New Reasons to Make San Diego Your Family's Happy Place
San Diego’s appeal is well established: Its perennially welcoming weather, superior beaches and easy-yet-cosmopolitan atmosphere are just the start of the reasons to visit. But this season is an especially fine time to head to “America’s Finest City,” since it’s debuting a host of brand-new happiness-inducing activities that are sure to please families ready to take a real vacation again.
This March, San Diego’s world-famous, 106-year-old zoo unveiled a new feature that will bring guests closer than ever to the resident wildlife. Meanwhile, SeaWorld — another longtime fixture of the region’s family fun circuit — just cut the ribbon on a brand-new, heart-pounding and highly anticipated experience adrenaline junkies will want in on ASAP.
Don’t feel left out if your kids won’t meet the height requirement for thrill rides this spring, though. An entire park filled with loveable, technicolor fuzzy friends is about to make an entrance in March, too, much to the delight of the preschool set.
These new additions are just the icing on the cake for families in search of the ideal spot for their next multigenerational getaway. San Diego is home to a plethora of museums, unique, strollable enclaves and outdoor spaces filled with experiences that will engage even the youngest visitors — thereby freeing up parents to fully enjoy themselves, too.
Read on for more of San Diego’s happy-making happenings, attractions and experiences.
Wild, Hair-Raising and Adorable New Attractions
When it comes to outposts for all-ages fun and learning, visitors to San Diego are frankly spoiled for choice. This season, your kids can be first in line to try brand-new experiences at some of the city's most entertaining places.
New Wildlife Explorers Basecamp at San Diego Zoo
There's no mystery as to why the San Diego Zoo consistently ranks at the top of just about every "world's best zoos" list. Its 3,000+ animal residents enjoy beautiful and expansive enclosures that mirror their natural habitats; its contributions to research and conservation — including successful initiatives to save endangered birds like the California condor and the African penguin — are lauded across the world. And the zoo is constantly adding innovative and informative experiences and exhibits that keep guests coming back for more.
The brand-new Denny Sanford Wildlife Explorers Basecamp experience is the latest example. The interactive exhibit simulates ecosystems from around the world, including desert, woodland, rain forest and marsh meadow; and features both actual animals (porcupines, Fijian iguanas and coconut crabs, to name a few) and oversize animal sculptures kids can pose with, admire and — best yet — climb. Kids can dash across a suspension bridge and net tunnel, splash in a waterfall grotto, engage in shadow play and scramble up boulders as they move through the ecosystems. Hands-on learning activities also include microscope viewing, a life-size honeycomb, touch screen learning and interactive, digitally animated installations.
The zoo's sister Safari Park is a must-try any day of the week, and in fact you would need a full seven days to check out each of the unique experiences on offer. Options include the Sun Up Cheetah Safari, which includes a behind-the-scenes look at animal life in the park before it opens, and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the fastest animals on earth blaze past. Or take a different perspective with the Flightline Safari, whereby intrepid tour-goers strap in for an aerial view of the park from a 130-foot high zipline run.
SeaWorld San Diego's Thrilling New Ride
Speaking of serious heights, there's a brand-new rollercoaster at SeaWorld San Diego, and it's a doozy. Riders will feel their feet dangle midair as the new Emperor "dive coaster" pulls them up to a 153-foot-height, only to drop them 14-stories, completely vertically and — ensuring maximum exhilaration — facedown. The car takes heart-pounding barrel rolls and upside-down loops, all at max speeds of 60 miles per hour.
Theme park enthusiasts have been awaiting Emperor's arrival for years, since its opening was delayed by the pandemic, so that gut-lurching drop is going to feel extra climactic when the ride makes its debut March 12. Fun fact: the new coaster is named after emperor penguins, who can dive to 1,800 foot depths in the icy waters of Antarctica.
Alongside these thrilling new editions is a tried-and-true, near century-old amusement park that oozes Americana. Belmont Park, located just off the shores of Mission Beach, will take you back in time with its ice cream-themed tilt-a-whirl, wooden roller coaster and bumper car rides. Admission is free (you can pay by the ride), so there's nothing stopping you from wandering between the park and the beach and back again. For further exploring, you can rent a bike and cruise the oceanfront boardwalk or the 11-mile Mission Bay bike path.
Wave Hello to Sesame Place
It's hard to picture a more delightful scene for youngsters than one peppered by their favorite loveable monsters, walking around a real-life version of the street that's sparked their imaginations from their earliest days. This is exactly what will greet kids when Sesame Place San Diego opens its doors at the end of March.
The park will boast 18 themed rides, including a kid-friendly roller coaster (no 14-story vertical drops here) and 10 water play attractions with names like "Snuffy's Spaghetti Slides" and "The Count's Splash Castle." Add to this the live, choreographed character shows; a daily, dance-inducing party parade with colorful floats and high-energy hula hoop performances; and interactive play opps throughout the "neighborhood," and the excitement level is bound to cross into giddy territory.
