San Diego can be a great place for a summer vacation – regardless of whether or not you time your trip outside of the “May Gray” and “June Gloom” months. In fact, a few weeks ago, I was fortunate to take my own family to San Diego and discovered that, because of the type of activities we were doing, we actually really appreciated the slightly lower temperatures and sunburn-free mornings.
However San Diego’s real charm for families resides in two key differentiators that separate it from other summer vacation hot spots:
- It is small and easy to navigate. All of the main attractions are more or less within a 30 minute drive from your hotel, even if you aren’t staying downtown.
- There are so many family-friendly attractions and activities that you can easily fill up an entire week – if not more. (Aside from the below think about visiting the San Diego Air & Space Museum, the Maritime Museum, and the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park).
Here is a rundown of my best tips for first timers:
Tip #1: SeaWorld
If you are going to splurge on one thing during your time in San Diego, make it the private Dine with Shamu experience. The buffet food is great, it’s true. However the real attraction is the incredibly close proximity to Shamu and Baby Shamu as they serenade you with a private performance. You also get one on one access to the fabulous trainers, who are only too happy to answer any and all questions.
Tip #2: San Diego Zoo
Skip the bus tour. While heavily promoted by the staff, the simple truth is it takes a significant amount of time (both in terms of queues to get on the bus, and the tour itself), and you don’t really get to see much of the animals. Instead plan your route carefully and hit the walking paths on foot. Even though the zoo is set in a canyon and there are some gentle hills to navigate, the park is actually not that big.
However, if you do choose the bus, make sure you sit half way between the front and rear. While it is tempting to rush for the front seats, the driver actually pulls the middle of the bus up to the center of the exhibits – so they normally offer the best views.
Tip #3: Legoland
Legoland California actually felt a lot smaller than Legoland England, which is why I was surprised to learn that it was only 23 acres less. Regardless, like the San Diego Zoo, Legoland is easy to navigate in just one day – that is if you don’t intend to visit the water park.
However, if you would rather not lose your children for endless hours in the Soak~N~Sail (a playground with interactive gadgets and lots and lots of water), I would consider bypassing the pirate portion of the park until toward the end of your visit. This tactic will ensure that you don’t have to walk around wet (including from the other water attractions in the vicinity) until later in the day.
But, if that is not your style, you may want to keep a couple of $5 bills in your pocket for the onsite drying machines. While they won’t dry you completely, they will get rid of the excess water so you are at least not dripping!
Tip #4: Schedule Adult Fun with Jetpack America
Why let the kids have all the fun? If you are looking for a truly unique adventure of your own, then head on over to Mission Bay and seek out Jetpack America. Within 25 minutes you will be flying like a super hero more than 20 feet above the water. So much fun – and yes, the picture is of me!
Tip #5: Go Crazy at Dinner
The Corvette Diner is like taking your kid to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for dinner. It is not so much the sugar (although huge platters of candy floss can definitely help with that), but more the experiential overload. You may come out feeling exhausted but the kids will love it. The festivities include fabulous costumed servers doing crazy things (like throwing handfuls of napkins and straws onto your table), dance competitions, a DJ, balloon animals and an indoor interactive play area for after dinner. Just be sure not to order the root beer float for your child prior to their meal, unless you are happy with them only eating a mountain of ice cream.
As a side note, if you are looking for a cool restaurant location for lunch, head down to Barra Barra in Old Town San Diego. The Mexican food is amazing and the unique ambience of the outside dining area is nothing short of charming. Best of all, kids eat free – every day!
Tip #6: Stay at a Nice Hotel
If you can, cash in some of your hotel points and splurge on a nice hotel. The kids will be more relaxed, there will be better amenities for the little ones, and you get to enjoy a nice experience as well. The Park Hyatt Aviara Resort used to be a Four Seasons property and they have done a good job of maintaining a high quality experience. Aside from the kids club, your children can enjoy a huge indoor play space (complete with lounge seating for the parents), as well as an outdoor Kid’s Café, and a special water feature by the family pool.
If you are looking for something a little closer to one of San Diego’s main family attractions, then consider the Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa and Marina. Here it is possible to order a SeaWorld Suite; a large two room space that comes complete with a SeaWorld themed bunk room for the kids, a kitchen, master bedroom, dining area and huge bathroom. Down at the pool you will also find a couple of cool waterslides. And, if you don’t want to walk the mile it takes to get to SeaWorld, the hotel also has a boat that will pick you up from out back and drop you off right at a special entrance to SeaWorld (although you will need to purchase your park tickets in advance).