When it’s time for a family vacation, how can parents avoid the same old song and dance?  The answer lies nestled along 70 miles of sunny Southern California coastline.  Consistently rated one of the top family destinations in North America, San Diego is the ideal destination for children of all ages offering a variety of family friendly activities and world-class attractions throughout the year.


The San Diego Zoo is a world-famous 100-acre tropical garden that houses 4,000 animals of 800 rare and exotic species.  www.sandiegozoo.org

  • Opened in March 2010, the Conrad Prebys Polar Bear Plunge provides guests an opportunity to come within feet of polar bears as keepers tend to them behind large glass panels. The new interactive exhibit also includes a mock polar bear snow den and Arctic research helicopter; a station where visitors can see how they compare to polar bears in height, weight and food consumption, and life-size statues of a full-grown adult bear, year-old cub and tiny newborn.  The exhibit also addresses the threats polar bears are facing due to climate change and provides guests with suggestions for reducing their carbon footprint.
  • Opened in June 2009, the The Harry and Grace Steele Elephant Odyssey educates visitors about Southern California animals of the past and present.  The seven-acre habitat features Asian elephants, a California condor, sloths, snakes and rodents, as well as life-size replicas of animal species that dotted the local landscape more than 10,000 years ago.  A herd of eight elephants roam a 2.5-acre exhibit that includes a 120,000-gallon pool and gentle rolling hills surrounded by a replica tar pit, fossil dig and children’s play area.
  • The San Diego Zoo is one of only four facilities in the nation to house critically endangered Giant Pandas.  Its family includes male panda Gao Gao, female panda Bai Yun and boy cub Yun Zi, born in August 2009.
  • Spectacular bioclimatic exhibits like Monkey Trails, Absolutely Apes, Ituri Forest, Rain Forest Aviary, Gorilla Tropics, Sun Bear Forest and Tiger River house endangered species in enclosures that mimic their natural habitats. Other popular zoo activities include a three-mile guided bus tour, sky tram, children’s petting zoo and baby animal nursery.


Located 30 miles northeast of downtown San Diego, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a 1,800-acre preserve where wild animals roam free over vast expanses as they would in their native habitats of Africa and Asia.  www.sandiegozoo.org/safaripark

  • Opened in April 2009, Flightline is a zip-line adventure that flies guests more than 400 feet across the park at speeds up to 60 mph. The 1.5-hour experience features a training lesson, behind-the-scenes narration and an aerial adventure that soars across the Asian and African field exhibits; it costs $70 per person, plus park admission.
  • The Journey into Africa Tour, aboard an open-air tram, was inspired by the legendary safari trains of Africa to bring riders eye-level with exotic animals like white rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, Roosevelt’s gazelles and African crowned cranes. The tram runs on bio-diesel and travels the perimeter of the park’s three expansive African field enclosures: Lion Camp, Heart of Africa and Nairobi Village.
  • Exhibits like Elephant Overlook, Lorikeet Landing, Hidden Jungle, Kilimanjaro Safari Walk and African Aviary house endangered species in enclosures that mimic their natural habitats.
  • Popular tours and activities include the Photo Caravan Safari Tours, Balloon Safari, Segway Rolling Safari and the Petting Kraal.



Located on Mission Bay, this 189-acre park features six major shows, fascinating attractions and dozens of exhibits containing marine life from around the globe.  www.seaworldsandiego.com

