“There are no beaches like this in Fort Worth, Texas,” my 5-year-old keenly observes as we arrive in Mission Bay. “There’s like 900 palm trees here too.”
We’re only a few minutes into this mommy-and-me adventure when a cool breeze touches my face and I begin to remember why I loved growing up in southern California — the sun, the surf and smiling faces all around.
As a working mom, I’ve accrued a lot of angst and guilt when it comes to raising children. Time is not your friend when you’re struggling to balance work and life in the real world. So, I took my soon-to-be kindergartener off on a bonding getaway. I could also catch up with my high school buddy and her 5-year-old son and see the sights I didn’t get to visit when I was an Angeleno.
It turns out that we’re not the only Texas tourists looking for fun in the Golden State. More than 560,000 passengers fly out of the Dallas/Fort Worth area to San Diego each year, according to the San Diego Tourism Authority.
An average of 47,000 DFW area passengers travel to San Diego each month.
Truth be told, San Diego was not a destination of choice when I was a SoCal resident. Sure, there were quick jaunts to visit family, an occasional work conference or a stopover on the way to a weekend Mexico getaway. But there were no planned family trips.
What I soon learned was that San Diego is the perfect destination for a family. In fact, the entire month of October is devoted to “Kids Free” entertainment in San Diego.
100+ Offers available for kids to eat, stay and play for free throughout San Diego in October. View a map of selected offers here.
Life’s a beach
We arrive at the Catamaran Resort and have just a few moments before the onslaught of family and friends join us. My son and I leave the bags on the floor and head straight for the second-floor balcony overlooking Mission Bay.
There’s a mixture of residential and hotels around the bay, a saltwater lagoon just south of the Pacific Beach community. The calm waters, soft sand and neighborhood vibe create the perfect atmosphere for the little ones to roam.
My son can’t wait to put on his swim suit and join his 7-year-old cousin and 5-year-old friend on the beach. We are joined by my brother, my sister and her husband, and two of my best high school buddies.
The water is clear enough to see tiny fish swim past our toes. Once in a while, a paddle boarder or kayaker would pass by but the kids didn’t seem to notice the beauty of the scene because they were too busy burying my niece in the sand. I yell: “Not her face, not her face.”
Band of brothers
The next day, the moms are frustrated.
We’ve just begun 18 holes of mini-golf at Belmont Park and two 5-year-old boys are being belligerent. The parental types are trying to teach them the art of a golf swing. Neither will comply.
As groups of golfers at Tiki Town Adventure Golf get closer to our band of brothers-in-bullheadedness, we do what most sensible parents would: We give in and let them swing wild. We don’t want to be those people who hold up everyone’s game.
Frustrations aside, we remark on how nice it is to watch our offspring get along so well. It is wonderful to watch them squeal on the Speedway ride where they’re whipped around on the two-seater NASCAR-style cars and watch their attempts to be brave on the Sky Ropes, a mini-ropes course in which we lead them up one ramp, then immediately go right back down.
Belmont Park is the modern-day of version of the boardwalk amusement park of the 1920s known for its Giant Dipper roller coaster. In 1990, the newly restored Giant Dipper was reopened to the public. My brother didn’t want to miss his chance to ride the historic coaster. The younger boys thankfully pass, as they didn’t quite make the height requirement, and opt for the less scary Crazy Submarine.
After several hours at the park, the boys want one last ride on the Speedway. We comply, again.
As we leave the boardwalk, my son asks: “Will we see our friends again?”
A day later, my son gets his wish: a daylong excursion with our friends.
On the eve of my friend’s son starting kindergarten, we dive into a day of activities that will wear out our 5-year-olds in no time.
Without doubt, the San Diego Zoo is a must-see destination for anyone visiting the area. Recently named the No. 1 zoo in the world by Trip Advisor, the 100-acre park is home to more than 3,700 rare and endangered animals.
The zoo, just north of downtown San Diego in Balboa Park, will celebrate its centennial in 2016 and plans are already underway for special events to commemorate the milestone.
