Children's Fairyland remains one of the best places for kids and families in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Like other Bay Area grandmas, when my toddler grandson comes to town, we like to go to fun and stimulating places that the grown-ups can enjoy with the Littles. But as anyone with children can attest, you may need a wallet full of credit cards to do that around here. 

I well remember how expensive it was to enjoy the best of the Bay Area when I was a single parent with little kids. I’m a little more comfortable now, but as a retired person, I must still be very careful.

Over the last year, once my family began to fly again—we had been traveling by car back and forth to Southern California where my grandson lives—we set out to keep him entertained on the weekends without breaking the bank. I wanted to share a bit of what we’ve learned along the way, for others struggling to do the same.

Children’s Fairyland remains the number one attraction for my grandson—a place that’s made just for toddlers like him.

The rumor has always been that Walt Disney got the idea for Disneyland after visiting Oakland’s Fairyland. But it’s much more accessible for a toddler and their parents than any Disney experience could ever be. The moment our little guy goes through the entrance, he gallops away to visit the ducks or ponies, roll down the hill, run through the tiny houses, and ride the carousels.

Children’s Fairyland is a place built for tots. Credit: Pamela Drake

These joys don’t come cheap. At $15 per family member, including the tot, I had already spent $39. A membership is a good idea even if you’re not planning to visit often. My grandson is so happy there that on many visits to the Bay, we attend a second time, which really makes a membership worthwhile. The cheapest membership is $129, and covers one designated adult and three kids.

Then there is the Oakland Zoo. Like Fairyland, it once was a city-sponsored institution. But when Prop 13 monies dwindled to nothing, the city had to spin the zoo off as an independent nonprofit institution so they could more easily raise their own funds. We took my little guy the summer before he turned two. The petting zoo was closed because of the pandemic, but he enjoyed seeing the elephants and the birds. Of course, he also enjoys just running around the park.

Celery makes a good cow snack at any petting zoo. Credit: Pamela Drake

So what does an afternoon at the zoo run you these days? A family with an under-two-year-old will only have to pay for the adults: $24 for most people, $20 for seniors, and nothing for the very old (76 or over, this author’s fast-approaching age). Once the toddler hits two, it’s an additional $20. You’ll also pay $10 for parking. Military families get a discount—but not healthcare workers, teachers, or low-income families. There are many membership options, but the best seems to be a family membership at $174 a year.

This zoo is well-known for its excellent habitat and animal rescues but the last time it requested taxpayer assistance, it lost that vote. In 2012, the Zoological Society, which runs the zoo, asked for $12 a year from every property owner living in the county to help support it, but the proposal failed.

Getting to the zoo or Fairyland on public transportation is not easy. As we all know, public transit is still a poor relation to California’s car-centered infrastructure. While Fairyland’s Lake Merritt location is central. The 12 bus on AC Transit goes there from North Oakland, but is no longer running on weekends. The NL will get you there from East Oakland, but be sure to tell your driver you want the local fare.

My experience as a single mom, and a limited-income one at that, is that the best indicator of whether your kids can easily engage with the best Oakland has to offer is whether you own a running vehicle to ferry them to enriching activities like theater, art, sports, and hands-on experiences. Sadly, car ownership can make all the difference there.

One of my grandson’s favorite places in the whole world is the Little Farm in Tilden Park, way up in the Berkeley hills. AC Transit’s Line 67 will get you there from downtown Berkeley. But a car and gas money are very helpful, and parking and entrance are free! Just remember to bring lots of celery and lettuce to feed the cows and tempt the pigs. The chickens, ducks, and geese don’t care so much for this greenery, but they’ll still strut their stuff for you.

A mud puddle makes for fun splashing at Tilden Park’s Little Farm. Credit: Pamela Drake

If I were a park director, I would consider allowing a coffee-and-celery vendor in the parking lot circle at the park entrance to raise money to buy another cow—and please the older folks! Sometimes the Littles must compete with unaware adults who are also trying to feed the huge critters. It takes a few visits for both kids and adults to get up their courage to offer your celery stalks to those critters with long luxurious tongues hungrily slurping it up.

Don’t forget to drive to the other end of Tilden for the great and affordably priced train rides. There is also a carousel in between, but we haven’t gotten to that yet.

On a recent rain-predicted day (psych!), we booked tickets to the Lawrence Hall of Science, which has three rooms of hands-on exhibits, some of which were great fun for toddlers. It cost us $60 ($20 per adult) for a little over an hour’s worth of fun, but at least we escaped the gift shop unencumbered. AC Transit’s Line 65 will get you here, and if you drive, parking is free, as is the view.

Another obstacle to kid fun is that many of these sites are closed not only on holidays but for many days before or after. On Thanksgiving week we were looking for something to do when Fairyland was closed—it’s not open on weekdays during something called “winter.”

Luckily, I remembered taking my kids to Ardenwood Farm in Fremont when they were young. According to the brochure, the East Bay Regional Park District has operated the property as a fully functioning, turn-of-the-last-century farm since 1985. It’s designed to showcase family farming around the turn of the 20th century. They are open on many days when nothing else is. Lifesaver!

You can reach it by taking BART to Union City and then a bus to the entrance, or drive about 40 minutes from Oakland and park for free. Once you get there, the tickets are a bargain in the family entertainment department, ranging from $3 to $6 per person with under-4s for free! Glory hallelujah!

There’s not a lot to do but you can wander about the animal pastures and corrals, help feed the farm animals, and safely run around the gardens and fields. The train rides were closed once again because of that vague condition called “winter” (on a sunny and bone-dry day). The house and café were also closed but we enjoyed the relaxing day out very much.

Closer to home, you can spend the morning pushing your little one in the baby swings—and I mean the morning, they won’t want you to stop—at the Astro Park Play Area next to the country’s oldest bird sanctuary with a view of Lake Merritt in the background. Little ones tend to love watching ducks and it’s free whether rain (as if) or shine.

Yes, it is expensive to attend many of these enriching and entertaining experiences but of course, we know that they all face increased costs and may have lost funding during the pandemic. 

Perhaps the state, county, and cities can design and direct funding measures to support these activities that go a long way to improving the lives of working families like mine. In the meantime, we’ll have to keep getting creative to keep our Littles entertained with the best of what Oakland and the East Bay have to offer.