My Dad lives in Southern California so we visit the area quite frequently, at least twice annually, and in terms of places with things to do, I don’t know that anywhere beats Southern California. Between Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, Universal Studios, SeaWorld San Diego, the San Diego Zoo, Legoland, and, of course, the beaches and a million other places to check out — especially if you’re a film buff — it’s easy to find things to keep us occupied.
With all of that, however, one place has emerged as our favorite for its combination of shows and cute animals: SeaWorld. It’s not that my kids don’t love the rides at Disneyland, but there’s something about seeing something they’re familiar with in a new light that seems to really spark their imagination.
This time we were lucky enough to have our tickets comp’d by SeaWorld, who also arranged for us to have a very special dolphin interaction that was unquestionably the highlight of the entire visit to San Diego.
The day to depart arrived and we were quite a mob: my girlfriend Jolene, the three kids (A-, 15, K-, 8, and G-, 12) and I in one rental car, and my sister Judi and her daughter Tara and family (Corey and their 2yo Z-) in the other rental car.
Departing from Irvine, California, it was an easy hour into San Diego, including a drive past the Marine training facility Camp Pendelton, where we were lucky enough to see some sort of maneuvers, including some pretty cool looking boats kicking up a huge wake. My son G- is particularly enamored of the military right now, so next trip I want to contact the public affairs team at the Camp and see if we can get an invite to tour the base. Got a contact? Let me know!
Sandwiched between two days of rain in early April, we were lucky and had a beautiful sunny day with some patchy clouds, a perfect day for an amusement park where you’re inevitably stuck sitting and waiting for things to happen, waiting in lines, regardless of the weather. The next day rained and we heard through the grapevine that Disneyland was empty and half the rides were closed. We did much, much better with our San Diego visit.
We Get To The Park
The first thing we did was check the schedule of different shows. For reasons that escape me, the shows are scheduled such that you cannot actually make it to everything, so you really need to pick your favorites then work around those times. Then again, if there was an obvious path from one show to another throughout the day, that’s what most people would do and it’d be a permanent mob scene.
The show that the kids love the most is unquestionably Pets Rule, a quite hilarious “pet trick” show where the stars are all regular domesticated animals: dogs, cats, birds, ducks, pigs, parrots, etc. Alright, so I don’t know anyone who has a duck in their living room, but certainly in their yards…
As you can see in the pic, it’s a bright, colorful stage and the animals are really well trained but it’s always fun that one critter or another always seems to do something off-script. The previous time we’d seen the show one of the parrots ended up flying into a tree outside of the performing area and trainers had to try and coax him down. This time there was a cat that instead of efficiently zipping from one side of the stage to the other got sidetracked and wandered aimlessly for a few minutes before remembering what he was supposed to be doing. I really like these off-script glitches because they’re often more funny than the canned jokes and visual puns that are all over this particular show.
What’s most impressive about Pets Rule is that almost all of the performers are actually rescue animals that SeaWorld has adopted from local animal shelters and trained for the show. How do I know? They tell us, and that’s cool too. It’s amazing that people buy dogs and cats from breeders when there are millions needing to be adopted, most the result of irresponsible pet owners who don’t have their animals neutered. Oops. Off my soapbox.
Next up was the One Ocean show, featuring everyone’s favorite big mammal: Shamu!
This is the most well produced show in the park, in my experience, and it’s a complex multi-media production with massive screens, surround sound, and a tightly managed script of activities. There’s much information about the ocean and ecological balance — hence the show name One Ocean — but really, the highlight of the show is having multi-ton whales push massive amounts of water over the sides of the tank and absolutely soak audience members in the first 10-15 rows. We’ve never actually sat in the “soak zone”, but one day, one day we’ll do it. We’ll just have to make sure we have all our gear covered up. I can only imagine that every single performance there are a half-dozen people who after the fact realize that water + smartphone or water + fancy camera does not leave you with fond memories of your day in San Diego.
After the show we grabbed lunch — surprisingly good sandwiches, as I’ve been conditioned to expect poor quality overpriced food — and took a slight break for the Bayside Skyride…
Look closely at this view from the Skyride and all that blue railing is actually the new Manta rollercoaster that might be open by the time you read this article. It was almost done. Then again, I’m a rollercoaster wimp so I wouldn’t go on it anyway. My kids, however, love ’em and were all fired up about the ride concept and conceptual artwork around the park. We’ll have to go back so they can experience the Manta, no question!
