For families beginning the San Diego vacation planning process, researching the San Diego theme parks and amusement parks is an excellent start.
I’ll tell you a little bit about each, what age groups they’re appropriate for, and provide tips for how best to buy tickets.
San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo is San Diego’s most popular attraction and renowned for conservation efforts. Having visited many zoos across the country and globe, ours is no doubt among the best in the world (some might say the best).
Highlights include the pandas, koalas, Polar Bear Plunge, Children’s Zoo, Skyfari Tram, Africa Rocks and more. A full day is advisable but some time spent here is better than none. Over 750,000 gorgeous exotic and rare plants decorate and shade many parts of the zoo as well.
Best for: Adults and kids alike. Locals come to walk in the morning for exercise. We bring babies in strollers for a nice day out. Our school kids take field trips here. My husband and I had annual passes before my daughter was born. Everyone can enjoy the zoo.
Special experiences: Look at the behind-the-scenes tours such as Early Morning with the Pandas, Inside Look Tours, Keeper for a Day and more.
Tickets: To summarize my post about how to buy discount San Diego Zoo tickets, there basically two places to look. The first is aRes Travel where you can save a few dollars, print the tickets (or pull them up on mobile) and go straight to the gate. The second is via the Go San Diego Card bundled attractions pass which works if visiting multiple San Diego attractions.
LEGOLAND California transports guests into the colorful world of LEGOs through shows, rides, displays and plenty of LEGO pits (play areas that are full of loose pieces) to play in. In addition to the LEGOLAND theme park, there is also a water park and SEA LIFE Aquarium in addition to the two resort hotels.
A very common question I receive is how many days should one plan at LEGOLAND California. One is usually enough unless you have an extreme LEGO fan, are staying in Carlsbad so have easy access to the park, or like to experience theme parks on a half-day basis. Then, two or three days can work, especially if the water park is open. Before planning a visit, it is incredibly important to check the calendar as the parks are not open every day of the year.
Best for: This San Diego theme park is geared mostly toward kids who are ages 12 and younger (though you’ll want to visit at the peak of LEGO enthusiasm which usually happens younger than age 12).
Special experiences: LEGOLAND California offers VIP experiences with priority line access, a VIP host for the day, exclusive tours and more.
Tickets: Make sure that the LEGOLAND ticket you buy covers what you want to see as there are park-only and resort hopper tickets available. Try aRes Travel for individual tickets and select packages or bundle with other attractions via the Go San Diego Card. Read also how to buy discount LEGOLAND tickets.
SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego is a sealife theme park located on Mission Bay. These days, visitors come to see the animals, enjoy rides and take advantage of California sunshine. The new Electric Eel roller coaster is the tallest in San Diego and makes going more appealing to tweens and teens, though I can tell you firsthand that they do still enjoy the special animal interactions (by reservation only) such as getting up-close with a Beluga whale or going behind the scenes in the penguin enclosure.
SeaWorld San Diego is a fantastic place to visit with toddlers because in addition to it being easy to push a stroller around the park, little kids LOVE the Sesame Street Bay of Play. The jungle gym, a handful of rides and Sesame Street characters are known to keep young kids in this area for the entire day.
Best for: All ages who are interested in sea life shows, interactive experiences and some rides. As mentioned above, it is popular with families of younger kids but does now draw in tweens and teens with the two roller coasters and VR experiences.
Special experiences: Guests can get in the dolphin pool for special animal interactions, go behind the scenes in the penguin enclosure, take a VIP tour, interact with a beluga whale and more.
Tickets: I have a guide for how to buy discount SeaWorld San Diego tickets. For the park-only are usually best purchased through SeaWorld San Diego (they now also offer a Quick Queue priority pass) but also check with aRes Travel (currently, they have an awesome 7-day pass) or bundled with the Go San Diego Card.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Over 2600 wild and endangered animals from the continents of Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America, and Australia live at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The new Lemur Walk, Tiger Trail, and Elephant Valley are some of the many highlights. Don’t miss the famous cheetah run and various animal interactions such as feeding lorikeets, petting goats in Nairobi Village and various shows.
Can you see the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park on the same day? Technically, yes, but it’s not advisable. These San Diego theme parks, without traffic, are 45 minutes apart and you simply won’t be able to enjoy the best of both with a jammed itinerary as both typically close around 5:00 p.m. or 6:00 p.m.
Best for: All ages. Bring strollers for younger kids as otherwise, it can be a lot of walking. The enclosures, understandably for animals like this, are spread out (though you can stop at the various play areas for a break).
Special experiences: Definitely take a look at the various safaris to book before visiting including the Caravan Safari, Flightline Safari (zip line), Breakfast with Tigers and more.
Tickets: Definitely check out the family pack for 3 or more tickets offered by aRes Travel which is incredibly popular. San Diego Zoo Safari Park can be bundled with the Go San Diego Card. I’ve also written about how to buy discount San Diego Zoo Safari Park tickets.
Aquatica San Diego
SeaWorld’s other San Diego theme park is a water park called Aquatica. Located in Chula Vista, it’s a bit off-the-beaten-path (about 25 minutes southeast of downtown San Diego). It’s worth the drive when it’s open during summer months if you have kids that love waterslides big and small.
They’ve made it part beachside resort with cabanas you can reserve and sandy beaches. Some of the waterslides are quite fast but small kids can splash around in heated pools, lazy river, and splash pads.
Best for: All ages who love water parks and tourists who have already seen the bigger San Diego theme parks on this list.
Special experiences: As Aquatica San Diego can be busy, it may be wise to reserve a cabana or lounger in advance online. The Quick Queue pass allows riders to skip to the front of the line.
Tickets: Residents should definitely buy the Splash Pass which is good for an entire summer of fun for less than the cost of one-day admission. Check the Aquatica San Diego website for other ticket options.
The seaside amusement park in San Diego is a classic. Perched steps from the sand of Mission Beach, Belmont Park is fun for Dole Whip, carnival games, rides and more. Play arcade games, ride the historic Giant Dipper roller coaster and dine at one of the ten places to eat. Head here also for a little bit of beachside shopping for swimwear and funky souvenirs.
Best for: Kids old enough to enjoy the rides, laser tag, games and miniature golf. Adults without kids may enjoy a walk-through after a beer at Draft.
Tickets: Single tickets for rides add up quickly so it’s best to buy a combo pass or unlimited ride wristband. I’ve been in many situations where I thought a ride or two would be fine and then the kids want more. Belmont Park usually has a Groupon of some sort so it’s worth checking there, too.