  • In summer 2011, SeaWorld San Diego will debut Sea Turtle Bay, a new attraction featuring threatened and endangered sea turtles.  Its highlight will be Turtle Reef, a 300,000-gallon aquarium with a massive, underwater viewing window where guests can watch as many as 60 green and hawksbill sea turtles. The attraction will also include thousands of tropical fish; a touch screen map, called Turtlelink, where guests can track sea turtles in the wild, and Riptide Rescue, a ride perfect for tweens, who can spin in boats on their own rescue mission.
  • In May 2010, SeaWorld San Diego opened a new dolphin show, Blue Horizons, starring bottlenose dolphins, pilot whales and an array of exotic birds. The show blends the grace of animals with the lavish splendor of a theatrical production as a cast of divers and aerialists plunge off elaborate set pieces in and out of the water while the birds and marine mammals perform amazing behaviors.
  • In the Believe show, Shamu and friends glide through the water and fly through the air before a giant fountain and four moving LCD screens showing images from underwater cameras.
  • Animal hightlights include the Wild Arctic, Penguin Encounter and Shark Encounter exhibits.  In other areas of the park, visitors can pet dolphins, touch and feed bat rays, meet Elmo and friends at Sesame Street Bay of Play, hop on the Shipwreck Rapids and Journey to Atlantis thrill rides or take in a panorama of San Diego from the Mission Bay Skyride.


LEGOLAND California, located 30 minutes north of downtown San Diego, delivers 128 acres of fun, interaction, imagination and entertainment with more than 50 interactive attractions and rides geared to kids aged 2-12. www.legoland.com

  • The heart of the park is Miniland USA, a dedication to the ultimate expression of the LEGO art form, which features famous areas of the United States, all constructed in miniature with 20 million LEGO bricks.  New to the park is STAR WARS Miniland, opened in March 2011, featuring six live-action LEGO displays of memorable scenes from the classic Star Wars movies including Tatooine, where Luke Skywalker grew up; Endor; the icy planet Hoth, and the Millennium Falcon. Miniland USA also displays the wonders of Washington D.C., New Orleans, New York City, Florida, San Francisco, Las Vegas and the Southern California coastline right down to the smallest detail.


  • In June 2010, the world’s first LEGO-themed water park, LEGOLAND Water Park, opened within LEGOLAND California. The park includes 5.5 acres of wet-and-wild climbing structures, a six-person raft slide, tube slides, body slides, a lazy river, hands-on toddler areas and an area where kids can customize their own soft LEGO rafts. In May 2011, Splash Zoo, a new, zoo-themed area just for toddlers, will open and feature giant zoo animals, interactive spray pads, fountains and a teeter totter.  Guests can upgrade standard LEGOLAND California tickets to include water park admission for $10 per person.
  • LEGOLAND’s Land of Adventure features four fun-filled attractions: Lost Kingdom Adventure is a dark ride that transports guests back to ancient Egypt as they ride in desert jeeps through temple ruins; Beetle Bouncers boosts children nearly 15 feet into the air; the Pharaoh’s Revenge play area features a climbing structure with catapulting foam balls; and Cargo Ace stimulates the imagination as children become airplane pilots soaring up to six feet.
  • Other popular areas of the park include the LEGO Hero Factory, which opened in February 2011 in the park’s Imagination Zone; the Police and Fire Academy, one of the park’s most popular rides; Pirate Shores; Dino Island; Fun Town, and Castle Hill.


  • SEA LIFE Aquarium at LEGOLAND California offers 36,000 sq. ft. of play zones, fin facts, quiz trails and marine exhibits designed to educate children about life under the sea.  The aquarium features a seahorse kingdom, 360-degree ring of sting rays and fish, an interactive tide pool and 175,000-gallon aquarium displaying a replication of the Lost City of Atlantis. The aquarium requires a separate admission from LEGOLAND® California.   www.sealifeus.com



  • The New Children’s Museum in downtown San Diego is an interactive arts destination for families that encourages children to think, play and create with innovative, hands-on art opportunities, classes and first-rate exhibitions designed by emerging and established contemporary artists. The museum is downtown’s first public ‘green’ project with environmentally friendly architecture and infrastructure practices, including the use of recycled building materials, water-saving devices and natural convection cooling.  www.thinkplaycreate.org


BALBOA PARK                                                                                           

The largest urban cultural park in the United States, Balboa Park is often referred to as the “Smithsonian of the West” for its large concentration of cultural institutions.  Its 1,200 lush acres are home to 15 museums, eight gardens, the San Diego Zoo, art galleries and renowned performing arts venues like the Tony Award®-winning Old Globe theatre.


