L.A. on the cheap: You can fit California into your budget, even with high gas prices

Published: Sunday, May 6 2012 3:00 p.m. MDT

As Utah heads into what promises to be the summer of high gas prices, a vacation seems a luxury many families can't afford.

True, Utah itself is full of fabulous places to spend a few days, from its cool northern mountains to its fiery and fabulous south.

But if you're looking further afield, consider Los Angeles. The City of Angels is a huge metropolis one long day's drive away, and despite its expensive reputation, it's full of cheap vacation fun for families. From lodging to eats to fun things to do, you can structure a Los Angeles vacation in which those horrible gas prices are by far your biggest expense. Here's how.

What to do

For starters, let's not say the D word. Forget, temporarily, that there is such a place as Anaheim. While a trip to the Mouse House is, indeed, wonderful, it's also expensive. And besides, there is so much more to Los Angeles than making sure your kids get a ride on the teacups, the Matterhorn and California Screamin'.

Instead, consider some of these lesser-known, radically lower-priced, but no less fun, options.

Petersen Car Museum

Situated in the mid-Wilshire/Museum District neighborhood, this museum is a kids' paradise with plenty of interest for adults — and its location in a city known for its longtime love-hate relationship with cars makes it a great Los Angeles stop.

Visitors enter the museum through a streetscape that tells the story of the evolution of the automobile in the 20th century and how the car helped make modern Los Angeles what it is today.

But what they will really love are the acres of classic hot rods, custom and performance cars, historic motorcycles and race cars and the "Hollywood Gallery" featuring famous cars from movies, television shows and celebrities — like the Batmobile and Batcycle, for starters.

Kids — particularly any little boys in the group — will adore the Hot Wheels Hall of Fame, a gallery entered through a giant, glowing Hot Wheels tire studded with die-cast cars. The little boy in our group (and, frankly, the former little boy who is his father) loved this gallery so much that, even after spending hours in the museum and having a late lunch, he wanted to go back.

Petersen Car Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd. at Fairfax. Admission $10 adults, $5 students and military with ID, $8 seniors, $3 children 5-12. Free for children under 5. Closed Monday except for certain holidays; otherwise open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. www.petersen.org

Fun fact: In the Petersen Car Museum's May Family Dicovery Center, kids can ride in a Model T, pretend to race an Indy Car and become the spark plugs in a giant combustion engine.

La Brea Tar Pits

This classic L.A. attraction is often forgotten these days in favor of amusement parks and beaches. But its timeless appeal is better than ever and has been updated with museums, garden spots and plenty of activities for families.

Located just down the road from the Petersen Car Museum, the facility — the site of a huge natural asphalt pond used by humans for centuries — now includes multiple still-active excavation sites; the George C. Page Museum housing some of the tar pits' best finds; the Fishbowl, a glass-walled paleontological laboratory where visitors can watch scientists clean, sort and classify fossils; and several gardens.

One is the Atrium, an uncovered, 9,000-square-foot courtyard in the center of the museum. Kids will like the koi fish swimming through the garden's waters and the weird ginkgo trees whose branches embrace multiple benches.

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