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California Dreamin’ in San Diego

San Diego embraces an easy, breezy casualness, the perfect destination for a stress-free family trip, thanks to year-round idyllic weather, 70 miles of coastline and museums, attractions and outdoor activities to keep the kids — and you — entertained and occupied.

What to Do

Plan to spend at least half a day at the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Get there early, and start at the panda exhibit because lines form fast. Then navigate your way around (the zoo’s big; use the Skyfari aerial tram to get from one side to the other). Family favorites include the petting zoo and baby animal nursery and the polar bears, tigers and elephants (my daughter’s favorite), all of which allow kids to get up-close looks at the animals eating, playing, even getting a bath. Starting June 19, Nightime Zoo lets your clan roam the park until 9pm, see the animals that are active at night and take in shows with acrobats and other entertainers. Adults, $50; kids ages 3-11, $40; kids 2 and younger, free. Look into a combo pass if you’re visiting more than one San Diego attraction.  

After the zoo, explore the rest of Balboa Park’s 1,200 acres of lush gardens, fountains and museums on foot. Make a pit stop at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, a museum filled with interactive, kid-friendly science exhibits. Adults, $19.95; kids 3-12, $16.95; kids 2 and younger, free.

Head 30 minutes north of the city to Carlsbad for a day at Legoland California Resort, geared toward kids 2-12 with a theme park of rides, a Sealife Aquarium and a water park that features slides, a lazy river and a toddler space with interactive spray pads, fountains and a teeter-totter. Theme park tickets: adults, $93; kids 3-12, $87; kids 2 and younger, free. Upgrade the standard ticket to include the waterpark for $11/person; kids 2 and younger, free.

Though San Diego is known for its June gloom (a cloudy start that typically burns off by noon), definitely spend a day (or at least a couple of hours) at the beach. Small, slow waves and an adjacent grassy park (perfect for picnicking) make the mile-long sandy beach at La Jolla Shores an ideal family-friendly spot to build sand castles, take a dip and just chill.

Not content to just sit still? Let the kiddos frolic in the calm waters of Mission Bay, then take a short walk to Belmont Park, an amusement park that boasts one of only two remaining beachfront wooden roller coasters in the country. While bumper cars, Tilt-a-Whirl, mini-golf, a zip-line and more entertain bigger kids, toddlers won’t find too much suited for them here. (Even the carousel went too fast for Genevieve’s liking.) Individual rides, $3-$6 each. One-day ride pass: $28.95 for those 48 inches and taller; $17.95 for those under 48 inches.

Where to Eat

Corvette Diner might be the most family-friendly joint in town. Set the kids loose in the arcade of modern and classic games while you wait for a table, let them dance to the live DJ spinning ‘50s and ‘60s tunes or seek out the balloon artist creating everything from hats to animals in exchange for a tip.

Grab authentic Mexican food in Old Town, where every restaurant rolls out tortillas by hand. Locals and tourists pack Casa Guadalajara for good reason: free appetizers during happy hour, a good kids menu and a large courtyard for alfresco dining.


Stay at Paradise Point Resort & Spa, where kids do arts and crafts, get their face painted and play organized games every Saturday afternoon until Labor Day for free. Rooms from $194/night. Or book a room at the Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa. And starting June 20, sign the little ones up for hula lessons, take in a family movie on the bay every Monday, Wednesday and Sunday evening and watch Seaworld’s nightly fireworks show. Rooms from $279/night.