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San Diego with Kids: The Top Three Animal Must Dos

Last Updated on July 20, 2021

San Diego is amazing. The city is beautiful, the weather is bliss, and it doesn’t have the chaos of a larger area like Los Angeles. There are a ton of places to spend money tourist attractions and unique things to see. What are the animal must dos when visiting San Diego with kids?

What Are The Must Dos When Visiting San Diego with Kids?

1. SeaWorld San Diego

2. San Diego Zoo

3. La Jolla Cove

SeaWorld San Diego Attractions SeaWorld

San Diego with Kids

1. SeaWorld San Diego

SeaWorld San Diego is awesome. It is one of the best things to do in San Diego with kids because it is a combination of an aquarium and theme park, with some adorable shows thrown in to put it over the top. To be fair, I have a particular affinity for sea creatures, so I am probably an easy sell. Even if you don’t love dolphins as much as cheese, you will probably enjoy it.

SeaWorld San Diego Location

SeaWorld San Diego is located at 500 SeaWorld Drive. It is only a few minute drive from downtown San Diego if you don’t hit traffic.

SeaWorld San Diego Animals

The SeaWorld San Diego exhibits are impressive. To say they are well themed would be an understatement. This is not your typical zoo. Some real thought went into these designs.

You could fill a whole day watching the animals. Some of the highlights include the penguins, dolphins, walruses, sharks, otters, and turtles.

This guy took a particular liking to my son. That or he was trying to bust out of there, but let’s go with the liking thing.

SeaWorld San Diego Pictures Manatee

SeaWorld San Diego Shows

The highlight of SeaWorld San Diego is definitely the shows. Check the schedule to build them into your day so you don’t miss them.

Pro tip: The SeaWorld San Diego app has useful information about show times, among other things. Download it before you go.

Orca Encounter

The SeaWorld San Diego orca show was recently revamped from its longtime theatrical Shamu show to Orca Encounter. The new show is designed to put your to sleep showcase orca behavior in the wild.

I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Orca Encounter is a snoozefest. To double down on its mediocrity compared to the other two shows, it takes place in an oven. It was nice to see the orcas, but a whole lot of talking and not much else is happening there.

Sea Lions Live

Sea Lions Live is hilarious. The sea lions are like professional actors putting on a comedy show. The human actors were funny enough, and believe me, I am picky when it comes to theme park theater. Six Flags Great America could learn a thing or two from sea lion Clyde about quality entertainment.

Dolphin Days

The animals in this SeaWorld San Diego dolphin show make Simone Biles look like a beginner. They flip through the air with seemingly no effort.

Pro tip: If you have a child who will not enjoy getting soaked with salt water, sit a few rows up.

Our day ended promptly after the dolphin show because we sat in the splash zone with a four year old who hates being wet and sticky. Spoiler alert. Those dolphins are swimming in salt water, not Aquafina. At one point during the show, they brought out a giant version of a dolphin (which I’m sure is the technical name of his species), and he went to town.

Rides

SeaWorld San Diego has some kiddie rides and a few large roller coasters.

Pro tip: Check the SeaWorld San Diego map and make a touring plan before you arrive. If you don’t have Quick Queue, go to the ride that is most important to you first.

Bonus pro tip: If you have Quick Queue, and your kids still want to ride the small rides as well, visit the children’s section first to ride the rides that don’t accept it.

SeaWorld San Diego Photos Manta Ray

Ways to Save Money with Discounts for SeaWorld San Diego

Tickets for SeaWorld San Diego

Direct Purchase

You can purchase tickets to SeaWorld San Diego on its website. There are several options, including single day, annual passes, and tickets that offer experiences like a seal and sea lion encounter. SeaWorld San Diego ticket prices vary by the day.

Visiting multiple times? A SeaWorld San Diego membership may make sense for you.

Pro tip: There are periodic offers with SeaWorld San Diego discount tickets. Check the website when you are ready to purchase to see what SeaWorld San Diego deals are available.

Military Discounts to SeaWorld San Diego

As of the time of this writing, SeaWorld San Diego military passes allow military personnel and their families to get in free.

SeaWorld San Diego Teacher Pass

There is a SeaWorld San Diego Fun Card for teachers that gets them in free.

