For the past two weeks, I’ve been immersed in the world of the under-four set, exploring San Diego through the eyes of our two little grandsons. I approached their visit the way I research our travels, looking for places and experiences that would be interesting, memorable and most of all, fun. Our outings had to be child-centric, but also enjoyable for the adults who would be tagging along.

We covered quite a bit of territory over the two weeks, from downtown San Diego to the edges of North County. Although I kept our plans flexible, I made sure to have some type of activity each day, even if it was as simple as visiting a new playground or going out for ice cream. We saved museum visits for the rainy days, rather than buying tickets in advance for a specific day. One of the rainiest days fell on our planned visit to Legoland; we shifted our plans and rescheduled our visit, thankfully not having purchased tickets beforehand. Our only disappointment was not making it to the San Diego Zoo, which we’d visited the last time our family was here. We simply ran out of time.

I hope this little guide will be helpful if you’re planning a trip to San Diego. And I also hope it might spark some ideas for planning adventures when little ones come to visit, wherever you call home.

Birch Aquarium – 2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla

The view from the patio of Birch Aquarium is almost worth the price of admission alone. Part of UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the aquarium overlooks the Pacific Ocean and La Jolla Coast, a stunning spot for taking a break after touring the exhibits.

The six of us headed out on what looked to be a rainy morning that quickly changed its mind and gave us time outside as well as inside the aquarium. Our plan was to simply wander and see what captured the interests of our almost-two and almost-four-year-old. Our expectations weren’t too high, which made the visit especially fun.

There are sea turtles and sea horses, leopard sharks and lionfish. The biggest hit was the mesmerizing floor-to-ceiling tank filled with giant kelp and a host of varieties of fish. I was thrilled to see the Little Blue Penguins, which had eluded Herb and me when we traveled to Australia and New Zealand a few years ago. The smallest of the penguin species, the Little Blues are housed in a separate habitat at the aquarium, complete with burrows, a sandy beach and an 18,000-gallon pool.

About halfway through our visit, we spent some time on the back patio, where a staff member supervises “please touch” tanks filled with various sea creatures. Afterwards, our crew was ready for snack time. We headed to a bench where the kids enjoyed the snacks that Emily had packed while the adults enjoyed simply being there.

Tip: Purchase tickets online on the day of your visit. Tickets are available at the door, but may be sold out. We arrived at 9 a.m. when the aquarium opened, and it became much more crowded later in the morning.

View from my window as we drove into the Birch Aquarium parking area.
Birch Aquarium Entrance.
The enchanting giant kelp tank.
A lionfish…
…A seahorse…
…and a Little Blue Penguin.
Looking out from the Birch Aquarium patio.

Carlsbad Flower Fields – 5704 Paseo Del Norte, Carlsbad

Every March and April, a stretch of Interstate 5 in Carlsbad bursts into an array of color that for a brief moment dazzles the route. Although I’d driven past the Carlsbad Flower Fields hundreds of times, I’d never stopped to tour the grounds – until my friend Melissa suggested it as an activity for our grandchildren’s visit. It turned out to be one of those places I couldn’t believe I hadn’t visited sooner.

The fields look like an Impressionist painting, with rows of color-coordinated flowers spread out like a rainbow. According to the Flower Fields Guidemap, 50 acres of the ranunculus flower – a member of the buttercup family – bloom in 13 varieties of colors. There are more than 200,000 plants per acre, with close to 80 million flowers in full bloom at the peak of the season.

Emily, the kids and I began our tour with the “tractor wagon ride,” an open-air wagon pulled by a tractor along the periphery of the fields. The wagon stops along the way, allowing visitors the opportunity to walk the fields along set pathways. There are indented paths with benches – including one with a very large green chair – that offer spots for taking photos as if you are sitting among the flowers.

The word that kept playing in my mind was spectacular.

After the wagon ride, we spent time at Santa’s Playground, where colorful houses are scattered among the play structures, and inviting-looking slides shoot out from quirky cottages. Later we opted for a bag of kettle corn from one of the food stands that also included a lemonade stand shaped like a lemon and an ice cream stand shaped like an ice cream cone.

Tip: Tickets must be purchased online before you arrive and are not available at the door. Quantities are limited each day.

Beginning our visit with the tractor wagon ride.
The “big green chair.”
Beautiful fields of ranunculus…

…and views of the Pacific Ocean.

I loved this little yellow bloom peeking out from a sea of pink.
Santa’s Playground is a great place to end the morning with little ones.

Carlsbad Strawberry Company – 1050 Cannon Road, Carlsbad

When Emily and Andrew were growing up, picking apples in the fall became a treasured family tradition. Strawberry picking, however, had never been on our radar. But this was spring – strawberry season – and our grandsons oh-so love strawberries. It seemed that it might be time to welcome a new tradition into the fold.

Herb and I arrived at the Carlsbad Strawberry Company with two little boys who were quite excited, although I think eating the strawberries was more on their minds than picking them! We first stopped at the farm’s Sunflower Maze, a lovely field of bright golden sunflowers neatly planted in rows, with random rows running in the opposite direction to block the path and form the maze.