Racing Fun at LEGOLAND® Starts in Spring
There's new stuff happening at longtime family favorite LEGOLAND® California Resort this spring as well. Joining the lineup of larger-than-life LEGO® brick creations (think 10-foot tall dinosaurs clocking in at 1,100 pounds and life-size Egypt-inspired sarcophogi among other marvels); all-ages rides; 4-D shows and splash park fun is the LEGO® Ferrari Build and Race.
Starting in late March, the new experience will invite kids to "drive" a full-size race car made entirely of tiny, lipstick-red bricks, then build and test their own LEGO® car on a racetrack.
Just Opened: the Comic-Con Museum
If your kids (or, well, you) love geeking out on comic books, sci-fi movies and all things fantasy, the brand-new Comic-Con Museum at Balboa Park should top your must-see list. Launched by the creators of the world-famous convention that bears the same name, the museum celebrates characters from Archie to Chewbacca, plus the creative minds behind their invention.
Fans get an up-close view of costumes, props and other memorabilia used on the sets of Star Trek, Wonder Woman and beyond. Plus you can introduce your kids to the low-fi arcade games (Pac Man, for example) that were cutting edge "in your day."
Always Amazing: San Diego's Nature Scene
Simply being together in San Diego's wide-open spaces is a treat for families any time of year. From scenic hikes and bikes, to water sports and picnics on the sand, the ways to get outside and enjoy the region's famously favorable weather are countless.
Vivid Vistas at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
Walk down a sturdy staircase and out onto the sea-weathered rock ledge to confront crashing ocean waves at this 68-acre preserve. It's wise to time your visit to coincide with the staggering sunsets for which the park is named — but since its reputation precedes it, you might not be the only ones.
The area encompasses 1.5 miles of coastline along the western side of the Point Loma peninsula and offers a look into an intriguing coastal environment, characterized by jutting cliffs, sea-splashed caves and endemic sage scrub habitat little ones will be eager to explore.
Hikes for Every Body at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Named for the critically endangered, broad-growing Torrey pine trees that inhabit this place (and basically nowhere else on earth), Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a sprawling untouched wilderness area beloved for hikes along its 10 scenic trails, many of which are only a family-friendly mile or two in length.
For the mild effort, the visual rewards are great — including patches of wildflowers, diverse cacti, lagoons and vistas of beaches and sandstone gorges. The Beach Trail brings hikers directly to the shores of Torrey Pines State Beach; time your visit for low tide so there's more gorgeous shoreline for strolling and picnicking. The protected status of the preserve requires visitors take only pictures — so make sure you have plenty of iCloud storage for commemorating your visit.
La Jolla Cove and Children's Pool
As the name implies, this little beach adjacent to downtown La Jolla was once marked as a swimming area for children. As such, city planners built a breakwater to protect the shore from large waves. Soon, though, another population became enthralled with its mellow waters: harbor seals and sea lions. And they relocated here in droves.
Kids will squeal at the sight of the slippery, snorting and barking residents at this beach alcove, which opens up to humans from June to November out of respect for the seal pupping season. But when the beach itself is off limits, there's still plenty to see from the breakwater — most notably, the numerous baby seals frolicking with their mamas, and of course the panoramic ocean views. For a closer look at the seals and marine life here, sign up for a kayak tour of La Jolla Cove.
Explore the Neighborhoods
San Diego is home to numerous enclaves worthy of a day trip with the family. From storied and historic towns, to spiffy modern digs to foodie free-for-alls, there's a new vibe around every corner — each with aspects kids will adore.
Families will get an immersive history lesson when they venture into Old Town in the heart of the city. It was the home ground of the indigenous Kumeyaay people for an estimated 9,000 years before San Diego's first European settlement was founded in 1769. The town also has ties to Mexico, as many early settlers traveled here to put down roots on the banks of the San Diego River.
Diverse aspects of the site's heritage are brought to life throughout the village, via a revolving list of engaging festivals and art shows, live cultural performances and interactive museums. Families can get a sense of what life — and the landscape — was like for the Kumeyaay people pre-colonization with a walk through the Land of the First People Education Park (known as Iipay ~ Tipai Kumeyaay Mut Niihepok in Kumeyaay). Paintings, placards, maps and mosaics are located throughout the recently-opened park, so visitors can literally learn as they go.
The stage at Fiesta de Reyes plaza is a huge draw on weekends, thanks to the live entertainment put on by the neighboring Mexican restaurant. Visitors perch by the outdoor stage with tacos and margaritas (make it a sweet rice-based horchata for the kids) to listen to the soulful mariachi performances and watch the colorful, skirt-swinging folkloric dance shows.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, at least age-wise, is the Mission Bay neighborhood — an area brimming with youthful energy and activity. Besides the aforementioned theme parks (SeaWorld and Belmont Park are both located here), young families flock to the neighborhood for its numerous public green spaces.