Undercover Tourist

Undercover Tourist is a discount ticket broker that sells tickets for several theme parks. You can purchase several types of tickets, including single day admission, with or without a dining plan, annual passes, and tickets that include other San Diego attractions.

Third Party Bundles

SeaWorld San Diego tickets discounts can be added to a bundle of attractions on third party websites. This may be a cheaper option if you plan to visit more than one attraction. The Go San Diego Card for SeaWorld San Diego and San Diego Zoo is often a great deal.

Groupon

SeaWorld San Diego Groupon deals are available from time to time. Do the math to make sure this is actually the cheapest option.

SeaWorld San Diego Parking Fee

Parking comes in at a ridiculous cool minimum price of $25 as of the time of this writing. You can purchase it ahead of time online or pay at the gate. The price will be the same.

Pro tip: Undercover Tourist also sells parking passes at a slight discount.

Bonus pro tip: The SeaWorld San Diego annual passes include parking.

SeaWorld San Diego California Aquarium

SeaWorld San Diego Quick Queue and Reserved Seating

Note: As of the time of this update, capacity at the park is limited and the Quick Queue option has been temporarily removed from the website.

Quick Queue

The SeaWorld San Diego queue times are long. To avoid the cattle call, you can add Quick Queue to your park ticket.

Quick Queue is a front of the line pass that gets you onto specific rides as many times as you want, like Universal Express Unlimited at Universal Orlando or Fastrack as LEGOLAND Florida.

Quick Queue has multiple options. The prices vary by the day and option you select. Some of the choices come with front of the line access to SeaWorld San Diego rides, and some also include reserved seating at the shows.

Pro tip: You can add Quick Queue even if you do not purchase your ticket directly from SeaWorld San Diego.

Is SeaWorld San Diego Quick Queue Worth it?

If you can afford Quick Queue, it is absolutely worth it. Park hours for SeaWorld San Diego vary by the day, but they are limited. You will not have enough time to do everything in one day, let alone ride the same things multiple times. If you will only be there once, throw some money at this one.

Reserved Seating for Shows

You can purchase Reserved Seating for the shows without front of the line access to the rides. This option gets you priority seats.

Is Reserved Seating Worth it?

Reserved Seating is unnecessary. The theaters are huge. You don’t need to line up hours ahead of time to see the shows. If you aren’t dying to sit in the front row, skip this one.

SeaWorld San Diego Dining Sans Gluten

The park will accommodate your food allergy. You can ask request a supervisor assist you when you place your order. None of this means it will taste good. Even the gluten containing SeaWorld San Diego food is overpriced and underwhelming.

Pro tip: There is gluten free pizza at Mama Stella’s Pizza Kitchen. They clearly make an effort to avoid cross contamination, complete with the plastic pizza cutter they give you to cut the pizza yourself.

Is Outside Food Allowed?

SeaWorld San Diego does not normally allow outside food into the park, but guests with medical diets and baby formula can discuss their needs with a park representative. There are picnic areas located outside the park for those who want to bring their own food.

Ethical Concerns

SeaWorld gets a bad rap. People are understandably concerned. I made the mistake of watching Blackfish in sweatpants in the middle of the day while eating tacos on my birthday (obviously). I almost canceled the SeaWorld plans, but I’m glad I didn’t.

Is SeaWorld San Diego worth it given these potential issues? I believe it is, but you don’t have to.

I’m not sure what is going on behind the scenes, but it seems the employees are acting in the best interest of the animals. I may be way off on that, so you should decide how you feel before visiting.

SeaWorld

2. San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo is one of the most famous zoos in the world for good reason. Its intricate theming and extensive animal exhibits make it one of the best things to do in San Diego with kids.

At a different location, there is a Safari Park that offers a different experience.

San Diego Zoo Zoo Entrance

San Diego Zoo Animals

There are several special animal exhibits that are not to be missed. At the top of the must see list are a Labrador retriever and cheetah that live together. That is not a typo. I confirmed the dog was not in the cage to be eaten for good measure.

The San Diego Zoo pandas are gone, but as of the time of this writing, you can still see red pandas.

Do not miss the tortoises. They stretch their necks several inches to invite scratches from employees.

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Tortoise

Pro tip: You might not be able to cover the entire zoo in a day with little kids. Review the San Diego Zoo map and make a touring plan so you don’t miss your priorities.

Bonus pro tip: The San Diego Zoo app will help you navigate the property while you are there. Download it.

