By CARY ORDWAY
While San Francisco sometimes likes to tweak the more conservative parts of the country with local politicians' unusual views on the military and the city's edgy reputation on social issues, this venerable and beautiful city has a surprising package to offer vacationing families.
It's not exactly Leave it to Beaver-land, but the fact is San Francisco is chock-full of sights and activities that will keep families fully engaged during their stay and completely satisfied that this destination was a good choice for people with kids. Unlike Las Vegas, which tried the kids thing for a few years and ultimately decided it's better to market the destination for what it is, San Francisco has never wavered in its full-on promotion of the city as good for families as well as adults.
To be sure, San Francisco is not an especially economical location to visit. The high cost of living and doing business in the city is passed right on to hotel guests and visitors who plunk down as much to park their car for the day as they used to spend staying at Motel 6 for the night. But there just aren't too many San Francisco's out there and California kids have not experienced what their home state has to offer until they've visited the Bay area.
Choosing the right hotel is an important start. There are dozens of great family options but the kids program at the Omni Hotel may be one of the best for families willing to pay typical downtown hotel rates. Not only does your stay at the San Francisco Omni introduce your kids to a true downtown big-city experience — it also offers them a little touch of home when you book the Kids Fantasy Suite.
Our five-year-old daughter was elated when she opened the door to her adjoining room and found it filled with stuffed animals, a lemonade stand, lots of games, beanbag chairs and even Pottery Barn kids' bunk beds. It no longer was just a bedroom — it was now a play room and a pretty complete one at that. It was just minutes before our daughter was sprawled on the floor playing with the stuffed toys and inviting Mom and Dad to share in her good fortune. With kid karma like this, we figured it was good for at least a full day without a disciplinary incident.
Omni Hotels take this kid stuff seriously. Google Omni and "kids" and you come to www.omnikidsrule.com, a website the hotels have created for the sole purpose of getting kids and families excited about staying at Omni Hotels. Kids' activities are listed city-by-city, and the site has games, a coloring book and lots of fun stuff that kids can do right at the computer before they even set foot in the hotel.
Once they arrive at the hotel they will be given a special bag with crayons, activity book, a drinking cup, candy and other items especially for them. It's also noteworthy that the hotel's greeters put just as much emphasis on the kids as they do their parents. Doormen, parking attendants, front desk personnel — all seemed willing to stop what they were doing and welcome our daughter to the hotel. This wasn't just for the kids, of course. The staff at the Omni were some of the friendliest and most helpful we've come across at any hotel.
With parking such a premium in San Francisco, you may want to use the cable cars, buses and taxis to get to and from many of your kids locations. There are many family activities on the waterfront and Fisherman's Wharf is easily accessible by cable car. In fact, the cable cars are a must experience while in San Francisco — you can take the Powell-Hyde line or the Powell-Mason line, both starting at the cable car turnaround at Powell and Market and ending on Fisherman's Wharf. Once you get to the waterfront, which also includes the Pier 39 area, you'll find such attractions as the Aquarium by the Bay, the Venetian Carousel, the Cinemax theater, arcades, street performers and dozens of sea lions napping near the pier.
Some other kids' locations are a little farther out so we did use our car to visit several different areas. If you buy the $45 valet parking at the Omni, you get in-and-out privileges — we chose instead a nearby garage at about half the price and only left the vehicle there for the night.
One of the locations we drove to was the Exploratorium, located near the Presidio at the end of the waterfront near the Golden Gate Bridge. This massive science museum is like a giant aircraft hanger full of experiments like you might have seen on Mr. Wizard or Bill Nye, the Science Guy. The exhibits here are not the kind you just walk through and look at — almost everyone is an experiment that you and your kids will do to prove this or that theory.
Named one of the top 10 science museums in the country by Good Housekeeping Magazine, the Exploratorium offers kids the chance to experience physics and other phenomena in a fun, intriguing, thought-provoking way. Everywhere we went throughout the 700 exhibits on display here, kids were fully engrossed with the experiments. Nobody had that glazed-over look you remember having sometimes back in your high school science classes.
A totally different type of kids' activity is a bit of a drive northeast of the city where you'll find Six Flags Marine World in Vallejo. Some parks are a little too focused on aggressive, stomach-churning rides that older members of the family are much less likely to do than to watch. Others are for the kiddies. Six Flags Marine World takes both of those elements, adds an educational element, and wraps it all into one big 140-acre package that holds surprises around every corner.
Eight world-class roller coasters and numerous thrill rides will keep the teenagers happy. An extensive kiddie area includes miniature roller coasters and a big assortment of rides gentle enough for even the smallest small fry. And Mom and Dad — or Grandma and Grandpa — will enjoy the many creatures found in the oceanarium and animal exhibit areas where you can have such unique experiences as touching dolphins or riding elephants.
Among the attractions not to be missed is the Dolphin Encounter where visitors can observe Atlantic bottle-nose dolphins playing inside a custom-designed 200,000-gallon touch and feeding pool. A relatively new attraction is the two-acre area called Ocean Discovery, where visitors can get up close and personal with dolphins, stingrays, penguins and sea lions. And one of the park's most popular attractions is Shouka, the killer whale, which has been with Six Flags Marine World since April 2004 and now appears in several shows each day (weekends only in early spring).
Families visiting San Francisco also will enjoy Golden Gate Park, where there is a children's playground including a restored carousel; Alcatraz Island, where you can take a self-guided tour of the famous prison that was closed in 1963; the San Francisco Zoo, which offers hours of enjoyment for the whole family; and the California Academy of Sciences that is three family attractions in one — a natural history museum, aquarium and planetarium.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: San Francisco kids' locations are all over the city and the Bay area and most are accessible by public transportation.
WHAT: San Francisco has a wide selection of attractions and activities that are especially well suited to kids and families.
WHEN: Any time of year. Weather in San Francisco is much different than Southern California, so winter visits will be chilly with the wind often coming up and reducing 40 and 50-degree temperatures even further. Even summer visits can seem much more like Seattle than Los Angeles. Some attractions such as Six Flags Marine World cut back hours during the winter.
WHY: San Francisco is one of California's most unique cities and a must-see for kids growing up in the Golden State. It boasts a rich history that is evident in the architecture, neighborhoods and many cultural attractions.
HOW: For more information on San Francisco, please visit www.sfvisitor.org. Several attractions are available by buying one CityPass, which is detailed on www.sanfrancisco.com. For more information on the San Francisco Omni Hotel and their special kids' programs, phone 415-677-9494 or visit www.omnihotels.com. Omni Kids Fantasy Suites are available in several cities.
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway, San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, San Francisco Omni Hotel