A rustic Spanish-style farm in the heart of San Juan Capistrano that's been standing since 1890 promises more creatures than just the area's famous swallows. The picturesque estate is part of Zoomars—an all-ages petting zoo that's USDA-approved for cleanliness and the place where more than 100 animals call home. The residents range from the familiar to the exotic: goats, sheep, and potbelly pigs mingle alongside exotic emus, zebus, and zedonks that greet visitors for pets and feeding. One of the zoo's most popular areas is the guinea-pig patch, where some of the farm's fuzziest and friendliest creatures reside. Zoomars also features family-friendly attractions ranging from a miniature train and pony rides to the rustic Miner's Gulch, where panning the water reveals rare treasures such as gemstones and T-shirts from the Led Zeppelin '75 tour.
Owner Carolyn Franks started down the path to animal care in college when she created her own line of dog toys. She soon moved from New Jersey to California where her passion snowballed: developing a full line of pet products, hosting an animal show for kids, running a chain of exotic bird stores, and even traveling to Brazil to learn about animal conservation. In 2005, she used her knowledge to take over the Jones Farm petting zoo, expanding its pens and transforming its brand into Zoomars.
Franks is joined by a well-trained staff of zookeepers and wranglers who share her vision in entertaining kids—and teaching them how to interact with the animals—as they are in caring for and shepherding mammals and birds.
The Pacific Marine Mammal Center offers its visitors the chance to add a sea lion to their family trees. Through symbolic adoptions, the non-profit organization funds its mission to locate, rehabilitate, and release injured marine mammals—including seals, sea lions, and dolphins—back home in the wild. After admitting one of these animal patients, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center's animal-care director and a veterinary medical director can administer antibiotics, nurse mammals back to health or go through treatment plans for various diseases and illnesses. Aside from adoptions, the center educates the public about these efforts through programs such as field trips and day camps for kids.
At The Living Desert, a dedicated conservation team tends to plants and animals populating more than 1,800 acres of desert—1,000 of which remain in their natural, undisturbed state. In addition to protecting the Colorado Desert's native population of birds, wolves, reptiles, and minotaurs, The Living Desert houses bighorn sheep, cheetahs, striped hyenas, leopards, and parrots from arid regions throughout the globe. Through annual contributions, members of the nonprofit organization help preserve the Colorado Desert and bolster the population of endangered desert species. Members also gain unlimited access to the park, discounts in the gift shop, and invitations to special events, such as the annual member-cheetah race.
Step into to a bird's house. Get eye-to-eye with a moray eel. Greet a sea turtle as he swims up to say hello. The Living Coast Discovery Center isn't a nature museum—it's a chance to hang out with Southern California's plants and animals on their own turf. The Discovery Center's "living, breathing, flapping, buzzing, and splashing home" sits on the 316-acre Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, the ideal location for exploration of the region's most memorable residents in their native habitats.
A walk-through aviary encompasses the tidal slough habitat of black-crowned night herons, red-breasted mergansers, and endangered clapper rail chicks, freshly hatched from the in-house breeding program. Bald and golden eagles await up-close encounters at the Eagle Mesa, but the rays get even closer: an interactive touch pool puts the aquatic creatures beneath your fingertips. Raptor Row hosts the Center's rescued birds of prey, all of which have injuries or other conditions that prevent them from surviving outside the refuge on their own. Visitors are also free to pursue their own wildlife adventure along the center's 1.5 miles of walking trails.
It's hard to imagine a seaside dining experience more complete than the one at Dolphins Restaurant, Bar & Banquet. Sailboat masts bob in the harbor just beyond floor-to-ceiling windows, a red canoe hangs from the ceiling to complement nautical flags on the walls, and at the entrance visitors are greeted by a bronze sculpture depicting a human pyramid of dolphins. And that's before you get a look at the menu. Classic seafood dishes such as lobster tails and grilled teriyaki mahi mahi fill plates during dinner service but also during weddings, when tables are draped in white cloth, decorated with floral arrangements, and cleared of all single people. The restaurant also offers a weekly Sunday brunch, with more than 50 items to choose from.
At the sushi bar, chefs wrap colorful seafood and vegetable combinations into 25 largely simple rolls, including the Chef's Marina, which contains tempura rock shrimp and avocado, and the Tijuana, which pairs spicy tuna with roasted jalapenos. In the evening, a tree-studded patio glows with light from several fire-pits, and occasionally the whole restaurant fills with music from live bands, mariachi bands, and DJs.
Pumpkin Stations turn pumpkin shopping and family-park excursions into a one-stop trip. Each of the five Pumpkin Station locations houses a variety of family-fun activities, from giant slides and mini-trains to sky fighter rides and carousels. Mission Valley, for instance, enables visitors to get their sea legs with an on-site boat ride, while the El Cajon game zones gives them a place to rest in between activities. No matter the location, families, friends, and groups can stroll through an asphalt pumpkin patch to seek out a large, plump gourd to take home and carve into a jack-o-lantern.