Next we purchased an empty bucket that we could fill to the brim with strawberries. We were given scissors to snip the stems and were instructed to leave long stems intact. The fields were a bit muddy, and interior rows were tricky to manage with little ones, but we had great success finding and picking ripe berries on the outer plants. The kids were intrigued with the whole process, and with Herb’s help, managed to pick enough strawberries to fill the bucket.

Tip: Be sure to read the u-pick rules on the website before visiting. Purses, backpacks, bags and containers are not allowed in the fields.

Inside the Sunflower Maze…

Strawberry Fields Forever…

Fleet Science Center – 1875 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego

When a stormy day put a damper on our plans to visit Legoland, we changed course and headed to the Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. I was a little concerned that our grandsons might be too young to enjoy experiencing the museum, but it turned out that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Although many of the exhibits are geared to older children and teens, an area called Kid City is designed specifically for the “five and under crowd.” City streets complete with a fire truck, supermarket, ball wall and laboratory offer interactive activities geared to little ones and kept our two explorers busy for quite a while.

Our museum tickets included admission to a documentary film playing in the Center’s IMAX Theater. We opted for “Deep Sky,” which was playing at a time that worked with our schedule. We all assumed that both kids would probably not last for the entire film, and Herb offered to sit at the end of our group and take whoever wanted to leave to another part of the museum.

When the film ended, we were all still in our seats, with two pairs of eyes glued to the ceiling, enthralled by the whole experience. This was their first time seeing a movie in a theater, and Emily joked that she was afraid they now will expect that every movie they see in a theater will be like an IMAX!

Tip: One documentary film is included with each Fleet Science Center admission. Tickets for all IMAX movies must be purchased separately.

Fleet Science Center’s Kid City…
…fascinating gears…
…and a light board.

Legoland California – One Carlsbad Drive, Carlsbad

There’s clearly a sweet spot when it comes to the best ages for visiting Legoland California. Children who are too young won’t meet height requirements for many of the rides: those who are too old may have “aged out” of key attractions. The Legoland website describes the park as “geared to families with children between the ages of 2 and 12,” which I think is a good yardstick for determining whether the little ones in your life will enjoy the experience. Having a love of Legos really helps, too!

A new land called Dino Valley had just opened a few days before our visit. The six of us decided to start our day there, knowing it would be especially popular. Our plan worked well, giving us a short wait time for the Explorer River Quest ride, but the DUPLO Little Dino Trail ride wasn’t working. By the time it was repaired, we had moved on to Fun Town, where we spent most of the day.

The magic of Legoland is that almost everything in the park is made of Legos. The rides are similar to those found in other amusement parks, but with the twist of having a Lego theme. Our crew’s favorites were the Junior Driving School, Fun Town Police and Fire Academy and the Deep Sea Adventure submarine ride. They also loved the Miniland USA miniature cities created from Legos.

Tip: Downloading the Legoland California phone app is extremely helpful once you are at the park. In addition to providing a map of each land, the app tracks wait times for all the rides.

Legoland California entrance.
Dino Valley’s Explorer River Quest boat ride.
The park is filled with Lego creations like this mariachi band in Fun Town.
 Miniland USA’s Lego-created Washington, D.C. …
…and San Diego’s Petco Park.

Pacific Surfliner & A Train-Themed Outing

This was one of those outings that evolved from a single idea. Herb thought it would be fun to take our grandsons downtown San Diego to see the Amtrak Surfliner arrive at Santa Fe Depot and get an up-close look at a locomotive. Then I remembered the model train museum in Balboa Park, not too far from downtown. And then I thought of the miniature train ride by the San Diego Zoo, also in Balboa Park. Suddenly we had a plan for our outing, complete with a theme!

Santa Fe Depot – 1050 Kettner Blvd., San Diego

We had just parked the car and were heading to the Santa Fe Depot when we saw the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner pulling into the station. It was a busy scene, with passengers boarding and disembarking, the wheels of their suitcase clicking along the brick-paved platform. I couldn’t tell who was more excited – Herb or the kids! One of the conductors graciously agreed to let us step on board for a moment and give our little ones a quick peek at the interior.

We watched the train leave and waited for the next one to arrive before moving on. On the way to the car, we walked through the Santa Fe Depot, built in 1915 in the Mission Revival style, showing the kids where passengers buy their tickets and wait for the train.

Pacific Surfliner trains along the platform at Santa Fe Depot.
Looking across the platform at Santa Fe Depot.
Another train arriving in the distance.
Santa Fe Depot entrance from the platform.
The Mission Revival Style interior.

Model Railroad Museum – 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego

Miniature train scenes are displayed around the museum behind glass windows at Balboa Park’s Model Railroad Museum. It’s a small space, perfect for young children, with enough trains chugging along the tracks to hold their interest.

