San Diego isn’t just a big city with a lot of beaches and palm trees. It’s also known for its family entertainment with places like SeaWorld, LegoLand, and the world famous San Diego Zoo.
So armed with a handful of admission tickets and a churro, I dive head first into San Diego: The family fun edition.
The San Diego Zoo could be one of the greatest zoos in the world. Located in the beautiful Balboa Park, the zoo is home to over 4000 animals of more than 800 species (I didn’t count them – that’s straight from Wikipedia). This place is so huge that it has shuttle buses and bus tours to get around, along with a ‘Skyfari’ gondola lift to take you from one side of the zoo to the other. There are also escalators throughout the zoo so you don’t have to worry about the many hills.
The zoo is broken up into habitat environments, ranging from monkey-filled rainforests to the arctic tundra, and giant aviaries to African grasslands. Some of the standout animal habitats were the Lost Forest (gorillas, monkeys, and tigers), the Polar Rim (polar bears and arctic foxes), and the large African area (lions, elephants, and zebras). Another amazing habitat I noticed was one with cheetahs that are partnered with domestic dogs, but unfortunately by the time we got to this area, they were away in their sleeping quarters. One more thing I should mention is that this zoo is the first zoo to successfully breed giant pandas into adulthood in the United States, and their habitat is worth a look, too.
San Diego zoo is also big on education and awareness, with many shows and demonstrations during the day to teach you about animal conservation and ecosystem preservation. One of the first things we saw as we entered the zoo was an endangered New Zealand alpine parrot known as the Kea, which had been trained to teach kids how to recycle. That was strange, and I’m not sure how the New Zealand Department of Conservation would feel about it, but before I could grab the parrot, run outside, and set it free whilst singing the New Zealand National Anthem, it had already placed a plastic bottle into a recycling bin and disappeared into its cage.
Once again, I should point out how big this zoo is. As you enter, be sure to hold onto your map because this place is a maze. If you’re thinking of really exploring this zoo, make sure to bring comfortable walking shoes. Or you could probably opt for one of those lazy rental mobility scooters for fatties.
The San Diego Zoo also runs the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, in which you ride through bigger, open habitats with the animals, but we didn’t go there so I can’t really comment.
Next on our tourist to-do list was San Diego’s famous SeaWorld. Part zoo, part theme park, this place has rides, animals, shows, and a whole lot of love for patriotism. We entered the park gates just before ten in the morning with happy Disney-like music playing over the PA system. Next, familiar music began to play, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then I looked up, and realised something was off. Nobody was moving anymore. In fact, all the groups of park-goers around us seemed frozen to the spot like statues. Then I noticed some lips moving, and then the hands on chests. They were singing along to their National Anthem. Not knowing the words ourselves, Jessie and I awkwardly pretending to study our SeaWorld map while we waited for everyone to come back to life again. It was my first experience of blatant patriotism and it wouldn’t be the last.
The first thing you should do when getting to SeaWorld is check the show schedule and work out a plan for the day, as some of the shows are actually quite good and you shouldn’t miss them. The dolphin show plays out like a big uplifting Disney musical with a cryptic story that hardly makes sense. It involves dolphins doing cool tricks, but it also has people in feathery costumes singing and doing acrobatics, as well as what could be the US Olympic Dive Team getting in some high diving practice. The pet show is a fun show that’s good for kids and adults which shows a wide range of mostly domestic animals performing tricks on a big obstacle course, and at the end, the audience is informed that all animals in the show have actually been saved from local shelters. The sea lion show is definitely worth checking out because it’s actually entertaining, with loads of pop culture references and a really good warm-up act.
The main show of the day is the orca show which is a must simply because it features the star of the park, Shamu the killer whale. Once again, patriotism comes into play as before the show starts the audience is asks to give a round of applause to all the veterans in the park, as the ex-soldiers and police officers stand and wave. Then the actual show is a cheesy follow-your-dreams story about a boy growing up to become an orca whale trainer, but it’s worth seeing simply to see the group of four or five killer whales leaping out of the water and splashing people.
Another thing to look into when going to SeaWorld is the animal encounters. These cost extra, and sometimes quite a lot extra, but give you the chance to play or swim with a dolphin, swim with a beluga whale, meet a killer whale up close, or touch a penguin. I was lucky enough to get the chance to take part in the Penguin Encounter program, which meant I got to go behind the scenes of the penguin exhibit, meet a penguin and pet it, then go inside the enclosure, and I can say if you have the money or you just really want to interact with an animal, purchase one of these special tickets.
