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Petting Zoos

Happy Hollow Park and Zoo

1300 Senter Rd.
San Jose, CA 95112

Happy Hollow is definitely the sort of place that kids love, and parents love that it's quite affordable. Many of the rides are quite young, and quite tame when compared to the thrills of Magic Mountain, but they are definitely suitable to the seven-year-olds and younger set. Parents may be underwhelmed by the Danny the Dragon ride featuring fairytale statues and a small dark tunnel, but small children seem fascinated and will probably insist on 'Danny again'. Since Danny is currently under a construction makeover, they may have to wait a while until he's ready to thrill them all over again. The carousel and Pacific Fruit Express roller coaster are also a quiet sort of fun, but the bumper cars and Frog Hopper may satisfy the boys' needs for a little adrenaline. The animals in the petting zoo can actually be petted, from the large cow to the ponies and donkeys, which is a step above some ultra-safety conscious facilities. You can brush them as well as feeding them, which is a definite plus, although the goats may have to be deterred from anything flapping that may look like food. No need to bring hand sanitizer, because there's a real hand-washing station with soap. If these activities aren't enough, try the puppet shows and the play areas. These are scattered across the grounds, so if at any time one of the kids has a desperate need to climb and slide and spin around, they can do so. If you pack along some yogurt bars and fruit cups, you can spread out at the picnic tables also scattered across the grounds, and then visit one of the many bathrooms. You may even be visited by face painters, if the season is right. In keeping with the rides, the zoo doesn't provide the larger impressive animals like elephants or giraffes, but the meerkats and birds are always good to see – especially if you make it during feeding time so the trainer can answer questions. Also, sometimes the jaguar lets himself be seen up close.

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Lemos Farm

12320 San Mateo Rd.
Half Moon Bay, CA 94019

If you're inspired by a local farmers market, or your kids wonder what it would be like to ride a pony, choo-choo train and a tractor, Lemos Farm is the weekend place to go. The goats can't be ridden, but for $1 per cup they can be fed, and so can the ducks and the wishing well – you have to cross its lip with silver. The train has gotten decorated with festive scenes over the years, so you may see Christmas decorations mixed with Western scenes. Christmas trees and pumpkins can also be chosen here instead of at a local lot. You can come on a weekend, park the kids on ponies and wear them out in laser tag, and then wander around finding the perfect fir that will house all of the kids' art projects and glittery ornaments all through December, or the perfect scary jack-o-lantern. While Lemos Farm is agriculturally themed, there are some unique offerings besides the Pumpkin Patch and the hay ride. From September through the end of October, kids can be entertained in the haunted house. No reservations are needed for zapping each other in laser tag, though it does cost $10 for 20 minutes. That may be one of the few drawbacks, that there are a few items not covered in the price of admission – laser tag is one, and operating a tractor in the Dig Zone is another. Otherwise, you do have the choice of just paying single tickets for items like Playtown and the hay ride – or you can get unlimited rides on the train and ponies and everything else by getting a day pass. Playtown is not to be missed for its mix of bouncy houses and rocking horses. This strange blend of activities goes back to the history of Lemos Farm, in which the current owner's city-dwelling grandfather was offered a cow as a debt payment. Since the cow was in the family way, a few more cows were bought and put on a farm to create a working dairy, but all that work required a tractor that still chugs around the grounds today. The pony rides and haunted house came in after the owners started thinking about expanding their Christmas tree side business with pumpkins. Lemos Farm is the place where anything can happen.