The Model Railroad Museum is free for kids 12 and under and is open every day except Monday.

Tip: All museums in Balboa Park – except the San Diego Zoo – are free of charge to San Diego residents on Tuesdays. The parking lot was extremely crowded on our Tuesday visit, even with an early arrival. If you’re visiting from out-of-town, I would recommend not picking Tuesday for your day at Balboa Park!

The Model Railroad Museum is housed in one of Balboa Park’s exquisite Spanish Colonial buildings created for the Panama-California Exposition in 1915.
An “Old West” scene…
…and an amusement park.

Balboa Park Miniature Railroad – 1800 Zoo Place, Balboa Park, San Diego

The open-air miniature train ride runs along a track outside the San Diego Zoo, another great place for young visitors. It’s a fairly quick ride that passes by strategically placed “animals,” including an elephant, mountain goats, a hippo and a bear. The favorite attraction for our little guys was the tunnel!

Balboa Park Miniture Railroad entrance.
Beginning our ride, with the zoo’s carousel in the distance.
Approaching the tunnel.

Powerhouse Park Playground – 1658 Coast Blvd., Del Mar

When it comes to settings, Powerhouse Park may be the most beautiful playground I’ve experienced. Tucked away just south of a Del Mar beach, it comes complete with a view of the Pacific as well as swings, rocking horse-like sea creature spring rides and two play structures with slides. A sand table, sand box and benches nestled nearby under a shady awning complete the scenic spot.

Tracks for the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner run along the upper part of the beach, offering a chance to see the train as well as hear the bell from the playground – a big hit with our two!

We stopped by the playground a couple of times while our family was in town. It’s one of those wonderful places that you can’t believe is free!

Tip: Street parking near the playground can be hard to find, especially on weekends. We parked a little farther down Coast Blvd. and brought the stroller for the kids.

Powerhouse Park Playground in Del Mar.

Self-Realization Fellowship Meditation Gardens – 215 K Street, Encinitas

Visiting the Meditation Gardens in Encinitas is like traveling to another world. Lush tropical plants and flowers, bench-filled nooks, views of the Pacific and a koi pond create a moody setting designed for meditation, contemplation or simply taking in the beauty. Run by the Self-Realization Fellowship, the gardens are almost hidden behind a small gate, as if waiting to be discovered.

Emily really wanted to return to the gardens on this visit, but was concerned about the “quiet” policy with children. It turned out that she had no reason to worry. The gardens are the kind of place that seem to make even the youngest visitor want to whisper.

There is no charge to visit the Meditation Gardens. They are open daily except Mondays and when it rains.

Tip: Parking is easy to find, either along K Street or one of the nearby side streets.

Entrance to the Meditation Gardens.
Peaceful nooks with benches…
…Pacific views…
…and a koi pond.

Torrey Pines Gliderport – 2800 Torrey Pines Scenic Drive, La Jolla

Watching the colorful sails of paragliders soar along the California coast is great fun for any age. Emily and I stopped by the Torrey Pines Gliderport one sunny afternoon, hoping there would be enough activity to captivate our little guys’ attentions. It turned out to be quite a success!

The Torrey Pines Gliderport has a viewing area with seating that overlooks the grassy takeoff and landing field. We were able to get quite close to the paragliders as well as watch them sail over the cliffs of Torrey Pines. The Gliderport is free and open to the public every day.

Tip: Check the weather forecast before you go to make sure there will be clear skies and a breeze.

Looking out from the Torrey Pines Gliderport viewing platform.
Soaring…
…and landing.

6 Comments

  • Love that you found “new” spots in your neighborhood to visit with your grands! Doug’s aunt & uncle lived in Carlsbad. When we visited we saw the Carlsbad Flower Fields and Self-Realization Meditation Gardens. 🙂
    Looks like you charmed the grands and the big kids, as well!
    TLAM- Deb

    • Deb, it’s funny how we often overlook nearby places that have been there all along, isn’t it? This was quite a fun two weeks, and yes, the big kids enjoyed the adventures, too! And I love that you’ve been to the Flower Fields and Meditation Gardens.😊

  • I loved this post! Oh how lucky your two grandchildren are to spend time in such a wide range of exciting places! Of course, I’m also looking forward to the day when we will be able to do similarly exciting things with our small grandson, but then I need to savour the baby days first 🙂 The sweetest part of all of this was seeing these places through the eyes of the youngsters. Places that you’ve overlooked – the flower fields, perhaps – take on a new guise when one is so small, don’t they? Lovely days to be enjoyed, talked about and remembered forever. Very special indeed. Thank you for taking us along too!

  • Thank you for such lovely words, Gill! It truly was a joy to experience these places through the eyes of our little ones. And yes, it was a special treat to visit the flower fields for the first time with those two! I’m discovering that while I treasured the “baby days,” as you so charmingly described, I’m especially loving this stage of venturing out and exploring the world with them. Their observations are a delight – priceless, funny, inquisitive, fascinating and so very pure and honest!

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