A big thank you to the California Academy of Sciences for inviting us to check out their new The World’s Largest Dinosaurs, on view until January 2024, and the rest of the exhibits. Our unbiased views are included in this guide. I attended with my opinionated three-year-old and she always tells it like it is.
How to enjoy Cal Academy with a three-year-old
A family trip to a big museum like the Cal Academy of Sciences can feel daunting if it involves little kids. But fear not! Cal Academy can be navigated by a three-year-old with ease as long as you keep your expectations within reason. In other words, don’t plan on seeing everything. Instead, pick a few little-kid-friendly exhibits, pack snacks, and arrive early/leave early. Below we’ve included a list of a few sure-bets for little kids, but it’s not an all-inclusive list by any means. Add your favorites and advice in the comments!
Favorite Exhibits and Activities for a Little Kid at Cal Academy of Sciences
Just head downstairs and wander around. Your three-year-old will ooh and ahh at all the creatures around every corner. It’s almost like a maze down there, so don’t worry about seeing everything. Pro-Tip: It’s dark down there, so consider dressing your kiddo in a brightly colored shirt or hat so you can keep a better eye on them.
The New World’s Largest Dinosaurs Exhibit
This fantastic new exhibit will excite your little paleontologist to no end. At first they may be wary of the gigantic long-neck dinosaur models or loud pulsing sound (to emulate a dinosaur heartbeat), but within minutes they’ll be moving from section to section, interacting with the displays and staring with awe at the life-sized, 60-foot Mamenchisaurus. The exhibit celebrates long-neck, long-tail sauropods and helps explain the mysteries behind how they lived and grew to such a magnificent size. You’ll learn about the dinosaurs’ diet, skeletal structure, respiratory systems, teeth, and nests in the visual and interactive displays.
My little dinosaur lover spent about 30 minutes exploring the exhibit. There are bathrooms directly outside of the exhibit, which is nice and convenient. Not as convenient, the gift shop directly outside of the exit of the exhibit (well, convenient if you’re a three-year-old I guess).
A favorite for the five-and-under crew, this forest-themed play area is right next to the gift shop. Enjoy coloring at pint-sized tables and then head back into the larger play area where there are plenty of hands-on building toys and games, reading nooks, and even a nursing space for a little privacy. Be sure to ask about when the next puppet show or storytime is, which happens periodically throughout the day. More info here >
The New Wander Woods nature play space
This new nature-inspired play space is a must-see for three-year-olds! From whimsical structures woven out of branches and leaves to hollow logs and hidden fairy doors, Wander Woods offers little kids the opportunity to get dirty and hands-on with nature. Pro Tip: Bring a change of clothes if your kiddo is the type to dive headfirst into a mud sensory table or the like. More info here >
Penguins are just the best
Little kids go crazy for penguins! And who can blame them? They’re always pretty active and fun to watch, but the daily feedings at 10:30 am and 3 pm are not to be missed. Get your three-year-old excited before your visit by showing them the Live-Penguin-Cam.
The Naturalist Center
The Cal Academy’s Naturalist Center has such a fun old-school vintage science-y vibe to it, where kids can see and touch bones, taxidermy, insect specimens and so much more. Three-year-olds love the little book area and asking the staff lots and lots of questions. Just be aware it’s only open at noon on weekdays, and 11 am on weekends. It also gets crowded when the Planetarium shows get out, so try to go during one of the shows to avoid a line. More info here >
Suggested Itinerary for Curious Three Year Olds
- Arrive at 9:15 am to easily find easy free street parking. Have a quick snack before heading to the entrance.
- 9:30 am: Enter the building and head straight towards the back end of the Academy to see Claude the albino alligator. Then head downstairs to the Aquarium and let your three-year-old lead the way.
- 9:50 am: Climb back upstairs, passing the tide pool area and find your way over to Curiosity Grove for some coloring and play. Check with staff when the next storytime is.
- 10:10 am: Exit Curiosity Grove and turn right to go outside where you’ll find the new Wander Woods play space. Can you find the fairy door? Enjoy a snack while outside.
- 10:30 am: Lure your three-year-old back inside with the promise of a penguin feeding (daily at 10:30 am and 3 pm).
- 11 am: Next, head upstairs to the World’s Largest Dinosaurs exhibit and Naturalist Center (open noon – 4:30 pm weekdays; 11 am – 4:30 pm weekends). Touch, explore, read a book in a nook.
- 11:20 am: If your three-year-old can appreciate a view, check out the Living Roof just up one more floor. Otherwise, skip it, it’s not a huge hit with little kids per se.
- 11:30 am: Catch an elevator back down to the main floor, swing by the gift shop (or not), and exit the building. Phew! You did it!
- Noon: Spread out a blanket on a grassy area for a relaxing lunch.
- 12:45 pm: Pack up the car and head on home while your three-year-old naps quietly the entire ride home.
- The Planetarium is awesome, but best for kids age 7+.
- The Rainforest is stunning, but little kids often complain of being hot (it is). With masks, it’s even more uncomfortable.
- Discovery Tidepool is great for little kids with a gentle touch, but unfortunately, it’s currently closed due to Covid-19 precautions.
Plan your visit to Cal Academy
Location: 55 Music Concourse Dr, San Francisco, CA 94118
Getting there: So many options, from the car, BART, bus, or bike. Check it out here >
Hours: Monday-Saturday: 9:30 am-5 pm; Sunday: 11 am-5 pm
Prices: Age 2 and under are FREE; Youth (3-17) -$27.75 ; Adult -$35.50. All guests, including members and donors, must reserve timed-entry tickets in advance of their visit. Or become a member if you think you’ll be back a few times a year. Get your tickets >
Covid-19 Rules: All guests 12+ must bring proof of full COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test taken within 72 hours of a visit, and all guests 2+ must wear a mask indoors.
Food: Plenty of kid-friendly foods (pizza, mac ‘n cheese, etc) at the cafe and restaurant, though it can get pricey quickly. Or, bring your own sandwiches and goldfish (but you can only eat outside).
The Bottom Line on Cal Academy with a Preschooler
Cal Academy of Sciences is a fabulous place to take your three-year-old. They will be entertained, inspired, and eventually tuckered out. Yes, it’s pricey, but it’s such a unique and special place for inquisitive little minds that it certainly feels worth it. Just make sure to temper your expectations about seeing everything and pack plenty of snacks. Have fun!