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Oakland Zoo

9777 Golf Links Rd.
Oakland, CA 94605

Animals and kids go together, especially at the Oakland Zoo. As a parent, it's important to have that 'magical' place in your back pocket, with plenty of activities, that isn't as pricey as Disneyland. (Parents in the Bay area should think about getting a membership, which includes free admission, parking, guest tickets, and 8 ride vouchers.) For parents without a car, the 511 Trip Planner can save a lot of time on public transport. Since the Zoo is spread across more than 500 acres with hills, parents with toddlers should definitely remember the backpack or stroller. What's great about the Zoo is that there's more than just waiting for the lions to roll over, or reading up on monkey grooming habits. If your kids are of the 'do everything' type, you'll want to check out the train, carousel, and rollercoaster. If your kids are of the 'observer' type, there are 650+ animals to watch, and Monday through Friday feeding times - from alligators to elephants to sun bears. If your kids are of the 'up close and personal' type, scrambling through the meerkat tunnel or the reptile cave is always a good idea, along with the play areas. (Don't forget to take a bathroom break after all that crawling – restrooms are right next to the meerkats, the Bug House, the picnic area, and the goat and sheep barn.) The lack of a 'concrete jungle' at Oakland is what sets it apart from the Los Angeles Zoo. Kids and parents who want to see animals in a naturalistic environment can't go wrong here. It's also more interactive, from the bat house to the goat petting area, and the cable car allows you to see the Bay area while peeking into animal cages.

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San Francisco Zoo

2945 Sloat Blvd.
San Francisco, CA 94132

Sometimes, kids just want to go see animals doing what they do (maybe so that they can pick up behavior tips for later). At the San Francisco Zoo, there's sea lions and penguins for kids who love water, grizzlies and gorillas and giraffes for the ones who are impressed with size, anacondas and koalas for those who like the tropics. Though Storyland in the Children's Zoo might only appeal to the toddlers, the insect exhibit and petting zoo can keep the older ones occupied for a while. Active youngsters might be able to get out some energy on the Nature Trail or the playground (which has slides and a climbing area), and the hands-on kids might want to see the volunteers showing birds and reptiles between May and September. Little girls might really like the butterfly garden across from the meerkat and prarie dog exhibit, or the rose garden with poppies that look like fried eggs. This Zoo hasn't always gotten the spectacular ratings of some zoos (Oakland) before the recent renovation, but it does have better exhibits and location than others (Santa Barbara), and the otters and hippos can really be entertaining. Combining the San Francisco Zoo with other activities can be a great way to spend a day. After a stroll through Fisherman's Wharf (Pier 43 ½), you can take a free 30-minute shuttle to the Zoo at 10 am or noon, or grab the 1:45 shuttle after lunch at the Rainforest Cafe near the Wharf's Wax Museum. Just remember that the return shuttles arrive at the Rainforest Cafe at 1 pm and 3 pm, so if you got to the Zoo around 2 pm, make sure you know when to catch Muni bus lines 18 and 23, or the L Taraval line. Check the 511 Trip Planner if you're not sure.

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Tilden Regional Park

2501 Grizzly Peak Blvd.
Orinda, CA 94563

If your kids don't know what a working farm looks like, Little Farm would be the perfect place to take them after it re-opens on March 2014. Toddlers will especially be fascinated by the various noises of the animals, which of course they'll want to imitate when you get home. The chickens will cluck, the ducks will quack – and the goats and cows will cluster around to be fed your wilted leftover lettuce and celery from the back of the fridge. (They are not picky about food quality.) The ducks have their own luxury pool with a sunning deck, so on the right day, you can catch them sunbathing as well as swimming. The pigs and rabbits are also good watching and observing value, though the pigs can get insistent about their right to snacks. The horses and sheep tend to be a bit more wary, so it's a good opportunity to teach the kids about the right way and the wrong way to approach different types of animals. Some parents and kids have been able to use their horse and sheep-whispering skills here, so try and see what works through the bars of the gates. There is a small playground complete with water fountains, which might be necessary for the kids to burn up any excess energy in minding their manners around the critters. There's plenty of room for strollers, but remember to strap on sturdy shoes or sneakers if there has been recent rain, as the puddles and mud can take some navigation. Also remember to bring along sack lunches or a picnic basket for the grassy area, just in case hunger calls as well as nature (bathrooms are also free). Especially because everything is free here, including an Environmental Educational Center, there are fewer crowds on the weekdays than on weekends. If your kids are clamoring for more than just animal interaction, Tilden Park also has an antique merry-go-round and a steam train railroad. Lake Anza is also good for swimming if you come in the summer, but can be visually enjoyed at any time. If your kids are budding horticulturalists, definitely do not miss the Botanic Gardens, which hosts a sale of native California plants every Thursday morning from May through December.

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