San Diego vacay
December 29, 2022 12:10 PM   Subscribe

I’m planning a family trip to San Diego in April, just after Easter. We want to see the zoo and Legoland. Looking for tips and advice on hotels, transportation, and tickets. (Family is two adults and a 7-year-old traveling from Austin.)

1. I think we’ll stay for 4 days/3 nights to spend 2 days at the zoo and 2 at Legoland. Possibly fly out late on the 4th day or stay a 4th night. Does this sound reasonable?

2. For Legoland I think we’ll stay on site. What’s the difference between the Legoland Castle Hotel and the Legoland California Hotel?

3. Should we rent a car? We’ll need to go between airport, hotels, zoo, and Legoland at least. I have no idea what public transportation is available. I’m planning on packing super lightly but we’ll have carryons, a purse, and a backpack or two.

4. Where should we stay for the zoo portion of the trip? (Or do we pick one hotel for the whole trip?)

5. Should I look into those combo city-pass type tickets or is that overkill for just two attractions? There are so many cool things to do/see/visit in San Diego, but I really need to keep it to just these two or I’ll be too stressed to enjoy it.

5b. Okay, maybe I’ll have one backup attraction in mind in case one of these flops with the kiddo. Any suggestions?

6. What else do I need to know, decide, consider, make a list of, or overthink?
posted by erloteiel to Travel & Transportation around San Diego, CA (10 answers total)
I think it would be a shame to go to San Diego and not poke around the beaches, especially ones away from town, at least a little. If you get a car you’ll be able to fit some beach exploration around the trip to Legoland. Somewhere like La Jolla Shores beach or Moonlight Beach in Encinitas.
posted by vunder at 12:49 PM on December 29, 2022 [5 favorites]

Here is a very old question I asked that has some advice that may apply to you. We ended up staying in Oceanside in an airbnb - Oceanside wasn't that great, but it was relatively close to Legoland, which our kids enjoyed. The most memorable parts of the trip were the SD Zoo and tide-pooling in La Jolla, which the kids loved.
posted by Mid at 1:12 PM on December 29, 2022

If you're going to Legoland, you'll be minutes from the beach (I used to work between the two, maybe a total of 3 miles), and they're really good beaches. The Pacific is never warm, and SoCal beaches are full-time windy, so you're probably not going to spend all day on the beach but definitely take the kiddo and go for a stroll. The Carlsbad beaches are great, and so are all the beaches dotted down the PCH from there to Solana Beach. The last two tide pools on this list are in that area, if your 7yo digs marine life stuff.

The Flower Fields are right there by the exit for Legoland, and I think March is peak season but it might go on for a while. I drove past them several times a day for a couple years and it seems like they lasted forever.

I would rent a car for flexibility, and I'd say stay in a single location probably in North County (or South North County around Solana Beach/Del Mar) and go do what you want to do from there. In rush hour, it's probably 45 minutes from there to the Balboa Park area, but it's more like 20ish otherwise.

I never made it to the Safari Park (which is also in North County) in the 3 years I lived there, but I know other locals for whom it was at least a yearly thing.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:24 PM on December 29, 2022

I grew up in Oceanside and was just at Legoland last week. I agree to rent a car and to make the North County area your home base. There are lots of hotel options in Carlsbad and a couple in Oceanside. Or vacation rentals as well. Downtown Oceanside has changed a lot in even the last 10 years, there are a lot more restaurants and shops and such. I think 2 days at the zoo is probably too much. Other people have mentioned the Safari Park, which wouldn’t be too bad of a drive if you wanted to do that as a separate day trip. You may also not need 2 days at Legoland either, unless you’re doing the water park or aquarium as well or you are super into Lego and rides.
posted by wsquared at 1:38 PM on December 29, 2022

The zoo and LegoLand are close to an hour apart by driving, I'd absolutely rent a car for at least a portion of your stay. The zoo is in Balboa Park, which is right by downtown (and thus fairly close to the airport which is also close to downtown), but any public transit between downtown, the airport, and most likely your hotel is going to be the bus, which is not great. It's not a long bus ride from the airport to connect to the light rail system (called "the trolley"), but the trolley does not connect directly to the airport. There is a commuter rail service that goes from downtown to Carlsbad (where Legoland is) and further north, but that rail service is not walkable distance from the Carlsbad station to Legoland.

I don't know about doing it with a small(ish) child, but the zoo is pretty doable in a day, and probably doesn't require two. The zoo is also in the middle of the city's cultural heart - Balboa Park - which has a lot of museums, many of which are child-oriented or at least child-friendly (particularly the Ruben H Fleet science center). If you want more zoo, but don't want a zoo repeat day, there's also the Safari Park, which is technically part of the zoo but on a different site about an hour north of downtown (but maybe a half hour inland from Legoland). Instead of being in enclosures, the animals that can be housed together and are from similar ecosystems are all out in the open in one giant enclosure together that you can take a bus ride through. Many will tell you that it's better than the actual zoo, and they're not wrong, but personally I'd do the zoo first.

The major hotel centers around town are downtown and in Mission Valley, plus a few sprinkled around along the coast. Mission Valley and Downtown are on trolley lines, but a hotel in Mission Valley may be quite some distance from a station. The trolley does not get super close to any beaches. Downtown is generally more for adult tourists and the convention crowd - not much that I think would be particularly interesting for a kid, aside from the Children's Museum. Possibly not too much in the way of kid-friendly food options either, but I could definitely be wrong.

