San Diego - A Review

After finishing up an amazing trip to San Diego, wanted to share our experience and tips so you can have a great time as well!

Quick Facts:

  • We are a family of 4 living in downtown Chicago: 2 boys, ages 5 and 3.  
  • Our trip was short, limited to 4 days.
  • We like to save money & time where we can
  • We wake up at the crack of 6 am (or 4 am San Diego time), so we over-prepare and plan to fit in everything we can into each day before the kids tire out and/or have melt downs.  This has continuously worked well for us and wanted to share some of the tips.
  • Assume for each section, we arrive at or before the place opens.

Accommodations, Transportation, & Misc:

We stayed in downtown San Diego for 3 nights and then La Jolla for 2 nights.
We scoured Trip Advisor for good hotels for kids and good proximity to where we were visiting.


  • Courtyard San Diego: This location was good: close to Balboa Park/Zoo, Beaches, Downtown, and grocery stores, restaurants.  The hotel is beautiful -- it was previously a bank and you can request to see a bank vault and view from the top.  Service is amazing.  The area is fine, but had some questionable folks ambling around. 
  • Sheraton La Jolla: This hotel was fine and the boys really enjoyed the pool, hot tub, and Koi fish pond.  I wish we were closer to the downtown La Jolla area.
Car: We used Uber while in the city and rented a car (Avis was 1 block away) for our time in La Jolla.

Stroller: We used a rental agency (Toddlers Travels) to rent a stroller instead of carrying our own.  We rented a Joovy Caboose -- it allowed both kids to sit, was compact, easy to fold, and had a basket to hold items (key).

Apps: Downloaded apps for each park, but didn't use a single one.

Lunches: We typically purchase snacks/lunch items from a local grocery store so we never have to stop to eat (eating during shows, standing in line, etc) and we save some cash.

Kids Areas: We avert our kids away from the kids areas until the end of the day, otherwise we lose hours and far too much kid energy to make it through the rest of the park(s).  And when we take them to that part of the park, they rally and have a blast to finish out the day.  There are typically far fewer kids in the area by the end of the day as well, making it easier for our younger boy to navigate with confidence.

San Diego Zoo

This zoo is undeniably amazing.
Pandas: Go straight to the Panda exhibit if you want to see them.  This is the only exhibit in the zoo created to have a line to view the animals.  And it gets long fast.  Plan your route prior as it is in the middle of the zoo and not easy to access.

Giraffe Feeding: If you want to feed the giraffes, tickets are sold 1 hour before the feeding begins.  We grabbed tickets, toured that areas exhibits and arrived in time to hit the end of the feeding (so no lines).

Bus Tour: The tour is about 30 minutes and a great way to see the zoo.  Recommend waiting until the end of the day for this, as animals are more active in the morning, and you can get a lot closer by walking around.  And it is a great break for the kids.

Skyfari: We did this just because the kids wanted to.  You don't see any animals and have to get off when at the end of the ride, get back in line to take it back to the beginning (no round trips).

We couldn't make it the full day as the kids got too tired, so we weren't able to eat where we wanted at Balboa Park: Panama 66 - I heard it is a great open park, so the kids can run around.

Sea World

Suggest arriving at the park 20-30 minutes early to enjoy the Explorer's Reef.  It is the only area open, but the crowd is light and you can touch horse shoe crabs, sharks, sting rays.

Shows: The best part for our kids were the shows, so we hit up all of them!  The dolphin playtime was great and almost everyone should be able to touch a dolphin (our kids did).  There is a show that doesn't seem as popular, but we thought it was great and were able to get really close: Killer Whales: Up Close.

Tip: You can sit in the Soak Zone -- they will warn you to move when it is coming (our older son freaks out with the thought of  getting a drop of water on him).

Shark Encounter: Our kids loved this and we went through twice.

Our plan had been to eat at Draft on Mission Beach to enjoy the sunset, but we were too late at the theme park.  Instead we tried Station Tavern (has a play area for the kids), but it was closed due to a holiday.  We ended up at La Vencindad Neighborhood Tacos -- such a great casual restaurant with unique tacos and much appreciated adult beverages.

La Jolla

We spent a full day at the beach (La Jolla Cove) until our youngest passed out.
Then we spent the rest of the day at the hotel pool.

In the evening we visited La Jolla Cove where the seals and sea lions are, then topped it off with dinner at Puesto in downtown La Jolla (yes, we like mexican food).  It was great and we sat near the kitchen, so we could watch the cooks.


This was the kids' favorite part trip, by far.  The park was great for their ages.
Some sites said Legoland opened earlier than noted on their site, but that may just be on the weekends.

We went during the week and there were not many people and therefore lines were incredibly short.  And the seasonal rides / water park was closed.

We followed the advice of other sites and started near the back, with the exception of kicking it off with the Coastersaurus.  It was great to start there as both the boys could do it and it is the least scary roller coaster, so we were able to test our older son to see if he could handle it.

Keep an eye out for the Model Citizens - they are Legoland staff that have little minifigures on their name badge and if you bring a minifigure from home you can trade with them or locations throughout the park.

Then we hit up the areas in this order: Fun Land, Castle Hill (try an order of the Apple Fries!), Land of Adventure, Imagination Zone, Miniland USA (only a little disgruntled that there isn't the Chicago skyline), finishing up with the 4D movie.

We pre-selected rides to skip throughout the day and were able to even do what they liked 2+ times.  There were a few rides our youngest wasn't allowed on, but we split up and our younger one still had a blast.  The kids loved miniland much more than I thought they would and were blown away by the Star Wars section (as were we)!  There wasn't a single ride they didn't like.  We all had an amazing day.


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