Take Advantage of the San Diego Zoo Skyfari Aerial Tram

This. Zoo. Is. Hot.

On top of being located in a sauna, the zoo requires uphill climbing throughout the hundred acre property. You will burn a lot of calories before you pass out. My younger son, never one to hide his displeasure, was not about to start for this picture.

San Diego Zoo Exhibits Lion

Take advantage of the free Skyfari Aerial Tram to carry you to the top.

Pro tip: Ride it up, walk down one side of the zoo, then ride it up again and walk down the other side.

Bonus pro tip: Arrive early to beat the crowds and the heat.

Ways to Save on San Diego Zoo Tickets

Direct Purchase

You can purchase tickets for San Diego Zoo directly from the San Diego Zoo website. There are several options, including single day tickets, multi-day tickets, and San Diego Zoo memberships and annual passes. Some tickets let you visit both San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

You can add the 4-D theater for an additional cost. Check the available options for discounts for San Diego Zoo when you are ready to purchase.

Third Party Bundles

Like with SeaWorld San Diego, you can purchase tickets to San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park passes in a bundle with other San Diego attractions for a discount. This may save you money if you plan to visit other attractions.

Check the Go San Diego Card for San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld San Diego if you want to visit both.

San Diego Zoo Groupon Deals

You can sometimes find a deal on Groupon. Compare prices, because it isn’t always cheaper.

San Diego Zoo Military Discount

Active duty military members get in free all the time. Spouses get ten percent off, even if the military member is not present.

There is no San Diego Zoo veteran discount as of the time of this update.

Parking at San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo ticket prices are higher than those of the average zoo, but parking is free. San Diego Zoo Safari Park charges $15 per vehicle as of the time of this writing.

Should I Visit San Diego Zoo or Safari Park?

Both San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park are great properties. Choose the option that will appeal to your family.

Safari Park and San Diego Zoo Locations

San Diego Zoo is located in Balboa Park downtown.

Safari Park, on the other hand, is located in Escondido and can take as long as an hour to get there from the city.

Exhibits

San Diego Zoo animals are in enclosed exhibits.

The animals at the Safari Park are featured in more natural habitats, which means less animals that are more spread out.

Pro tip: The Zoo seems to work better for young children with short attention spans.

San Diego Zoo Gluten Free Dining

Hua Mei Cafe, which offers Asian cuisine, has gluten free options. They cannot guarantee the safety of the San Diego Zoo food. If you are concerned about cross contamination, stick to prepackaged food.

Outside Food Policy

You are allowed to bring in food, but it cannot be in a large container like a cooler. Glass, alcohol, and straws are not allowed.

3. La Jolla Cove Beach

If you’re looking for wild animals in San Diego, this is your place. It is a fun town with nice beaches, water activities, restaurants, and shops. The views are amazing.

There is no charge to enter.

Location

La Jolla is located a few minutes north of downtown San Diego. It is an easy drive, so don’t let the location deter you.

La Jolla Shores Beach

La Jolla Beaches

The beaches are the perfect place to visit when in San Diego with kids. They are special because seals and sea lions have set up shop on the public beaches and claimed them as their own.

La Jolla Beach in San Diego

Some of the beaches are safe for humans.

Beach

Other areas not so much.

San Diego with Kids Sea Lions

You can walk on rocks to get closer to the animals. For the most part, they seem unfazed by humans. The chubby sea lion in the photo below chased my children off the rock. He was either all bark or extremely slow, so they were never in real danger.

Bluff

Parking

There is street parking, but don’t bother competing for it unless you enjoy added stress. You can reserve a parking space prior to arrival on sites like Spot Hero to maintain your sanity.

La Jolla Restaurants

La Jolla has several restaurants from which to choose. Bubba’s Smokehouse BBQ, a quick service conveniently located near the La Jolla shores, has meats that are gluten free. The food is good and reasonably priced.

Final Thoughts – San Diego with Kids

San Diego with kids is always a great time. The weather is great, the scenery is beautiful, and the tourist attractions around San Diego are some of my favorite in the country. Try to find discounted tickets to save money and make tentative touring plans prior to entering SeaWorld San Diego and San Diego Zoo to maximize your day.

Take a San Diego family vacation. You will not regret it.

San Diego Tourist Attractions Pin

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San Diego with Kids

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