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5 Days in San Diego – Hit the Theme Parks

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Everyone thinks of San Diego for the beaches, and granted, the area has the best in California. Yet there are many other things to do in the area for family entertainment, with at least five major San Diego theme parks all within close proximity of each other. Choose one of several Hilton hotels in the area, such as the beachy Hilton San Diego Resort & Spa just a stone’s throw from SeaWorld, or the central downtown waterfront vibe of Hilton San Diego Bayfront, or maybe the conveniently located Hilton San Diego Mission Valley.

From there, the San Diego theme parks are ready for exploration. You can even buy a multi-park pass to visit all of them for a discount! You’ll need a car to navigate yourself around town a bit, but everything is easy to find and guess what — there are apps for that! (Plus if you are a true theme park fanatic, remember Disneyland is only a 75-minute drive up the highway, too).

DAY ONE: SAN DIEGO ZOO

The world famous San Diego Zoo is the best there is, and I’m not just saying that because I’m biased. It just is! Over 99 acres in size and sporting more than 3,700 animals and an extensive collection of rare plants from around the world, the San Diego Zoo is not to be missed. Go early in the morning to avoid the crowds, when the animals are eating breakfast and are still active before the heat of day sends them into a lazy slumber.

San Diego Theme Parks - San Diego Zoo gorilla

The enclosures at the San Diego Zoo allow for up-close interaction with the animals, like this guy! (photo credit: San Diego Zoo)

Our family likes to walk through the flamingos to view the rare monkeys and pygmy hippos, and then off to see the Australian Outback where the large gang of koalas and babies are just so darn adorable. Nearby, you can feed the giraffes and watch their curly black tongues reach out to grab your offered treat.

From there, walk through the Elephant Odyssey, which is massive and so impressive in stature. When you exit that area, stroll over to the Polar Bear Plunge and view their underwater antics through the gigantic glass tank.

We like to catch the gondola ride from here and scoot back to the front of the park, where the cool shade of the Reptile House charms and creeps us out at the same time. Just across, the Petting Zoo offers a chance to play with and touch some friendly animals. The little kids go crazy for this area, and there are always activities like face painting and other projects to keep the tiniest ones entertained.

DAY TWO: SEAWORLD

A massive educational experience about the ocean and its inhabitants combined with a world-class set of amusements and rides, SeaWorld is a unique park that both teaches and entertains. From the time they were babies, our kids have loved to visit for the hands-on experiences and the thrills of adventure. You can stick your hand into an ice-cold tidepool to “pet” the starfish, or pay a few bucks to purchase a cup of raw fish to hand-feed the dolphins. You can get incredibly wet in the splash-zone play area with a Sesame Street theme, or work out your energy climbing the ropes and net adventures nearby.

San Diego Theme Parks - SeaWorld Dolphin Encounter

Visit the dolphins up close and personal at SeaWorld San Diego’s Dolphin Encounter. (Photo credit: Mike Aguilera, SeaWorld San Diego)

From there, our family likes to sit for a moment and watch a show, and there are many from which to choose. Perhaps the slapstick humor of the Clyde & Seamore walrus and sea lion show will tickle the kids’ funny bones. Or the massive beauty of the Orcas will entrance you as they glide through the waters and smile through the glass. SeaWorld’s shark exhibit was the first of its kind; it’s so scary and yet so beautiful to walk through a glass tube as they swim above you, teeth bared.

And let’s not forget those thrill seekers in the family. There are rides galore, including the water-based freefall of the Journey to Atlantis ride. Or the splashy fun of the circular rafts in the Shipwreck Rapids water ride. Our kids also love the tamer and colorful turtles in Turtle Reef. And there are many more attractions, with rides that appeal to all age groups and appetites for adventure.

DAY THREE: LEGOLAND

Who doesn’t love Legos? Can you imagine the fun of an entire theme park dedicated to things made from Legos? The imagination behind this park is astounding. There are life-size Darth Vaders made of Legos, entire cities from around the globe all made from Legos, even rides that appear to be made from Legos. This is a fun park dedicated to younger kids and probably best enjoyed by children under 12. All the rides are appropriately tame, and all are really sweet in their dedication to the Lego theme.

San Diego Theme Parks - Legoland San Diego

Mini version of Star Wars favorites are a hit at Legoland San Diego.(Photo credit: Legoland California Resort)

Oh and of importance to note, LegoLand California has decent food. Of all the parks, this one has the healthiest menu choices, such as salad bars, grilled chicken and various wrap sandwiches.

Recently, the park added a couple of features to bring up their game. Now you can bring your swimsuit and have fun at the Lego Water Park, where there are wet rides, slides and play areas for kids of all ages to do what they love – get super wet. They also opened a very good SEALIFE Aquarium, where my kids love to watch the jellyfish bob and float around a giant tank.

DAY FOUR: Aquatica WATER PARK

A full-on water park in all its glory, Aquatica was purchased by SeaWorld a few years ago and upgraded considerably. So much fun and so full of activities, this park is definitely a full-day experience. When you first arrive, stake out a place you know will provide you shade options all day. Believe me, you will thank me for this advice later when you need a break from the hot sun. There are only so many shady seats, so plan well.

San Diego Theme Parks - Aquatic Waterpark

Slides of all shapes and sizes are the stars at Aquatica Waterpark, one of the fun San Diego theme parks. (Photo credit: Mike Aguilera, Aquatica San Diego)

The little kids will go wild over the play areas, where buckets of water dump magically on their heads and puddles are made for splashing about. The older kids will disappear in a whiz on the water slides, some with cushions of tubes, mats or sometimes just the water itself. Daredevils may try the extreme plunge of the HooRoo Run, which gives dads like me the heebie jeebies. The lazy river of Loggerhead Lane is more my style, where I can sit in a tube and float aimlessly along with the current.

DAY FIVE: SAFARI PARK

Your visit to San Diego is not complete without a trek to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which is the closest thing to the wild that many of us will ever get. Organized into bioclimatic zones, the tram tour drives you through roaming herds of exotic animals like giraffes, rhinos, antelope and more. For a splurge, you can pony up for the Caravan Safari and ride in the back of a special vehicle while feeding the animals. Believe me, there is nothing like experiencing a rhino taking apples from your hand. The kids were giddy with excitement (and so were the adults).

San Diego Theme Parks - San Diego Zoo Safari Park

A Victoria crowned pigeon lands on its trainer in the Frequent Flyers bird show at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. (photo credit: Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo Safari Park)

Back at the compound, you can walk through a range of exhibits designed to amaze and delight. One favorite of our family is Lorikeet Landing, where you can buy a small cup of nectar to feed them, and they land on your head and arms for some amazing photo opps! The whole Safari Park is highly interactive like this, and is also very educational with a focus on endangered species and conservation. So well done.

So yes, San Diego has amazing beaches, world-class arts and culture destinations and more, but you can’t miss with a vacation planned around the San Diego theme parks. So much to do, I guess you’ll have to visit more than once!

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Lead photo: Kayode, an eight-day-old male southern white rhino, with his mother at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Photo credit: Jenny Mehlow.

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A Cali boy his entire life, Jon prefers to be near the water at all times. He grew up in San Francisco and now lives in San…

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