I think the reason I like the Skyride so much, however, isn’t so much the view of the park it affords you, along with a lovely view of Mission Bay and the surrounding areas in San Diego, but because it reminds me of the now-closed Skyway to Tomorrowland at Disneyland. I grew up in Southern California, so from about the age of 12-18 I went to Disneyland at least twenty times and got to know the park really well. The Skyway and the People Mover were two of my favorite (ridiculously tame) rides…
A bit more wandering around and finding everyone in our party (we’d split up for a bit. Thank goodness for cellphones) we went over to the Dolphin Interaction to check in for our afternoon experience, as kindly organized by the SeaWorld PR team. They had no idea what we were talking about, however, and when I learned that the “Interaction” included putting on a wetsuit and swimming with the dolphins, well, that sounds amazingly awesome, but not too realistic for a 2yo!
A bit of discussion revealed that we were confused and what we were scheduled for was the Dolphin Encounter, a considerably tamer experience where you stand by the dolphin training pool and interact with the dolphins without every actually getting your swimsuit on.
We walked over, met the trainer who showed us the ropes, and got to have a very personal interaction with the dolphins, as you can see in this photo:
It was really fun and exciting. We were all grinning and laughing as we learned the different hand gestures that had the dolphins spinning, swimming towards us, waving a fin and even splashing us from just inches away. And being able to stroke the dolphin? Alright, it was pretty darn cool. When I later asked my kids what they most liked about our visit to SeaWorld none of them hesitated: the dolphin encounter (alright, they called it the wrong thing, but for us landlubbers, being able to pet a dolphin seemed a lot more “encounter” than “interaction”). Indeed, weeks later, my niece emailed me to say that Z- is still going around telling everyone about how he played with dolphins in California.
Great experience, but now it was time for a snack…
I have to admit, I’m a bit of a wet blanket at amusement parks in terms of treats and candy and my standard approach is that they can have one special sweet during the day, but we have to go run around somewhere afterwards. No sitting in the bleachers or queueing in a line listening to cranky children for me! At SeaWorld they all gravitate towards these delicious frozen lemonade drinks that are kind of like a lemonade Slurpee. I think the SeaWorld staff has figured out that sweet drinks and running around are a live-saving combo for us parents, and sure enough, the concession stand was just outside of the Sesame Street playground area, where the younger kids climbed, ran, jumped and generally burned off their crazy sugar energy.
Good stuff. I wish we had a playground like this in my neighborhood, except I suppose it’d be a drag when it was permanently mobbed and I had to pay more taxes to maintain the structure. Bah, reality!
We were almost done with our day at the Park as it was coming up on 5:30pm and especially with younger children I’ve learned they can run on fumes for a long time but then things tend to unravel and I’d rather leave an amusement park a bit early on a good note, wishing we had more time than leave late with cranky, exhausted children and wish we’d left an hour earlier.
We also spent some money at the gift shop, though again, my approach is to give each kid cash and say “this is your budget. don’t ask me for more”. My teen bought a cute pair of logo shorts, my son bought himself a hat, and the little one got herself a pair of stuffed harp seals. I got myself a new keychain. Nothing too radically priced, though I suppose if you’d just spend $400 on admission for your family you might be thinking that there was a bit of an entrance surcharge to be factored in. 🙂
Had we have been staying in San Diego we might have stayed later, but instead we went to Old Town San Diego and had a distinctly lackluster meal at the Old Town Mexican Cafe. I won’t go back. I love the ambiance of the place, including the roaming mariachi band, but the food isn’t much of a step above Taco Bell, in all honesty. Still, it was a nice place to have a meal and we had happy, tired children in our cars as we took the hour drive back up to the hotel, and after a short evening swim in the hotel pool, the kids collapsed into bed and fell into a deep sleep, undoubtedly dreaming of dolphins and crazy dog and cat tricks.
In short, it was yet another great visit to SeaWorld San Diego. More than the other amusement parks I’ve visited, I really appreciate that SeaWorld is very environmentally aware and that much of their effort is directed to simultaneously education and entertain, with messages about ecology, the environment, and how we can help make the worlds oceans better places for animals and man alike.
It’s still a favorite place to visit.