out a mighty roar! The train conductor stopped the train and let us take in all of Chadwick's glory. Only an experience we could’ve gotten on the train. Our entire trip to the Santa Barbara Zoo was worth every penny!
We visited Santa Barbara’s Stearns Wharf on two occasions. Both times, we drove our one ton pickup truck right onto that old wooden wharf and both times we lived to tell the tale. I know there is obviously a lot more weight on the wharf, but I’ll admit it, I was a bit nervous. But, the kids thought it was cool, and the best part is the first 90 minutes of parking on the wharf is free, so why not?!
On our first visit, we walked to the end of the wharf and watched the fishermen. The view is beautiful. It had been storming all week, so the waves were massive and fun to watch. We had lunch at Moby Dick Restaurant. You couldn’t beat the view from our window side table, and the food was excellent. I highly recommend the seafood tacos.
Our second time at Stearns Wharf was to visit the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Sea Center. This interactive marine education facility offers you close encounters with marine animals from the Santa Barbara Channel. We were able to touch sea anemone tentacles, hermit crabs, and even a shark. The coolest exhibit consisted of an opening in the floor, through the wharf, and into the water below. Here we were able to lower baskets and pull up treasures from the sea. We pulled up shells, a snail, and even watched a fellow seaman pull up a baby octopus!
Admission was only about $9/person, and Hazel was free. Like MOXI, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the Sea Center are part of the ASTC Travel Passport Program. If you are a member, admission is free. Worth it!
Maybe not the most kid-friendly thing we did in Santa Barbara, but the kids had fun nonetheless. The Superior Court Of California County Of Santa Barbara is a beautiful building designed by William Mooser III in the Spanish-Moorish architectural style. This working courthouse is surrounded by landscaped gardens and lawns. What attracted us to the building was the clock tower you’re able to hike up to and get a panoramic view of Santa Barbara. We were not prepared for how beautiful the inside of the building was.
While we gawked at the architecture and decor, the kids had a good time running up and down the halls. There was a wedding taking place under the Anacapa Arch which we stopped and watched. Talk about your nontraditional courthouse wedding! As we hiked the stairs up the clock tower, we were pleasantly surprised by the mid-tower room where you can view the working mechanics of the four massive clocks that sit atop the tower. We were lucky enough to be there at the top of the hour to sit, watch, and listen to the bells ring. The top of the tower offered the best view in town. You can see 360º from the ocean to the mountains. The wedding we had crashed was being led around the block by a mariachi band that we were able to see below. After our race to the bottom, grandpa down the stairs, the Baker family in the elevator (we won), we played in the sunken gardens. The grounds were just as beautiful as the building.
We absolutely loved our time with the kids in Santa Barbara. We are always thinking about where we might settle down after traveling fulltime in our RV, and Santa Barbara might be at the top of that list (so far at least).