Sure, it’s great to live less than an hour from insert-favorite-theme-park-here. But amusement park outings are major expenses (of time and money), and let’s face it: most 2-year-olds have just as much fun hurtling up and down a clear elevator as they do at the house of mouse. So whether it’s a quick drive through an animatronic-filled car wash or a whirl around a Merry-Go-Round during your next trip to the mall, keep your young thrill-seekers saying, “Weeee!” at one of these small-scale (and smaller budget) “rides.”

photo: Joe Utsler via Flickr

Get Merry (Going ‘Round)
Merry-Go-Round in Griffith Park
It is said that this is the place that inspired Walt Disney to create Disneyland. Built in 1926 and moved to Los Angeles (from Mission Beach, Calif.) in 1937, this large vintage carousel is the real deal: a military band organ pumps out more than 1,500 selections of music as the wood-carved, hand-painted horses gallop slowly around and around. The carousel makes a great stop if you’re headed to or from the LA Zoo or the Griffith Park & Southern Railroad. Note: Open weekends throughout the year as well as weekdays during the summer, and over winter and spring holiday breaks. Cost: $2.

Located in park center between the Los Angeles Zoo and the Los Feliz Blvd. entrance.

Double-Decker Carousel at Westfield Topanga Mall
Mall-bound mamas won’t have a hard time convincing the kids to tag along on a shopping trip to the Westfield Topanga mall, home to a gorgeous double-decker carousel that kids will want to ride again and again. While you’re there, little monkeys will also want to try climbing the giant leaves at the outdoor climbing structure in the mall’s adjacent Village area (there’s a free trolley to take you across the street to the Village if you don’t feel like walking). Other kid hot spots: Grab a bite to eat at Giggles and Hugs, a kids restaurant and indoor play space; get your little engineers tinkering at the Lego store, which holds frequent in-store events for kids; and take a break at the well-appointed family lounges, private spaces which have toys and TVs to entertain you and your kids while you change diapers or breastfeed your little ones. Carousel cost: $4. (You can also buy two ride tokens for $7, or five rides for $15.)

6600 Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Canoga Park

Find 5 other favorite local carousels, here.

ophoto: The Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites

A Great Glass Elevator You Can Ride
For wee ones who love elevator rides, this 34-story outside-of-the-building elevator at the Bonaventure Hotel may as well be a rocket ship. Young space-travelers will want to count “3,2,1” before ascending from ground floor to the top floor of this sprawling Downtown hotel (watch a video of the ride here). Come close to sunset, when grown-ups can have a sundowner at the revolving (!) cocktail lounge on the top floor. Kids will be mesmerized during the slow rooftop-level spin; you’ll enjoy the food and drinks (the lounge opens at 4:30 p.m). If you’ve got a mature-taste-budded brood, the top floor is also home to the upscale LA Prime Steakhouse. Keep peepers peeled for the True Lies plaque in the elevator; one of the famous scenes was filmed here.

Hint: While you’re there, grab dinner. Parking is free for L.A. Prime diners and $7.50 (for three hours) if dining at the Bonaventure Lounge or (ground floor) Lakeview Bistro. For all other visitors, parking costs $15 for the first hour and $3 for each additional 15 minutes.

404 S Figueroa St.
Downtown LA

griffith-train-ridephoto: Michael L. via Yelp

Climb Aboard a Kid-Sized Train Ride
Free Train Rides with Southern California Live Steamers
Twice a month, the folks from the nonprofit Southern California Steamers offer free rides of their miniature steam trains, when riders and their families can climb aboard and take a ride around the expansive Wilson Park in Torrance. Note: Kids must be big enough to straddle the train or must be carried/held by an adult. Rides are offered the first Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and third Saturday, 12-3 p.m., of every month. Cost: Free.

2200 Crenshaw Blvd. (The Live Steamers facility is in the southeast corner of the park off Washington Ave.)

There are three trains at Griffith Park and trackless trains at Farmers Markets all over the city.  Get the scoop on more trains for tots, here.


photo: Kent Kanouse via Flickr

Spin and Bounce on Kiddie Rides and Tilt-a-Whirls
Redondo Fun Factory
This boardwalk-style arcade feels like the sort of place that hasn’t changed since the 1970s (that’s when it opened, so it’s entirely possible). And that’s OK—nostalgia reigns at this seaside amusement center where older kids will have a blast playing Skee-Ball, carnival games and a sea of vintage and new-ish video games while toddlers whirl around on an impressive collection of coin-operated kiddie rides. Kiddos who have graduated from the small stuff can try their spin-worthiness on the antique Tilt-a-Whirl. Cost: Kiddie rides are 25 cents and up; the Tilt-a-Whirl is $2 a ticket.

Hours: Saturday 10 a.m.- midnight; Sunday 10 a.m.- 10 p.m.; Weekdays from 2 p.m.-10 p.m. (except in summer); closed Tuesdays during the winter.

123 International Boardwalk
Redondo Beach

Kiddie Rides in Chinatown’s Central Plaza
You’ll find a handful of colorful rides just next to the wishing well in the plaza, including a tiny Ferris wheel, a little race car, and a twirling apple. While you’re there, make sure to get some dim sum and explore all the Chinatown has to offer little ones. Cost: Quarters, varying amounts for each ride.  Bring plenty!

947 N. Broadway
Chinatown, Downtown LA

photo: Sfgamchick via Flickr

Hop on a Trolley or Tram
Getty Center Tram
If you want to give your kids a dose of art and culture, getting them to the Getty is easy when you tell them about the mountainside tram they’ll get to ride to get up the steep hill to the museum. It’s a quick ride, but kids will be glued to the windows as they ascend the hill overlooking the 405 freeway. Once you get to the top, there’s plenty to do, even for the smallest of art critics. Check out the Getty’s full program of children’s activities which includes hands-on crafts, treasure hunts, and specialized tour. Cost: The tram (and museum) is free, but parking’s not; the Getty garage charges $15 per vehicle.

1200 Getty Center Dr.
West LA

beverly-hills-trolley-with-palm-treesphoto: Beverly Hills Trolley Tours

Beverly Hills Trolley Tours
This 40-minute trolley ride may be the best deal 90210 has to offer. For $5 ($1 for kids 12 & under), you’ll get a narrated tour of the art, architecture, and history of Beverly Hills. See where movie stars of yesterday lived and where some favorite films were shot! Tours depart on the hour from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. at the southeast corner of Rodeo Drive and Dayton Way, adjacent to Two Rodeo Plaza. Note: For now, the trolley operates on weekends only; between July 5 and September 3, tours will be given Tuesdays through Sundays.


photo: Mar P. via Yelp

It’s a Ride. It’s a Car Wash.  Stop: You’re Both Right!
Green Forest Car Wash
Most kids love a good drive through a motorized car wash—so what could make these sudsy journeys even more captivating to little passengers? Animatronic dinosaurs, swinging monkeys, and red-light “volcano wash” displays, of course! That’s what you get at Green Forest Car Wash, an eco-friendly car wash chain based in LA that offers 100 percent recycled water, biodegradable soaps, low-energy motors—and moving animals. Not real ones, mind you, these are plastic models. But it’s enough to make you wish all car washes were this cool. Kids think you’ve taken them for a treat, and your car comes out shining.  Now if those dinos could only vacuum up Cheerios…Themes vary by location.  Cost: $6-10.

Various locations in the South Bay, Central Los Angeles, and Bell Gardens.

Do you know of any other small-scale/small-price “rides” in LA? Tell us in the comment section below!

— Melissa Heckscher