It’s a sweet synergy when you can have fun with your kids while they’re learning. Los Angeles is a big city with even bigger opportunities for families to discover and explore together, but you might not have heard of these lesser-known gems.
Among them are a path-blazing center that rescues animals while helping kids connect with nature, a shop where you can go back and forth in time (or, rather, get so immersed in the fun that it feels like it) and a drive-in that mixes current films with a little nostalgia. All would make nice additions to your family’s summer to-do list.
The Gibbon Conservation Center
The Gibbon Conservation Center (19100 Esguerra Rd., Santa Clarita; www.gibboncenter.org) is home to 40 gibbons representing five species, all on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List of Threatened Species. One of them, the northern white-cheeked gibbon, is critically endangered.
During tours of the center, families can get an up-close look at the gibbons and learn about their unique personalities and behavior, their native habitat, why they are endangered and how people can help protect them. “They are fascinating primates,” says Gabriella Skollar, director of the center. “It is so easy to relate to them because they live in families and both parents participate in raising their offspring. They are remarkable acrobats and sing melodic songs unique to their particular species.”
The Gibbon Conservation Center is open to the public from 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays and Sundays, with public tours at 10 a.m. – no reservations required. Admission is $15 adults, $12 teens, $5 ages 6-12 and free for ages 4 and younger.
Pretend City Children’s Museum
The Pretend City Children’s Museum (29 Hubble, Irvine; www.pretendcity.org) is big on interactive exhibits that give kids a chance to play as though they are adults. At the heart of this museum is a child-sized, interconnected city that includes Orange County landmarks such as the Irvine Clock Tower, Balboa Pavilion and San Clemente Library. The exhibits work well for all ages, and the museum is also a place where kids and parents can play together.
Another opportunity for learning comes through the museum’s diversity initiative. The Pretend City Real Café and Home exhibits change quarterly to focus on different cultures. In the Café, the menu, pretend food and décor change. In the Home, a new family of real Orange County residents “moves in,” bringing their traditions, culture and lifestyle with them. “Our educational staff facilitate learning through monthly activities, such as cooking or art classes, relating to the cultures represented in the exhibits,” says Senior Director of Advancement Leslie Perovich. “Children experience customs they would not otherwise be able to explore, creating an environment of respect for all people, regardless of ethnicity, religion, ability or orientation.”
Pretend City is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Monday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. Admission is $12.50 for ages 1 and up, free for infants.
The Bunny Museum
The Bunny Museum (2605 N. Lake Ave., Altadena; www.thebunnymuseum.com) is “the hoppiest place in the world,” according to co-founder and curator Candace Frazee, and is one of two San Gabriel Valley spots in the Guinness Book of World Records (the other being the Sierra Madre wisteria vine). The current collection includes more than 33,000 bunny items, and the museum boasts live bunnies visitors can feed.
The museum’s back story is as sweet as the bunny faces in its collection. It all started when co-founder Steve Lubanski gave a stuffed bunny to Frazee, his girlfriend at the time, one Valentine’s Day. The couple began giving each other a bunny gift every day as a token of love. After they married 19 years ago, they opened their home to the public. The museum moved to a new location in March and now displays the complete collection including antiques, furniture, contemporary art and nine bunnies from Rose Parade floats. The museum is open daily from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is $8, free for ages 4 and younger.
The Time Travel Mart
The Time Travel Mart in Echo Park (1714 Sunset Blvd., L.A.; www.timetravelmart.com) is great for kids who fell in love with time travel thanks to books such as “A Wrinkle in Time” and movies including “Back to the Future.” The shop stocks quirky products such as Robot Milk, Mammoth Chunks and Primordial Soup, among other futuristic and anachronistic items. Visiting is a unique experience.
“Our products are all one of a kind and very well designed by our awesome volunteers, who are professional copywriters, designers and writers,” says store coordinator Carinne Mangold. “The Time Travel Mart is not a space you can just walk in and out of — customers get lost in wormholes and find themselves transported to a different time period.”
Wormholes aside, The Time Travel Mart is also a storefront for 826LA, a nonprofit writing and tutoring organization that provides free programming for more than 9,000 Los Angeles students each year. All proceeds from Time Travel Mart purchases benefit 826LA, which also publishes student writing and sells it in the store. Time Travel Mart Hours are noon-6 p.m. Mon.-Sun.
Great Wall of Los Angeles
Designed by Judith Baca and created with the assistance of 400 local artists and young people from the greater L.A. community, the Great Wall of Los Angeles (12900 Oxnard St., North Hollywood; www.sparcinla.org) is a large public work of art. The vivid mural is officially called “The History of California.” It serves as a tribute to interracial harmony and was established with the direct support of the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC).
At 13 feet in height and a half-mile (six city blocks) in length, the Great Wall of Los Angeles is considered the longest mural in the world. You can relate its important messages to what your children already know about the state’s history. Plans to continue the wall to cover more current California history are in the works. The wall can be accessed free any time of day.
The Gentle Barn
The Gentle Barn (15825 Sierra Highway, Santa Clarita; www.gentlebarn.org) is a haven for rescued farm animals – and city kids longing to play with horses and hug cows. The organization rescues abused and unwanted animals, rehabilitates them and gives them sanctuary. Residents include pigs, horses, sheep, goats, turkeys, dogs, a llama, a peacock and an emu. There is a blind cow, a cow with a prosthetic foot and a one-footed chicken.
“Once the animals are healthy, happy and ready, they help us give hope and inspiration to people with the same stories of abuse and neglect as the animals,” says founder Ellie Laks, adding that this includes at-risk children from the inner city and those with disabilities. “It is a circle of healing that saves animals, heals people and helps people be kinder to animals.”
Laks says visitors are often surprised that cows like to be hugged, turkeys like to cuddle and pigs roll over for tummy rubs. “Even though the animals have sad stories, they all have happy endings and being at the Gentle Barn will give you hope, inspire you, and make you smile,” she says.
The Gentle Barn is open to the public from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $20 for adults, $10 for children.
Vineland Drive-In & Swap Meet
Most people think the days of drive-in movies are over, but nostalgic parents can give their kids a taste of yesteryear at the Vineland Drive-In & Swap Meet (443 Vineland Ave., City of Industry; www.vinelanddriveintheater.com). The drive-in has operated continuously since 1955 and claims to be one of the oldest in Southern California.
“I wish families knew that watching movies under the stars is the best entertainment that can bring families to spend quality time with each other,” says manager Juan Gonzalez. “Also, most of the time we have two movies on every screen for the price of one.” Gonzalez says that some of the family-friendly flicks at the drive-in this summer will include “Wonder Woman,” “The Mummy,” “Smurfs: The Lost Village” and “Despicable Me 3.”
Come early and you can shop the swap meet, with more than 600 vendors plus food carts. The swap meet is open from 7 a.m.-3 p.m., and the drive-in opens at 6:30 p.m. Fri. and Sat., 6:45 p.m. Sun.-Thurs. Admission for ages 9 and up is $9.50 Fri.-Sat., $9 Sun.-Thurs. Children’s admission (ages 5-8) is $3.25 Fri.-Sat and $3 Sun.-Thurs. Ages 4 and younger get in free every day. Admission covers two films, and sound comes through your car radio.
Choose your summer outings wisely and you can sneak in a little learning that helps stave off that “summer slide,” making the transition to school in the fall that much easier. You’ll also make a few memories and make that “What I Did Over Summer Vacation” essay much easier to write.
Robin Raven has explored the ins and outs of L.A. as a teacher, a nanny and a freelance writer.