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A family of three tackles the sights of San Diego in 48 hours

A family trip to San Diego for just 48 hours?

It sounded far-fetched to me, too ... before the plan was hatched.

San Diego is big and beautiful, with plenty to do. Certainly you could spend more than 48 hours in the city if you had the chance.

But if you didn't, it all comes down to sticking with what you know best.

That's why we decided to go with the basic San Diego hot spots and restaurants scouted on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, my favorite Food Network show, hosted by Guy Fieri.

By researching our main two meals via the show's clips on YouTube, we were able to make the most of our time taking in the big three --the beach, San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld.

All in just 48 hours.

So how did we do it?

First, we made sure to eat breakfast at the hotel and lunch at the attractions.

As for the rest, here's how we broke it down.

Lodging

Courtyard Marriott San Diego Mission Valley/Hotel Circle (595 Hotel Circle South, 619-291-5720, www.courtyardsd.com)

If you're going to try to do a lot in a short amount of time in San Diego, location is important. That's why we selected this hotel. The key to finding the right spot is the term "Hotel Circle." It's a strip of hotels centrally located near all the popular San Diego destinations.

All the hotels on the strip were 10 minutes or less from everywhere we wanted to go, from the beach to the zoo to SeaWorld to dining.

While we stayed at Courtyard ($159 per night/double occupancy), there are plenty of other options within a mile in all price ranges. You can go for the big chains like Sheraton, Hilton, Doubletree Club, Crowne Plaza or smaller national ones such as Days Hotel and Best Western. There are also local places, including the Vagabond Inn, which is a hotel chain in California and Nevada.

Most also charge for parking. Ours was $15 a day. The hotel included free wireless but no free breakfast. There was a nice fitness facility and a heated outdoor pool with cabanas, if you're looking for perks.

The hotels are also next to a central shopping district. But when you're in a time crunch, who has time for shopping?

Day 1 (4 p.m. arrival)

Pacific Beach (www.pacificbeach.org)

You can't go wrong with starting your trip with a stroll on the beach. The best part is that it's free, even parking, provided you can find a spot.

From there, it's all about what you can handle regarding water temperature. The water was cold for 40-year-olds but seemed like a bathtub for a 9-year-old. The best part about an hour on the beach is being able to gaze at the Pacific Ocean and feel like you've walked enough to work on an appetite.

Family of three total cost: $0

Dinner

El Indio Mexican Restaurant (3695 India St., 619-299-0333, www.el-indio.com)

Fieri liked this restaurant for its authentic flavors and fresh chips. He was right.

Inside, it looks like a Taco Cabana right down to the way you order, but the food is great. The chicken enchilada/beef tamale platter ($6.99) was filling, but I ordered one of the beef taquitos ($1.33), too, because this is supposed to be the birthplace of the taquito. There's no way the average person can finish all the food, but I tried.

The homemade chips ($2.25 for a small bag) are thick enough to serve as shingles and hold up well to the salsa bar. The best bonus was when it came to the soft drinks. In addition to the regular Coca-Cola products, there was also an aguas frescas fountain. The orange drink is whipped and tastes just like an Orange Julius but at a fraction of the price ($1.69).

We timed it just right, getting there at 6 p.m. and before the dinner rush. Seating is limited, but there is a patio outside.

Family of three total cost: $28.55.

Day 2

SeaWorld San Diego (500 SeaWorld Drive, 800-257-4268, www.seaworld.com)

SeaWorld was as advertised, if you're looking for aquatics. If you're looking for rides, there was really not much to do. The good news was that during our North Texas spring break, the park wasn't that crowded. The line for the Journey to Atlantis ride was less than 15 minutes long during peak hours. The Shipwreck Rapids line was a little longer, but it was bearable.

As for the shows themselves, they were kind of hit-and-miss. The Shamu show lasts 25 minutes and runs twice daily. We caught the first show, which was at 12:15, and the place was nearly full. The show was great, and no one seemed unnerved by the recent accident at SeaWorld in Florida.

We missed the dolphin show, as the exhibit was closed for remodeling. But we were able to feed sea lions, watch dolphins and see polar bears and beluga whales. There were also smaller exhibits that included sharks and piranhas, which is right up our 9-year-old's alley.

SeaWorld is expensive, however. Tickets are $69 for adults and $59 for children. You can get them for a couple of bucks cheaper from hotels and other discounters.

The expenses don't stop there, either. Lunch set us back $34.40. We also bought an $8 poncho for the Shamu show because we were sitting in the splash zone. While it wasn't needed there, it did come in handy on both rides, as you get soaked. Also be prepared to spend money on some rides. The Skytower Ride and the Bayside Skyride are $4 each, but you can buy a ticket for both for $6.

That's actually getting off cheap, though. If you want to do the dolphin interaction program, it will cost $190, and you have to wear a wet suit that's flattering on no one. We wisely passed on that one.

One thing that's definitely worth the money is the preferred parking. Regular parking is $12, and preferred is $17. After spending six hours at SeaWorld, you're glad you're guaranteed a spot in the first six rows when you leave.

Family of three total: $366.70

Dinner

Pizzeria Luigi (1137 25th St., 619-233-3309, www.pizzerialuigi.com)

If there was one meal you had to eat every day, it would be pizza for me. So we went to Pizzeria Luigi, which TV host Fieri loved.

It's easy to see why. Thin-crust pizza at a cheap price is hard to beat, especially when you get to order it by the slice. Our family likes different stuff, so the place got high marks there.

On my first trip, I went with pepperoni and sausage on one slice and pepperoni, ricotta cheese, pineapple and jalapeño for the second. Neither lasted long, and we ate outside at a picnic table while the sun set. Stay clear of indoor seating because the pizza ovens make it warm. The price was good, too; two slices plus a Moretti beer for $8.50. When we went back for seconds (a slice of cheese and a slice of supreme), it was just $5.

We finished with seven slices of pizza, two beers and a lemonade. This was the location featured on the show with the same chef working behind the counter. There is another location, but this one was on a hill with a beautiful view. Remember that it's cash only.

Family of three total cost: $27

Day 3 (9 a.m. - 3 p.m.)

San Diego Zoo (2920 Zoo Drive, 619-231-1515, www.sandiegozoo.org)

This trip indicated that the 9-year-old may be getting past the zoo age.

But if there's a way to end the zoo era, it's at the world-renowned San Diego Zoo. This is as close to the animals as you'll ever get.

You can get face-to-face with the hippos or have your lunch while the elephants roam in the background. The Elephant Odyssey was the highlight of the trip. You get to see the elephants up close and also see them being tended to by zoo workers.

It's also amazing to see the number of big cats at the zoo. Lions, tigers, panthers. You name it, the San Diego Zoo has it.

That could also be part of the problem with the zoo. Unlike the Fort Worth Zoo, which you can make in a basic loop, the San Diego Zoo is spread out, and it's hard to get to everything without a GPS unit. The Skyfari helps, as do the express buses in the park. But you still don't feel like you're seeing everything no matter how hard you try. You also double back a few times if you're not careful, which apparently I wasn't.

There's also a bit of sticker shock. Parking is free, but that is where the good times end. You can bring your own food but no coolers. To keep within our time constraints, we ate at the zoo. Lunch for the three of us, including a children's meal, cost just over $47. For my wife's sake, at least they had Coca-Cola products. But certainly not $47 worth.

We also missed out on the polar bears, because the new polar bear exhibit was under construction.

Family of three total cost: $168.27.

After that, it was back on the interstate heading east. It was 3 p.m., and our 48-hour trip actually took only 47 hours, and we lived to tell the tale.

Anthony Andro, 817-390-7760

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