If you don’t have the money to buy one of these tickets, then you can still get the chance to interact with some of the animals. There’s a large pool for stingrays where you can pet them or feed them as they swim by, and you can even reach over and touch a dolphin as they swim by in their enclosure. You can even purchase cheap food for some of the animals and feed them, too.
Other animals in the park include sharks, a few different aquariums full of different fish, sea turtles, and otters, along with a few bird species including pink flamingos that get paraded through the park regularly. There’s also a large area devoted to arctic animals, like beluga whales, polar bears, and penguins. We even watched a large walrus shove its face up against the glass and vomit up squid, before eating it, then vomiting again, and so on. This went on until I got bored and walked away, but I did get a video of it.
I should also mention that SeaWorld has a policy in which you can get a replacement on any food that is accidentally eaten by a seagull, which came in handy when I thought I’d buy a churro to taste some of San Diego’s Spanish flavour, only to have it suddenly stolen out of my hand by a giant seagull that flew past.
The rides at SeaWorld aren’t too great in number or quality. The best ride of the park would easily be the ‘Journey to Atlantis’ rollercoaster, which is a somewhat short mix of a flume ride that changes into a rollercoaster. On the way into the polar bear and walrus enclosures, there is an optional simulator ride that takes you on a helicopter ride into the arctic, but like most simulator rides, it loses its novelty after the first time round. Along with a bunch of kiddy rides, and a scenic gondola ride over the marina, there is one other ride I will mention as a warning. ‘Shipwreck Rapids’ is a raft ride that looks like fun from the outside but from inside the circular raft, it really isn’t. The rough rapids part of the ride isn’t really that rough at all, and instead, after a pretty unspectacular ride through the ‘rapids’, the only part where you actually get wet is when your raft slowly floats through a flowing waterfall. It’s like avoiding a bunch of booby-traps to receive a pie in the face at the end. There are also remote controlled water jets around the wet rides for onlookers to squirt you for a quarter. Luckily for us, we tried this ride at the very end of our day, so we didn’t have to spend the day in wet clothes, but still, it was an uncomfortable walk back to the car.
The other big family theme park we explored in the San Diego area was LegoLand in Carlsbad. The third park to open in the LegoLand chain, and the first outside of Europe, we went into this place expecting it to be perfect for kids, and it is. There are giant Lego-themed playgrounds, a waterpark, slides, and kiddy rides, along with a Bob the Builder 4D show. What surprised us, however, was how it caters for adults, too.
The rides may not be for ultra thrillseekers, but the attention to detail in this place is amazing. There are sculptures all over the park, some huge, that are made entirely of standard Lego blocks. The park is made up of a bunch of different themed areas, such as Dino Island (dinosaur-themed), Castle Hill (medieval-themed), and Land of Adventure (Egyptian-themed), and each area is filled with appropriate Lego sculptures. These range from camels to giraffes and Egyptian statues to giant dragons, but the area where the detail really stands out is Miniland USA. This area is made up of mini Lego dioramas to represent famous American cities, such as New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas to name only a few (and there are a few international icons, too, like the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, and the Sydney Opera House).
Each city consists of famous landmarks and events, with many moving parts such as a presidential motorcade that drives around Washington DC’s National Mall. In the Las Vegas model, all the major casino hotels are represented in amazing detail, and in the New York model, you can even see a man sitting on a toilet in the subway station under the Empire State Building.
Even though LegoLand can be packed with kids and doesn’t have many rides to entertain the adults, there’s just something about walking around in a life-sized world of Lego that makes it all appealing. It might not be worth the admission if you’re heading into the park with a bunch of adults, but if you have access to a kid or four, take them to LegoLand and you’ll all enjoy it. I should also mention that they’ve opened a Star Wars diorama in the Miniland USA area, too, so if you’re a fanatic, then maybe it will be worth your money. Just be sure to expect paedophilia jokes.
For our stay in San Diego, we spent three nights on October 23rd, 2011, at the average Vagabond Inn on San Diego’s Hotel Circle. Despite the creepy introduction, the motel had friendly staff, served a waffle breakfast, and was actually worth what we paid.
To pay for admission for the theme parks, we got cheaper prices by purchasing a Southern California CityPass, which gave us three days admission to Disneyland and California Adventure parks, one day at SeaWorld, one day at Universal Studios, and one day at either San Diego Zoo or San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
We also returned to San Diego for daytrips to revisit SeaWorld, and explore LegoLand months later in early May, and this time we paid separately.