SAN DIEGO — The pelicans skimmed the oceanside park like flocks of dinosaurs. The colossal Jurassic dive bombers fanned out in a great V the width of a city block, soaring low enough that I could see color in their eyes. To someone who hasn’t grown up around pelicans, these immense birds are a sight to behold. No matter what you’re doing, you stand with your mouth open muttering ohhhhhhhhh.
I’m learning how to travel anew with my child. Long gone are the days of “adult travel” with its fast pace and maximum attractions. Family travel forces you to slow down and balance the thrills with quieter moments of wonder.
My wife and I wanted a vacation that would expose our 4-year-old to textures, sights and smells that feel foreign, and southern California is close enough to be convenient, yet exotic enough to feel otherworldly to a child. So cue the pelicans. And the cactus. Add in some surfers and huge trumpet-shaped flowers. Throw in a few world-class activities, and San Diego is a destination where a parent can’t really lose.
First stop: Legoland
Our son has learned that there are these places called amusement parks and, “I WANT TO GO THERE MORE THAN ANYTHING IN THE WORLD!” has become a theme in our lives. Because he spends half his waking hours building Lego airplanes, Legoland was to be our pilgrimage.
At just 42 inches tall, Ian just barely made the cut for the Technic Coaster, and his hands trembled as we boarded. This would be his first roller coaster. Ever. It’s a big deal to share that moment with someone, to experience the dipping G-force plunges followed by the rush of relief that you’ve survived, and it’s a pretty fun moment as a dad.
The rides at Legoland are fairly tame as far as roller coasters go. They’re squarely aimed at little kids, so it’s the perfect amusement park for novices. For adults, all-day entertainment can be found throughout the park in creative life-size dragons, knights and “Star Wars” scenes made entirely out of Lego bricks.
To my surprise, the rides weren’t Ian’s favorite part of the day. That honor goes a park custodian who was wearing a necklace studded with Lego minifigures. One of the most beloved traditions at Legoland is trading minifigures with park employees. Ian brought two of my vintage 1980s characters that had lost their cool, and offered to trade one of them for a character that caught his eye. Working up the courage to interact with a stranger and fighting through his 4-year-old nerves, he approached the trade with a stoic earnestness.
While it may seem like a simple act, I suspect it’s the experience he’ll remember the most vividly from Legoland. The minifigure he received in the trade is certainly his most cherished treasure from our weekend, and it was my proudest dad moment of our trip.
Beach walks and baby seals
We didn’t want our entire vacation to focus on theme parks, so our second day started with a breakfast in the garden of Del Mar’s Stratford Court Cafe (eating breakfast outside in the sun was another novelty for a Northwest kid) and drove a few minutes to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, which offers beach walks and dramatic cliff hikes.
A superbloom of wildflowers set the hills ablaze with color, so it was hard to know where to look — at the sprawling meadows filled with blooming rainbows or the pounding waves on the coastline below. Ian’s attention was fixated on the prickly pear cactus lining the path. He’d never seen a cactus in the wild and they were simply mind-blowing. Everything from the ground squirrels nibbling on seeds to the sand he used to fill his shoes were rich with novel detail.
Driving farther down the coast to the community of La Jolla, we hoped to swim in the coves dotting the shore. But the harbor seals had other plans. Children’s Pool Beach was created for little tykes, but the native seals decided it was the perfect nursery for raising young pups. Much of the year, the humans must watch from above.
From the raised concrete walkway we spied seal families scratching, yawning and lumbering on the shore only to turn into streamlined bullets the second they waded into the water. Enormous 600-pound sea lions patrolled the coves around the corner, surfacing long enough to grunt and bark at snorkelers whenever they swam too close.
Animal-spotting at the San Diego Zoo
If you’re only going to try one of San Diego’s attractions, the zoo should be at the top of your list. Arguably one of the best zoos in the world, it’s home to more than 3,500 animals, and 650 species, so it’s almost impossible not to see a creature you’ve never encountered.
We started our morning with a ride on the Skyfari aerial tram that whisked us to the far end of the park. For an overview of the zoo that won’t burn through your child’s energy, the sky tram and guided tour buses are excellent options. If there’s one drawback at the zoo it’s the sprawling hillside on which it’s built. The terrain creates a mazelike experience that can be disorienting and tiring for small legs.
But the setting is also one of the zoo’s greatest assets. Enclosures are built into hills and canyons, and animal enclosures are speckled with overlooks, grottoes, streams and prolific junglelike foliage. Many large animals can be seen from ground level and also from higher vantage points like bridges.
Each member in the family voted to see our favorites. My top choice was the polar bears, my wife wanted to see the huge collection of koalas and our son wanted to feed giraffes. In all three cases, these animals were underwhelming. But unexpected encounters wowed us the most, reminding me that zoos are best when you just wander and stop when something grabs your attention.
We timed the grizzly bears at the moment they began to wrestle, and their long claws made eerie scraping sounds when they ran. The orangutan baby tussled in a burlap bag and played pranks on its parents, which had everyone laughing to the point of tears.
The best of kid travel
Near the end of our trip, my wife asked me to name my highs and lows. I didn’t have any regrets about the sights. What I enjoyed the least was how I acted in my role as Captain Let’s Go. I was frequently so concerned about beating the lines and outsmarting the crowds that I sometimes forgot to savor the moment.
Sure, lines will happen. You’ll forget snacks, your kid will have a meltdown and several times a day, life will feel miserable. But you’re also prone to unexpected wonders. When the sand is warm and the pelicans are diving and there are whales and surfers and your kid is beaming with unfiltered joy — those moments when your heart simply bursts are what make traveling with kids absolutely worth it.
If you go
Getting there: Alaska Airlines now offers direct flights to San Diego from Everett. As a parent, Paine Field felt dreamy — small lines, short walks, fireplaces, private bathrooms and fresh-cut flowers. The entire airport was like a first-class lounge.
Where to stay: Staying in downtown San Diego isn’t ideal for kids — instead, shoot for an outlying neighborhood. La Jolla and Del Mar are nearby neighborhoods sporting a kid-friendly California cool vibe. Both are within walking distance of the beach, with plenty of boutiques and outdoor dining options.
Getting around: The zoo is minutes from downtown. Legoland is 40 minutes north in Carlsbad.