Standing in line for the zoo double-decker bus tour, our group of four is not-so-patiently waiting to make history of our own. There’s a pre-boarding photo opp that both parents would love to take. Unfortunately, the boys are not interested so we opt to make it a mom’s day out pic.
On board, my son’s more fascinated with reading about the animals on the zoo map rather than actually watching the real life animals in front of him. My friend suggests we wait and get seats at the top of the bus — a great tip. There are few times in life when you can be eye-to-eye with a giraffe or see a California condor spread its wings so close.
The condor inspires our ride on the Skyfari Aerial Tram, which provides a spectacular view of the Balboa Park area as it whisks us to the other end of the zoo. The boys love it.
We get ambitious and decide to take the short walk to a couple of Balboa Park museums: the San Diego Natural History Museum and the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. Balboa Park, home to 15 major museums, is the nation’s largest urban cultural park.
The boys spend most of the time exploring the interactive exhibits at the natural history museum, then it’s off to the Fleet center where we watch the IMAX film, Journey To Space, that showcases NASA’s exciting plans. My little one’s captivated at first but soon dozes off because of the plethora of previous activities.
After lugging my 35-pound mini-me across one museum field, my friend graciously offers to pick up her car from the zoo parking lot and drive it back to pick us up.
There’s no bedtime story that night.
Licensed to drive
So, it’s just him and me as we venture to our final big destination: Legoland. Note to parents: If you’re taking a big trip with kids, always leave the best, or most anticipated adventure, last.
A few years back, we had made the hour-long trip to Legoland from Los Angeles but that was when we still lugged around a stroller and he couldn’t reach the pedals at Junior Driving School. Asked about the last experience, he barely remembered it.
This time, we quickly dart from the back of the park to check out the water park. There are two areas to the water park: one area with spray and splash zones suitable for toddlers and infants. The new Legends of Chima water park, which opened in 2014, has a wave pool and an interactive build-a-boat area for older children.
We could have stayed in the water park all day but I had to remind my son that we only had a couple hours left to enjoy the rest of Legoland, including the Junior Driving School where he could get his California driver’s license. He begrudgingly agrees to leave. Along the way to the driving school, we get sidetracked by the Fun Town Police and Fire Academy ride where we have to put out a fire, as well as a promised ice cream cone I had forgotten about.
At the driving school, I wonder whether he has the motor skills to make the little Lego car run. Not only is he an expert driver, he maneuvers his way past some unexpected accidents and stalled cars. LBJ, here we come.
As we stand in line to process his license, I begin to miss the “littleness” of my son. Soon, he would start kindergarten. His baby voice would disappear. Then, he’ll be too tall for this ride.
Would he even remember this time?
Mommy and me
On our last day, my high school friend came to relieve me so I could get a spa treatment. Her son had already started kindergarten that morning. While I got a mani-pedi, my son gets his last shot at beach time.
When my wonderful relaxation period ends, I walk back to our hotel room via the beach and there they are, two of the most cherished people in my life, playing together in the sand.
That night, I ask my 5-year-old what he liked most about our trip to San Diego. I rattle off the list of possibilities: the beach, the resort, Belmont Park, Legoland, San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park...
He nods at every suggestion. Then, he looks at me with his big, brown eyes and in his sweet, little guy voice says: “The best part of San Diego is being with you, Mommy.”
Where to stay
Catamaran Resort Hotel
For adults: All rooms and suites have their own private balcony or patio with views of the ocean, bay or tropical gardens. Resort and non-resort guests can ride the historic Bahia Belle sternwheeler along the bay. The cruise, free to guests, has a family time with ice cream sundae station and dancing.
For children: There’s a complimentary daily bird show, daily kids activities and active families can rent sailboats, kayaks, pedal boats, bicycles and Segways.
For adults: The big reason to stay a the hotel is that it’s at the entrance to Legoland California. But there are plenty of amenities. For example, there’s no fighting for the remote. Every room has two TVs so kids can watch their own shows and play games in their own sleeping area. Plus, the Bricks Family Restaurant includes a buffet designed for kids that provides healthy food options.