Visitors can rent everything from beach cruisers to surreys and enjoy scenic views from the area's well maintained bike paths. Excursions on the bay are also a big draw — via standup paddle board, jet ski, sail boat and kayak rentals. Many of the local restaurants cater to families, too. For example, kids (and hey, adults too!) will enjoy the marina views, shaded open-air patio and fun animal theme at Royal Rooster — while parents will appreciate the reasonable prices and tasty Mexican meals and brews. The surfer decor and vibe at Kono's Cafe is also a hit with the younger crowd, as are breakfast entrees like the French toast and bacon plate. Parents (and their wallets) will appreciate its shareable portion sizes.
Liberty Public Market
A veritable paradise for kids, adults — basically anyone who likes food — Liberty Public Market is a 25,000-square-foot food hall located in Point Loma's Liberty Station where visitors can chow down on inventive culinary creations from dozens of local vendors. Bao buns and boba tea, Peruvian ceviche, Belgian waffles and Southern-style sweet potato pie are just a tiny sampling the myriad tasty bites and plates that call to visitors' appetites as they peruse the space.
Grab a handful of the delights offered, plus a local craft beer (or a Matcha-infused green smoothie) to wash it down. Then head for a table on the pretty outdoor terrace to indulge family-style — as in, you get to try everything.
Learn (and Love It) at All-Ages Museums
While there are intriguing museums spread all-over this brainy beach city (the USS Midway Museum at Navy Pier downtown, for example; and The New Children's Museum near the Gaslamp Quarter) there is one epic cultural park — spanning nearly two square miles — that's truly a one-stop shop for all manner of interactive learning. And that's Balboa Park.
Besides the aforementioned new Comic-Con Museum that's just taken up residence here, we present here just a sliver of the family-friendly establishments that await. The park offers a money-saving Explorer Pass if you're (understandably) having trouble deciding what to see.
For Budding Scientists
There are more science-themed museums in Balboa Park than you could count on one hand, so the only tough choice for parents of curious kids is where to start. Here are a few ideas.
In addition to its towering dinosaur replicas and exhibits dedicated to creatures ranging from creepy crawly (stinging scorpions) to just plain massive (Baleen whales), The San Diego Museum of Natural History, also known simply as "The Nat," has a thought-provoking events calendar that will likely have kids begging for a return visit before they even leave. Recent programs include such out-of-the-box themes as "Animal Architecture," whereby little ones are challenged to see nest-building birds as architects of the natural world, and to assemble their own structures as a hands-on extension activity.
Meanwhile, The Fleet Science Center hosts a monthly Junior Science Club, whereby kids engage in hands-on experiments in chemistry, engineering or robotics, just for starters. Local scientists are on hand to share their experience and offer expert guidance as kids navigate topics they'll find relevant — like how engineers design slides and other playground equipment. If your visit isn't timed for the third Saturday of the month, kids will still revel in exhibits like "Going Places," where they explore the hows and whys of transportation by riding giant bikes, participating in sailboat races and learning to fly a drone.
On the subject of aeronautics, if there's a flight-obsessed member in your party, the San Diego Air & Space Museum will hit the spot. Here, visitors explore flying machines literally from all angles, as the museum covers everything from the history, to high-tech simulations of air travel.
Whether your young ones are scribbling with crayons or exploring pointillism with acrylics, their eyes will have plenty to feast on at Balboa Park's art museums.
Kid favorites include the large-scale sculptures that adorn the garden outside the San Diego Museum of Art (though they'll have to fight the urge to climb them); and the current "Of Sea and Sand" collection, which features impressionistic California seascapes, making it particularly relevant viewing for a family trip to the coast.
The Institute of Contemporary Art will expand horizons with its boundary-pushing sculptures (one currently on display simulates a humanoid whose head is a video screen, and whose hand is an artificial T-bone steak); high-contrast murals that span entire rooms; and immersive art experiences imbued with layered symbolism.
Spotlight on Culture and Diversity
Even the exterior of the Centro Cultural de la Raza is worthy of a long look. The continuous wall of the abandoned water tower that houses the museum depicts an intriguing cast of people interacting, playing music and even ascending into the heavens, all in impossible-to-ignore vivid color. Inside is an engaging hub of Chicano, Mexican, Indigenous and Latine art, culture and education. The center also provides traditional dance classes and creative workshops for people of all ages.
The WorldBeat Center is another Balboa Park fixture focused on cultural preservation and promotion. Its events and exhibits center on celebrating the African diaspora as well as indigenous cultures, and musically-inclined kids will jump at the chance to learn drum skills or traditional African dance through the Center's educational programming.
To replenish the family energy supply after all this hands-on learning (and perhaps dancing), you'll want to stop by the accompanying cafe, whose "vegan soul" menu proclaims such tantalizing specialties as African coconut curry, jerk Rasta burgers and farm-to-table salads that include sprigs of African basil, goji berries and dandelion greens.