When my daughter and I arrived in San Diego for a three-day mom-daughter getaway last spring, our schedule was packed full of places to go and things to see. After all, we only had three days!
On our first day, after a fun afternoon at a beachside amusement park, we began to walk back to our resort when we saw it: a baby sea lion sitting on the beach, alone and vulnerable. We stood just feet away, watching him rest his head on the sand, blink his eyes and occasionally waddle from side to side. My daughter crouched down with the camera, trying to get as close as she could without scaring him, with a look of pure joy and wonder on her face.
Locals told us it was a fairly common site on San Diego beaches, and that eventually the babies find their way back to the ocean. For my Colorado girl, though, this unique opportunity to view sea life in nature made her entire trip.
It reminded me that sometimes it’s the little things discovered during unplanned moments—a baby sea lion, ocean waves, a clamshell on the sand—that children will remember the most.
San Diego offers families a variety of experiences, from those simple nature activities to kid-pleasing museums and amusement parks.
It can feel daunting to budget for a family getaway, but October is a great month to visit San Diego, especially if you’re looking to save money. Kids can explore much of this west coast city for free October 1-31. In addition to miles of beaches offering hours of free sandcastle building, many of the hottest attractions have cut their admission prices for kids. Quick and affordable nonstop flight options make San Diego more feasible than other beach destinations for Colorado families and the fall is still a warm, but not too hot, time of year to visit. With costs reduced, you’ll feel less pressure to fill every last moment, making time for more serendipitous little discoveries.
We’ve pulled together a few favorite attractions that are free for kids in October, whether you have an animal lover, a thrill-seeker, or one of each.
Kids can see Killer whales, sea lions, Beluga whales and more for free at Sea World San Diego (seaworldparks.com) when you purchase one adult admission (one free child per paying adult), in addition to receiving a free kids” in-water dolphin experience. The Beluga Interactive program, Dine with Shamu and Breakfast with Shamu are also free for kids with each paid adult reservation. Reserve in advance by clicking the Kids FREE October link.
The renowned San Diego Zoo and Safari Park (zoo.sandiegozoo.org) allow up to 10 kids to enter free per each supervising adult, ages 3-11. View more than 3,500 rare and endangered animals in the Zoo — a favorite family destination — or visit the Safari Park, 30 miles north of downtown San Diego, for a glimpse of 3,000 animals in an expansive wildlife sanctuary setting. Coupon or ticket not required for kids” entry; purchase adult tickets online, by phone or at the zoo when you visit.
Located on Mission Beach is Belmont Park (belmontpark.com), an amusement park featuring rides such as the Vertical Plunge, Beach Blaster and the Liberty Carousel. Receive a free child’s unlimited ride wristband, laser tag and cotton candy, all with adult purchase.
View marine wildlife and learn local fun facts from your captain when you take a ride on the San Diego Bay with San Diego Sailing Tours (sandiegosailingtours.com). Kids under 12 ride free with a paid adult.
Just outside of San Diego, but a must-see for Lego fans, Legoland California packs in more than 60 rides, shows and attractions (and millions of Legos). Use the promotion code 16029 at the online checkout to get free kids” tickets (legoland.com/kidsgofree), or visit the ticket booth when you arrive at the park. Tickets are also good for the Sea Life Aquarium. Note: special events like the Brick-or-Treat Party are not included in the offer.
Be transported to the canals of Venice with your family when you board a Gondola Cruise through San Diego Bay with The Gondola Company (gondolacompany.com), available daily, Monday through Friday 3 p.m. to midnight, Saturdays and Sundays 11 a.m. to midnight. Up to four kids can ride free with a paid adult couple.
More than three dozen San Diego museums offer free admission in October, including the vast array located in Balboa Park (balboapark.org), the city’s 1,200-acre cultural park.
In San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter, learn about the Victorian era at the Gaslamp Museum in the Davis-Horton House, the oldest surviving structure in the area.
Discover how surfboards and surf culture have evolved at the California Surf Museum. Other participating locations include the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum, Heritage of the Americas Museum, Women’s Museum of California,
San Diego Archeological Center, San Diego Chinese Historical Society & Museum, Junipero Serra Museum, La Jolla Historical Society, Birch Aquarium and the massive USS Midway.
Located at La Jolla Shores beach, Surf Diva Surf School (surfdiva.com), started out as the first all-girls surf school in 1996. Now, the recognized name for surf lessons and recipient of many awards is offering one free child reservation for private surf lessons with a paid adult or child surf lesson. Group classes, clinics and camps are excluded from the offer.
Paddle along San Diego’s skyline and view many famous landmarks during the city’s only urban kayak tour from a stable, sit-on-top kayak. Bike & Kayak Tours Inc.—Coronado (bikeandkayaktours.com) offers a free child rental with an adult rental, or upgrade to a double kayak for no additional cost.
Kids age 15 and under can golf free at Riverwalk Gold Club (riverwalkgc.com), available Monday through Friday anytime and Saturday through Sunday after 12 p.m. The course is comprised of three nine-hole courses that can be combined in a variety of ways.
Dozens of hotels and resorts offer their guests kids-eat-free options, for restaurants in which you”d actually want to eat while on vacation. Visit hotels.sandiego.org for a complete list, and check with your hotel for restrictions when making the reservation.
At the Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa’s Oceana Coastal Kitchen (catamaranresort.com), adults can enjoy modern dishes prepared with fresh seafood and local California produce as well as sushi, while children select from the kids” menu. Kids will love the stained glass décor and cylindrical tank of glowing jellyfish, too.
The Paradise Point Resort & Spa’s casual beachside restaurant Tidal (paradisepoint.com) used to be a private beach house in the “60s, and offers southern California craft beers and cocktails alongside seafood dishes. Kids can eat free here and receive a $50 credit for bike and boat rentals and miniature golf, with purchase of a certain vacation package.
Visit sandiego.org and click the Welcome To Kid Kingdom link for many, many other free offers, then sit down with your family and determine what everyone would like to do the most. You”ll discover numerous places to try that maybe you hadn’t considered before and you”ll save money, too. Now that’s a vacation for everyone.
Lydia Rueger is an Arvada-based freelance writer and mom of an 11-year-old daughter who is constantly asking when she can return to San Diego.
As with any promotion, don’t forget to call ahead to confirm the terms of any free or discount offer. Sometimes a printed coupon from sandiego.org is required to redeem and advanced reservations are required.
Save Money with the Go City Card
Good for every month of the year, when you purchase a San Diego Go City Card in advance, you”ll save up to 55 percent on attractions and skip the ticket lines. Choose from an All-Inclusive pass (1, 2, 3, 5 or 7 day options) good for 42 major locations; customize a Build Your Own card or check out their Package Deals. Purchase online and the cards are delivered digitally to your smart phone. Passes are good for one year from purchase date. gocitycard.com
Schedule Unscheduled Time
For a more stress-free travel experience, experts recommend that you not make plans on the first day you arrive — especially plans that require advanced-purchase tickets — in case you experience travel delays. Instead, use your time on the first day to explore your hotel. Lodging near the beach is usually entertainment enough when there is sand to dig in and waves to play in (especially for Colorado kids), and it’s free. When my daughter and I visited San Diego, our resort’s landscaping alone (the Catamaran on Mission Bay), with native flowers and plants, streams with turtles and ducks and tropical birds in the lobby, provided great arrival-day experiences and relaxed time for us to go on a mini adventure. The Paradise Point Resort & Spa offers bayside firepits for evening s’mores after a busy day.