Outside the sea otter exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo, 5-year-old Emily checks out the sights while her baby sister lounges in a canopy-covered wagon.
The girls' aunt, Maggie Hathaway, is among a growing number of parents and caregivers who are rolling their kids around in wagons instead of strollers. "Sea World, or the fair — anywhere where ... the little one wants to lay down," she says.
The girls couldn't be happier with their bright blue wagon stocked with pillows and toys. Hathaway's only complaint is the oversized wagon can be hard to navigate through crowds or tight spaces.
These are not your traditional little Radio Flyers, and nothing like a typical stroller. These wagons are big, strong and often tricked out with coolers, canopies and other creature comforts.
At the Los Angeles County Fair, Brenda Lemus is pulling a 7-by-4-foot wagon she bought at a booth here six years ago, when her daughter was a newborn. It has wooden railings, the front is emblazoned with an LA Dodgers logo, the back holds a cargo rack with an ice chest and there's a chrome storage locker under the wagon's belly.
"We put our undercarriage on the bottom, just so we won't have to be carrying bags and bags and bags," Lemus says. "We can just put everything there and it's very convenient."
Convenient? Yes. Affordable? Maybe not. The wagons average anywhere "from about $395 to the 'oh my God' range," says Tiffany Nelson, owner of LA-based West Coast Wagons.
Those high-ticket wagons, loaded up with DVD players and other accessories, can cost up to $2,000 and usually go to her celebrity clientele.
Many kids hate being confined in strollers — but they don't necessarily want to walk, either. So these parents say wagons are a good compromise. The kids have more space for playing and parents have room to load up their stuff, too. Heavy duty wheels and handles make them easier to pull along.
These souped-up wagons weren't Nelson's original intent. She customized her first wagon when her daughter was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and couldn't sit up in a stroller. Now, West Coast Wagons has a line dedicated to kids with disabilities.
"It's nice to be able to help those kids out as well," Nelson says. "Get them out of those wheelchairs, get them out of those predicaments."
Back at the LA County Fair, the Lemus family and their Dodgers wagon are headed for the booth where they bought it six years ago. They check back on every visit, Lemus says, to see if there's anything fun and new to purchase or add.