The Balboa Park Visitors Center rents one-hour audio listening tours that highlight the park’s history, architecture and horticultural offerings. A children’s version features narrations by actors voicing two Balboa Park historic figures – George Marston, a local civic leader who was instrumental in the park’s founding, and Kate Sessions, often called the “mother of Balboa Park” for her horticultural contributions.


Following are just a few of Balboa Park’s family-oriented offerings.  For a complete list, visit www.balboapark.org.

  • The San Diego Air & Space Museum, California’s Official Air & Space Museum and a Smithsonian Affiliate, offers one-of-a-kind displays of historic aircraft and spacecraft.  www.sandiegoairandspace.org
  • The Balboa Park Carousel is a menagerie of hand-carved European animals with original, hand-painted murals, military band music and the classic brass ring game for everyone taking the 5-minute ride.
  • The Balboa Park Miniature Railroad takes visitors on a 3-minute, ½-mile trip through four acres of Balboa Park.  The pint-sized train is a model G16 — now a rare antique with as few as 50 currently in operation.
  • The Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater presents puppet performances throughout the year by a variety of troupes and resident puppeteers who work with marionettes and hand, rod and shadow puppets.  www.balboaparkpuppets.com
  • The San Diego Automotive Museum, dedicated to the preservation of historic autos, displays classic and collectible vehicles.  www.sdautomuseum.org
  • The San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum, the nation’s largest multi-sport museum, lets visitors call play-by-play action for San Diego Padres’ Tony Gwynn and hall-of-famer Ted Williams in its state-of-the-art media center, follow the evolution of the surfboard or soar with local skateboard legend Tony Hawk. www.sdhoc.com
  • The San Diego Junior Theatre presents year-round, family-friendly productions at the Casa del Prado Theatre.  www.juniortheatre.com
  • The world of model trains comes alive at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum with scale-model layouts of the Southwest U. S. and an interactive toy train gallery.  www.sdmodelrailroadm.com
  • A Smithsonian affiliate, the San Diego Museum of Man, home of Balboa Park’s iconic California Tower, celebrates the diversity and ingenuity of the human race.  Permanent exhibits bring anthropology home with studies of native cultures from across the globe.  www.museumofman.org
  • The San Diego Natural History Museum, allows guests of every age to practice being paleontologists and explore San Diego’s fossil history.  The museum also features a rotation of excellent, family friendly educational films. www.sdnhm.org


  • The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center is an educational, entertaining experience for guests of all ages with seven galleries of hands-on science exhibits.  Its IMAX Dome Theater, the first of its kind in the world, presents IMAX films and lively planetarium shows. www.rhfleet.org



  • Mission Bay, a 4,600-acre aquatic playground, is the largest facility of its kind in the world featuring separate, designated areas for sailing, power boating, fishing, swimming and water skiing.  Meandering around the beautiful bay’s shorelines are 20 miles of paths for runners, bikers and in-line skaters.  A favorite spot for families is Tecolote Shores, an open grassy park popular for flying colorful kites, playing Frisbee and having leisurely picnics.  www.sandiego.gov/lifeguards/beaches/mbay.shtml
  • San Diego is home to one of the world’s most beautiful natural harbors, San Diego Bay.  Bustling with activity day and night, it serves as the homeport for Navy ships, a large sportfishing fleet, thousands of pleasure craft and an increasing number of cruise ships.  One of the best ways to see San Diego is from the waters of the Bay aboard a harbor tour, dinner cruise or wintertime whale-watching expedition.  Families are amazed by the unique views of active U.S. Navy ships, water wildlife, San Diego’s beautiful skyline and the magnificent San Diego-Coronado Bridge.   www.thebigbay.com
  • The USS Midway Museum pays tribute to the hundreds of thousands of men who served their country aboard the ship and highlights San Diego’s rich military history.  The Midway, part of the Navy fleet for 47 years, was home to more than 200,000 sailors during the Vietnam and Persian Gulf Wars, as well as other conflicts and crises around the world. The museum is located at Navy Pier on San Diego Bay in downtown San Diego.  www.midway.org
  • The Maritime Museum of San Diego consists of several historic sailing vessels docked on San Diego Bay.  The ships are the Star of India, built in 1863 and the world’s oldest merchant sailing vessel still in operation today; The Berkeley, a San Francisco steam-powered ferryboat launched in 1898; The Medea, a 1904 steam yacht that served in both World Wars; the 1914 harbor pilot boat Pilot; HMS Surprise, an 18th century Royal Navy frigate; the USS Dolphin, the deepest diving submarine in the world; the Californian, the official tall ship of the State of California, and an authentic B-39 Russian diesel submarine.  www.sdmaritime.com