The ocean and coast might be pretty, but I wouldn't really plan on going in the water in April.

Transit system map
posted by LionIndex at 1:50 PM on December 29, 2022

Concur on getting a car. Also concur on making one of your zoo days into a San Diego Zoo Safari Park day instead - it's not like any other zoo I've ever been to, really a cool experience, and you can get two-visit passes which you can divide any way you choose between the Zoo and the Safari Park, on multiple days as desired, at a slight discount from buying each day individually.

I have never been to Legoland so can't help you on that part, but just for a couple ideas for your backup attraction, SeaWorld is of course an option, but the USS Midway Museum might also be a cool visit depending on interests of your kiddo.

Also definitely recommend spending at least a little time on the beach! The Pacific is always cold and you may or may not get lucky with warmer weather in April, but even just walking in the surf or messing around in tide pools can be really fun, and San Diego's really got some excellent beaches.
posted by sigmagalator at 5:47 PM on December 29, 2022

We were at Legoland a few weeks ago and stayed at the Legoland CA hotel for three nights and honestly for me, the decision was because Legoland CA Hotel was just a bit cheaper to stay in versus the Legoland Castle. It seemed like the hotel had various themes for each floor/room (pirates, adventure, knights, lego friends) while the Castle was themed around wizards/knights/princesses. I will admit I did feel a pang of jealousy when we pulled up to the hotel because the Castle looks visually much cooler than the hotel, but inside was pretty cool and the kid was just excited to be at legoland. You also get early entry (like 30 minutes) before Legoland officially opens so that was nice.

We did two days and I feel it was worth it because we could just go back to the room if the kid needed a break or whatever. But my kid is only four so he needed breaks, I might feel differently if he was older. And it was nice to do all the rides on the first day and then be able to ride the favorites on the second day.

We went on Friday/Saturday and the difference in crowds was pretty definite, but we did go right before the holiday break. I think for Friday, maybe the longest wait time was like 20-25 minutes, but on Saturday, I think I saw wait times for like 45 minutes to an hour.

Definitely also recommend getting a car. It is valet ($30) or self-parking ($25)/night, but there isn't anything that I would feel that is walkable w/ kid after Legoland closes except the onsite restaurant and cafe and we had dinner once at the cafe and it was okay.
posted by later, paladudes at 8:07 PM on December 29, 2022

Unique beach-wise, I'm voting for Coronado. As a so cal kid who spent spontaneous weekends in San Diego with my grandparents, my favorite kid memories are Old Town San Diego (bc I love churros, mostly) and Coronado beach because the sand is soft, looks like it had gold glitter in it (!) and you can find sand dollars on the beach.
As an adult, touring the hotel is nice too.
posted by atomicstone at 7:52 AM on December 30, 2022 [1 favorite]

Legoland is really small. Unless you are lego fanatics, 1 day is plenty. There are some very nice resort hotels that have private entrances to Legoland, if you don’t want to stay at either the Legoland hotel. Here is a pretty good little summary of one of the hotels and nearby amenities.
Safari Park is amazing, nothing like it.
Legoland, zoo and Safari Park are all at opposite corners of the county. 30-45 minutes without traffic.
I don’t have any hotel recommendations closer to zoo and there aren’t any near the Safari Park.
You definitely have to rent a car!
posted by gryphonlover at 9:18 PM on December 31, 2022

1. Too long at the Zoo (agree with the recommendations to go to the Safari Park on the second day. We just went up on Christmas Eve and my partner was stunned. The tram ride is an amazing experience for all ages). Possibly too long at Legoland but it's expanded a lot and there's a few other things to do in Carlsbad (Flower Fields, South Carlsbad State Beach) so you'd be fine to be in the area both days.

2. No idea - it's been many years since I used to work there, so long that neither existed at the time!

3. 100% rent a car; we don't really do public transit here.

4. Pick your Zoo hotel carefully (downtown has some unlovely parts). My friend stayed at the Hilton Bayfront with her kids but she's a Hilton employee so that's not really a particular recommendation per se. Overall, I'd recommend water-adjacent hotels over Gaslamp-adjacent ones. Point Loma is in the immediate flight path of the airport so I wouldn't recommend that area. Pacific Beach and Ocean Beach are fun, if a little pricey, but not wildly close to Balboa Park.

5. Probably overkill. But do look into the two-day Zoo pass (we bought ours on at a significant discount. They'd probably have Legoland, too).

5b. Definitely the beach in some form, and yes tide pools are the classic answer. South Carlsbad State Beach is a beautiful white sand beach (quite chilly in April). La Jolla will have the children's pool, seals, and a nice seawall. Encinitas (between the two) has Swami's Beach for tide pools. Cabrillo has a fun lighthouse, a national monument, and super cool tide pools.

6. Does your kiddo like railroads? Like, a lot? The Pacific Southwest Railway Museum is a long slog out to East County but it's super worth it. You get to ride on a actual restored rail car right by the border of Mexico! There's some beautiful rail cars and a great museum. It's tremendous fun.
Also! You are coming from Austin and you will be very, very cold in San Diego in April. Please pack lots of layers (we usually have a cool morning - cold by your standards - and then it warms up in the afternoon).
posted by librarylis at 9:12 PM on January 2

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