The San Diego Zoo is self-proclaimed as “world-famous,” and rightly so. One of the oldest of the must-see attractions in San Diego, the Zoo was founded on October 2, 1916, by Dr. Harry M. Wegeforth. Located just north of downtown in Balboa Park, the 100-acre Zoo is home to over 4,000 rare and endangered animals representing more than 800 species and subspecies, and a prominent botanical collection with more than 700,000 exotic plants. Although you can take a guided bus tour to get an overview of the park, the Zoo is a unique walking experience that exhibits animals in the most natural way possible in a number of “animal zones.” Check out monkeys, apes, hippos and more in the Lost Forest, polar bears in the Polar Rim, elephants in Elephant Odyssey, and, of course, the famous giant pandas in Panda Canyon. Not only does walking give you an up-close view of the thousands of animals on display, you can immerse yourself in the lush landscape of the Zoo grounds. Plus, the sometimes hilly terrain will give you a nice aerobic workout, too. Part amusement park, part educational facility, the San Diego Zoo is one place you never get tired of visiting. And its one of the better bargains when it comes to amusement parks.


If the San Diego Zoo is all about learning about animals and their habitats, then Sea World is all about how entertaining marine animals are. OK, maybe I’m over-simplifying things. But lets be honest, SeaWorld is all about spectacular sea animal shows – in other words, Shamu, the iconic performing killer whale. Oh, and don’t forget the amusement park rides. With more than 130 million visitors since its opening in 1964, SeaWorld is San Diego’s leading tourist attraction and one of the most popular marine-life parks in the world. Spread across 189 acres on beautiful Mission Bay Park, SeaWorld San Diego is known for animal shows, interactive attractions, aquariums, rides, and beautiful landscaping. Exhibits like Turtle Reef, Shark Encounter, the Shamu and dolphin shows, are the main courses to your visit. But it’s the thrill rides that are the dessert to a SeaWorld visit, like the Journey to Atlantis water ride, Shipwreck Rapids, Wild Arctic simulator ride, and Manta, a full-fledged roller coaster that opened in 2012.


If you have young children, then Legoland California is your best friend. Because the theme park built on those famous plastic interlocking bricks is all about catering to the kiddies. Legoland California is a 128-acre family theme park located in Carlsbad, 30 miles north of downtown San Diego. The Park is the first theme park in the United States created by Danish toy maker, the Lego® Company. Legoland California offers interactive attractions, family rides, shows, restaurants, shopping and beautiful landscape features specifically geared for families with children ages 2 to12. There are more than 15,000 Lego® models in the Park created from more than 35 million LEGO bricks. These models range from a Brontosaurus named Bronte (made of more than 2 million Lego bricks) to a tiny rabbit in a magician’s hat in Miniland Las Vegas made of just four bricks. Along with theme areas like Dino Island, Pirate Shores, Imagination Zone and Miniland USA – where there are amazing recreations of U.S. cities and places – there’s even s wster park within the park. All the rides are kid friendly (nothing too thrilling) and lots are very interactive and energy draining. Which is perfect when you have little kids. Like I said, Legoland is a parent’s best friend.


If the San Diego Zoo is ultimate in a traditional zoo experience, then the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is the ultimate in an untraditional zoo experience. Located 30 miles north of downtown San Diego in the San Pasqual Valley near Escondido and formerly known as the Wild Animal Park, the Safari Park is an expansive wildlife sanctuary that is home to more than 3,500 animals representing more than 400 species. The Park showcases herd-style animals from the plains and savannas of Africa and Asia that normally roam together in the wild, such as rhinos, giraffes, and antelope. In other words, it’s huge – and a great place if you like hiking. Sure there are up close exhibit areas in Nairobi Village, Lion Camp and African Outpost. But the real attraction is seeing animals in the far-flung open habitats where herds of animals live and intermingle together: giraffes, rhinos, antelope and more. In fact, the Asian and African habitats are so big that you need to take a tram to view the animals. Better yet, pay a little extra and take a Caravan Safari, where you ride an open bed truck into the animal enclosures, getting great photo ops of the animals. If you want to fork over a few more $$, take a ride on Flightline Safari, a zipline adventure where you soar high above the animal enclosure, giving you a real birds-eye view of the Park. Indeed, the Safari Park is unlike any local zoo you’ve ever experienced.


If you’re looking for more of a traditional amusement park – as opposed to a “theme” park – then it doesn’t get more traditional than Belmont Park. In fact, Belmont Park is the quintessential beachfront amusement park located in Mission Beach, complete with wooden roller coaster. From the Roaring Twenties and into the 21st Century, Belmont Park has been amusing and entertaining generations of San Diego residents, and millions of visitors from around southern California, the United States and the world. The Giant Dipper roller coaster and the Plunge Olympic pool have been here since 1925, while the rides and attractions have changed over the decades. The entire project was the idea of sugar magnate, John D. Spreckels, a major force in San Diego’s development. And the Giant Dipper was the original centerpiece of the park. The park coaster fell into disrepair in the 1970s and closed for a number of years. The Giant Dipper was fully restored in 1990 and Belmont Park found a new lease on life, becoming a seaside attraction to a new generation of visitors. Belmont Park is located on the surf and sand in Mission Beach and offers free parking and free park admission. Visitors can enjoy traditional and contemporary amusement park rides, ride the waves at Wave House, play mini golf, arcade and midway style games, shop and enjoy a wide array of cuisine throughout the Park which includes beachfront restaurants as well as food court style dining.


Knotts Soak City in Chula Vista is a seasonal water park open during the summer months May-September. The water park features a wave pool, raft rides, a slew of body and tube slides, a river ride, and food.


OK, so it’s not exactly an amusement or theme park, but Birch Aquarium makes the list because it provides learning about the ocean in a fun and interactive way. Birch Aquarium at Scripps is the public exploration center for the world-renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the aquarium features more than 60 habitats of fishes and invertebrates from the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest to the tropical waters of Mexico and beyond. An interactive museum showcases research discoveries by Scripps scientists on climate, earth and ocean science.