For children: What child wouldn’t want to stay in a pirate-themed room? Plus, every room includes a treasure chest that youngsters can unlock once they complete a treasure hunt that provides clues in their room.
Guests can choose between Pirate, Adventure or Kingdom
Where to eat
Oceana Coastal Kitchen at Catamaran Resort
For adults: Oceana features modern California cuisine. Ask for a table by the bay for a great view. The seafood options are exceptional including the California white seabass with ancho chili, orange, beets, farro and baby kale. We also loved the breakfast menu, which includes a frittata of smoked ruby trout.
For children: The kids pointed out the jellyfish aquarium inside the restaurant, which also provides a jellyfish coloring sheet with its kids menu. The pancakes and french toast were a consistent crowd-pleaser. For dinner, the sushi-shaped PB&J rolls were a hit.
Cannonball Restaurant in Belmont Park
For adults: This seaside restaurant, which is the largest rooftop restaurant in San Diego, offers fabulous sushi and the best beach views in Belmont Park. It’s a great place for a big group (we met up with cousins and we were all seated together). We started with an abundance of an appetizer Ahi Poke, a mix of cucumber, onions, avocado, taro root chip, chukka and sesame ponzu served with the trendy taro chips. We also tried the Spicy Lobster Roll with yamagobo, tempura panko, jalapeno rings and eel sauce, which was spicier than the Enfuego made of crab, avocado, torched seared salmon, spicy aioli and eel sauce.
For children: The kids menu isn’t as adventurous as the main menu but had a good selection of child-friendly fare and my son’s burger was well-cooked and flavorful.
Tidal at Paradise Point Resort
For adults: The view of the sunset from the patio is spectacular, which makes this a great couples’ destination. Set in a former 1960s beach house, Tidal offers locally sourced dishes with Italian and French influences. The olive oil poached halibut was sublime
For children: This is a special occasion restaurant. Thus the kids menu plates are priced at about $20 per child. However, this includes an appetizer and a dessert. My child chose the cheese and crackers, spaghetti with marinara and the fruit dessert.
Corvette Diner in Liberty Station
For adults: This is one of San Diego’s most popular family restaurants. It’s a loud and boisterous experience where the waitstaff enjoys torturing mild-mannered parents. But prices are reasonable and happy kids mean happy parents.
For children: They will love with a capital “L” this place. The waiter immediately threw a handful of straws at our two 5-year-old boys who promptly deluged their shakes with straws in fits of laughter. The 1950s style comfort food with some twists is great for young palates but the sing-a-longs, dancing and goofy good time keep them distracted. As one waitress told us: “Oh, honey. No one’s eating dinner tonight.”
Casa de Bandini in Carlsbad
For adults: After a day of park food at Legoland, you may want to unwind at this popular Mexican restaurant with a great mix of traditional combination plates and eclectic dishes such as crispy shrimp and mango tacos.
For children: The kids menu has a good selection of mini-sized Mexican fare including Tiritas de Pollo and beef rolled tacos as well as two healthy food options: healthy Mexican pizza and chicken tacos.
Kids Free San Diego
Here’s a selection of kids eat, stay and play free offers in San Diego valid through Oct. 31:
Catamaran Resort: One free kid's meal with each adult purchase at Oceana Coastal Kitchen. Valid for kids ages 12 and younger.
Belmont Park: One free child, ages 12 and younger, Unlimited Ride Wristband per full-priced adult Unlimited Ride Wristband.
SeaWorld San Diego: One free child, ages 3 to 9, admission with one full paid adult admission.
San Diego Zoo: Unlimited children, ages 11 and under, free admission per paid adult.
Balboa Park Museums: Children 12 and younger receive free entry (up to two children) to any museum with paid admission of at least one accompanying adult.
Legoland California: One free one-day child hopper ticket for one child, ages 12 and younger, with purchase of a full-price one-day adult hopper ticket. Park hopper tickets give you admission to Legoland and the water park or SeaLife Aquarium or all three parks.
For a complete list go to sandiego.org