If “life’s a beach,” then San Diego is the place to experience life to the fullest.  Whether families wish to swim, surf, snorkel, play volleyball or just lie in the sun, there’s a stretch of sand for everyone along San Diego’s 70 miles of coastline.  www.sandiego.org/beaches

  • Coronado Beach is an aquatic wonderland recognized annually by the Travel Channel as “the best family beach in North America.”  A vast expanse of white sand greets families toting umbrellas, sand toys, beach towels and picnic coolers for an all-day stay.  Recreational activities abound with paddleball, sandcastle building, kite flying and volleyball.
  • La Jolla Shores boasts a spacious beach that slopes gently into turquoise waves.   One of the most family friendly beaches in San Diego County, the mile-long sandy shore is paralleled by a wide cement boardwalk that separates the beach from a large grassy park ideal for picnicking and volleyball games.
  • Ocean Beach, home to the Ocean Beach Pier, is a large sandy beach offering surfing, swimming and other recreational activities.  Ocean Beach is most popular for Dog Beach, where even the tail waggin’ members of the family can enjoy San Diego’s surf and sand.
  • A three-mile boardwalk that is popular with inline skaters, skateboarders, runners and bicyclists connects Pacific Beach and Mission Beach; both beaches feature designated areas for surfing and swimming.
  • Families, surfers, kayakers and body surfers throng to Cardiff State Beach and Elijo State Beach edging Cardiff by the Sea in San Diego’s North County.  A day at the seashore here can also include some bird watching or a nature walk at the nearby San Elijo Lagoon ecological reserve.


   San Diego boasts a rich heritage that comes alive at many monuments and historic sites located throughout the county.

  • Commemorating the “birthplace of California” and the arrival of European explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542, Cabrillo National Monument and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse provide spectacular panoramic views of San Diego’s harbor and coastline, as well as an excellent vantage point for observing California gray whales during their winter migration season.  Cabrillo National Park also offers a large, rocky shoreline of tide pools where families can see flowery anemones, scampering shore crabs and many other creatures of the sea.  The best times to visit the tide pools are during winter and spring low tides.  www.nps.gov/cabr
  • Like much of California, San Diego’s Spanish heritage is preserved in its beautiful missions.  The first of the great California missions, Mission San Diego de Alcala, was built by Padre Junipero Serra in 1769 and still holds services daily in the original mission chapel located in Mission Valley. www.missionsandiego.com
  • Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in Oceanside was the largest and richest of all   21 California missions and is often called the “King of the Missions.” www.sanluisrey.org
  • Two other branch missions or assistencias ¾ Assistencias de San Antonia de Pala, near Mt. Palomar, and Mission Santa Ysabel, near Julian¾still serve as places of worship for local Native Americans.
  • Old Town State Historic Park marks the site of the first Spanish settlement on the U.S. West Coast and brings to life San Diego as it was between 1821 and 1872.  The six-block park features 12 acres of historical sites with popular shops, restaurants, museums, a theater and several carefully preserved or restored historic adobe and wooden buildings, including a schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, San Diego’s first newspaper office, a stable with carriage collection and more.  www.oldtownsandiegoguide.com
  • The heart of downtown San Diego, the 16½-block Gaslamp Quarter was founded in 1867, and its beautiful, historic Victorian buildings now house a thriving dining, shopping and nightlife scene.  In the late 1800’s, San Diego was the Wild West, and the legendary Wyatt Earp ran three gambling halls in this notorious “red light” district.  Today, families can revisit the area’s history at the William Heath Davis House/Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation Museum.  www.gaslampquarter.org


With year-round nearly perfect weather and diverse topography, from the beaches to the mountains to the desert, families have a plethora of options for San Diego fun throughout the year.  Following are some additional suggestions for family offerings in San Diego County.

