San Francisco Fun

Fire engines, grizzly bears, boat rides ... oh my!

By Carole Terwilliger Meyers

San Francisco is a wonderland of spectacular scenery and visitor attractions. It's no secret that many are enjoyed best without childrent — think sophisticated museums, upscale restaurants — but many more are enjoyed with kids, especially grandkids. Here are some winning options, with age restrictions noted.

[photo photo2 align=right max-width=100]Alcatraz Island is as good as it's cracked up to be: the boat ride, the tour of the infamous federal penitentiary, and the 360-degree bay view. After a short, scenic cruise to the island named after the brown pelican, you can follow a self-guided tour or spring for the cell block audio tour narrated by former inmates and guards. Tickets can be hard to get in the summer; secure yours in advance. Age 7-plus.

Local grandpa Joseph Najpaver likes visiting the San Francisco Zoo because, "My grandson likes it," he says. "Sometimes we come here and don't even see any animals, because he just wants to go to the zoo playground." You may be entitled to free admission if you are a member of your local zoo society. This zoo is famous for its Gorilla World and African Savanna habitats, as well as its Children's Zoo, Insect Zoo, and antique carousel. Four-year-old female grizzly bears, Kachina and Kiona, will romp in the new Hearst Grizzly Gulch beginning in June, 2007. The grizzly is the California state mammal and the symbol on the California state flag. All ages.

[photo photo3 align=right max-width=100]Going strong since 1974, Beach Blanket Babylon is a fast-moving and humorous musical revue known for its colorful, creative costumes and elaborate, oversize headdresses. It is very San Francisco. Sunday matinees are aimed at families and are the only performances open to minors. No alcohol is served then, but guests may order soft drinks. Also, there is no profanity or violence, and sexual puns are toned down. Performances often sell out, so reserve your tickets early and arrive about an hour before curtain. Age 10-plus.

[photo photo4 align=left max-width=100]Always busy Pier 39 offers myriad diversions — including an Italian carousel, a simulated thrill ride, and an aquarium in addition to more than 110 shops and 14 restaurants. Among the kid-pleasing boutiques is one that specializes in puppets, one in chocolate, and yet another in charms. Fast food includes fish & chips, hamburgers, pizza, and hot pretzels.

[photo photo5 align=right max-width=100]But to really watch the grandkids go gaga, take them to the west side of the pier to visit the sea lions. They've taken up permanent residence and can usually be seen basking, barking, and belching on the floating docks. Sometimes, you can even smell them. Grandma Maryann Vanlinder, visiting from Holland with her 3-year-old grandchild, says, "I could stand here and watch them all day." Adds Grandma Justa Campas from Tracy, Calif., "I love the sounds they make. This is nature at its best." All ages.

Kids love a park and playground, and Golden Gate Park is home to the very first playground in a U.S. public park. Constructed in 1887, Koret Children's Quarter Playground is filled with creative modern play structures and due to reopen in mid-June, 2007, post upgrade. An antique carousel is adjacent to the playground, spinning within a protective hippodrome enclosure to tunes from an original Gebruder-Bruder band organ. Age 2-plus.

[photo photo6 align=right max-width=100]When you're feeling tired but the grandkids aren't, board the San Francisco Fire Engine Tour. This happy excursion takes you over the Golden Gate Bridge in a bright-red 1955 Mack fire engine. Children get a lesson in fire safety through original sing-along songs, and you all can bundle up in authentic, insulated firefighter jackets for the sometimes chilly ride in the open-air truck. Age 5-plus.

[photo photo7 align=left max-width=100]Teach your grandkids something new at the Exploratorium. This cavernous museum makes scientific and natural phenomena understandable through a collection of more than 650 hands-on exhibits. Scientific American described it as the best science museum in the world. Kids love lighting up an Enchanted Tree by clapping their hands, and are amazed to be taller than Grandma or Grandpa in the Distorted Room — where there are no right angles and people seem to shrink and grow. Afterwards, enjoy a picturesque picnic outside by a large reflecting pond populated with ducks and swans. Age 4-plus.

A visit to Mission Dolores, the sixth mission in California's chain of 21 established under the direction of Father Junipero Serra, is de rigueur for every schoolchild. It's especially appropriate for California fourth graders, who study the missions during that grade. The mission chapel, completed in 1791, is the oldest intact building in the city, and its cool adobe and redwood interior makes for a pleasant respite from the occasional warm San Francisco day. All ages.

The perfect end to any of these grand adventures is a drive down Lombard Street, the world's most crooked street, and an ice cream sundae at city landmark, the Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Manufactory.

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