  • San Diego’s beach communities, from Coronado to Oceanside, offer charming, walkable streets and a laid-back Southern California vibe.

Mission Beach boasts Belmont Park, a historic turn-of-the-century-style seaside amusement park that includes the National Historic Landmark “Giant Dipper,” one of only two remaining beachfront wooden roller coasters on the U.S. west coast; “The Plunge,” a giant indoor swimming pool; amusement arcades, and the Wave House featuring an on-land wave simulator.  www.belmontpark.com

La Jolla is home to the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, an oceanographic museum with more than 3,000 fish on exhibit. www.aquarium.ucsd.edu


The beautiful San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas features the Hamilton Children’s Garden, the largest interactive children’s garden in the West. www.sdbgarden.org


Oceanside is home to the longest municipal wooden pier on the U.S. west coast and the California Surf Museum, where visitors can browse a permanent collection of historic boards and photographs. www.surfmuseum.org

  • The delightful community of Julian, once the second largest town in San Diego County during the Southern California gold rush of 1869, is located in the Cuyamaca Mountains in San Diego’s East County and reached by tree-lined country roads.  The irresistible aroma of cinnamon and apples leads guests to stores selling homemade pies filled with fruit from local orchards.  One of the most popular times to visit is during the Julian Fall Apple Harvest, held each autumn from mid-September through mid-November, a tradition begun in 1909.  www.julianca.com
  • Encompassing nearly 5,800 acres of natural and developed recreational land in San Diego’s East County, Mission Trails Regional Park includes more than 40 miles of hiking and biking trails that meander along the San Diego River.  Boaters are welcome on Lake Murray where boat rentals are available.  Families can visit the state-of-the-art visitors’ center, view magnificent wildlife and join hiking tours led by knowledgeable staff.  www.mtrp.org
  • The 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is one of the richest living museums in the country and located in San Diego’s East County.  One of the most popular times to visit the park is in springtime.  As the dry, rugged landscape is transformed by winter rains, a kaleidoscope of colorful wildflowers splash bold colors across the desert dunes creating a spectacular floral display.  www.parks.ca.gov
  • San Diego’s South Bay is home to the U.S. Olympic Training Center, the nation’s first warm weather, year-round Olympic training complex.  Located on the western shore of Lower Otay Reservoir in Chula Vista, the project features training venues and support facilities for archery, canoeing/kayaking and rowing, cycling, field hockey, soccer, tennis and track and field.  Families are welcome to join a narrated walking tour of the 150-acre campus. www.usoc.org
  • In the South Bay city of Chula Vista, families can get wet and wild at Knott’s Soak City U.S.A.  Open seasonally every summer, the park features 32 acres of 1950’s surf-themed fun that includes 25 thrilling water rides, a wave pool and extensive children’s area. With exciting slides such as “La Jolla Falls” or the more relaxing “Coronado Express” raft ride, there’s a ride for every member of the family. www.knotts.com


Happy happens in San Diego.  For more information on San Diego offerings, including exciting vacation packages and valuable coupons for attractions, restaurants and more, visit the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Web site, www.sandiego.org, or call (619) 236-1212.  In San Diego, visit the International Visitor Information Center, located along the Embarcadero at the corner of West Broadway and Harbor Drive in downtown; the La Jolla Visitor Center, located at the corner of Herschel Avenue and Prospect Street in La Jolla, or the California Welcome Center, located at the Viejas Outlet Center in Alpine.

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