Epic Southern California Adventure: Part 3 - San Diego

Edited: September 5, 2019, 12:52 PM

When we’ve previously gone on vacation to Southern California, a drive down to San Diego has just been a quick 1 or 2 day trip to Sea World. However, since we were integrating our love of baseball into this trip, we needed to set aside some additional time to take in a game at Petco Park. After the Orioles finished their series with the Angels, they would be heading to San Diego to face the Padres for 2 games before traveling home to Baltimore. The second game of the series was slated for a noon start time, so we weren’t about to give up the middle of a day that could be spent at an outdoor attraction with limited daytime hours, so we were pretty much locked into Monday night’s game, and the rest of our itinerary in the San Diego area was built around that.

As I noted in my previous trip report, we had purchased the Go Los Angeles Card to minimize admission costs for a number of the attractions that were not covered by our existing theme park season passes. However, one annoying feature of the LA Go Card is that you have to choose between the San Diego Zoo/Safari Park OR Legoland. Even a discounted adult ticket to Legoland will set you back over $80, while we found some discounted Zoo tickets for less than $50. That made it an easy choice as to which one of these two parks where we would utilize the Go Card for admission. Another tactic we used to save a bit of money was to select a hotel near Legoland that offered a free shuttle to the park. That means that we had free parking for the entire San Diego leg of our trip (we even found some free street parking 5 blocks away from Petco for the baseball game), something that can’t be said for the rest of the trip.

After checking into our Carlsbad hotel late Saturday night after the Angels game, we woke up early Sunday morning and made our way to the San Diego Zoo. A single day admission to the San Diego Zoo offers guests a choice of visiting the original Zoo or the newer Safari Park northeast of the city. Having never visited the San Diego Zoo before, we opted to visit the proper Zoo and save the Safari Park for a future trip. TPI readers can probably argue endlessly as to whether the San Diego Zoo is a theme park, but I’m not going to broach that discussion other than to say that the park is a themed gated attraction with exhibits, rides, and shows. Whatever you want to call it, the San Diego Zoo is definitely worth your time when in the area, and can easily fill an entire day for a first time guest (I will note that they even have custom draft beers like many theme parks do now).

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The Zoo is very expansive, across both sides of a deep valley that may be exhausting to those accustomed to walking around theme parks with little topographic relief. I knew the Zoo was large, but after taking the bus tour first thing after arriving (a smart decision to allow us to get our bearings), it was clear that we needed to plan our path around the Zoo to avoid exhausting climbs up steep hillsides and doubling back to see exhibits hidden along side trails. Ultimately, we ended up making almost 2 full loops of the park (not including the bus tour), and used the Skyfari Aerial Tram to eliminate a long walk up and down the valley.

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The Zoo itself is pretty comparable to other top notch animal institutions featuring some older exhibits that are showing their age and newer exhibits that place animals closer to guests in more natural-looking habitats. The one thing I did notice about the Zoo was that there were a lot of keeper talks throughout the day that allowed guests to engage with staff and animals. Other zoos we’ve been to have designated feeding times and may have staff in front of certain exhibits answering questions, but the talks here seemed far more numerous, thorough, and entertaining. The Zoo was promoting a schedule of nighttime entertainment, which I wish we could have stayed for, but we needed to leave so we could experience Electric Ocean at Sea World since our next day at the park would be cut short due to the baseball game.

While I was a little bummed to have to leave the Zoo early, Electric Ocean more than made up for it. We arrived at Sea World just before 6 PM, and it was clear that the park had been pretty crowded for most of the day. Luckily, as the sun was going down, the lines for many of the rides were also waning, including for Manta, which changes the pre-launch show during Electric Ocean to feature a dance-party style soundtrack and light package called Manta: Recharged. This was my son’s first ride on the launching coaster, and he really enjoyed it. Personally, I think this is one of the most accessible launching roller coasters in the world with some of the most comfortable seats and restraints that accommodate just about every park guest. The launch is forceful without being extreme, and the layout is varied without being too intense.

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After riding Manta, we wanted to get a ride in on Journey to Atlantis before the sun went down. I was disappointed that the park had removed many of the effects on the vertical lift, but still enjoyed the combination water ride and roller coaster. The coaster portion here is far superior to the versions in Texas and Florida, but Orlando’s installation is still my favorite overall, even though that attraction too has pulled back on a lot of the effects that once put it on par with Disney and Universal attractions.

The line for Electric Eel was over 30 minutes, and I did not want to hold us up to ride a clone of a coaster I’ve already experienced (Tempesto at BGW), so we could see the Electric Ocean shows. On our way towards the back of the park, I was hoping to take a look at the line for Tidal Twister, but unfortunately the pseudo-coaster was not running. In fact, it didn’t even operate the next day either, so this was now the second new attraction, along with West Coast Racers, that we were hoping to ride on this trip that were unavailable.

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Our first show of the evening was Cirque Electric, which is a combination of a standard Cirque du Soleil combined with a jet ski show. The performance featured acrobats, parkour/trampoline artists, jet ski stunts, and an amazing performance from a jet ski hoverboarder. It was an incredible combination of acts that resulted in an energized, colorful spectacular.

The second show we made time for was Atlantis Ignites. I would have paid admission just for this show alone. Atlantis Ignites features projections on the Journey to Atlantis structure, but is predominantly a Tesla coil show. We had seen a “lightning” show at the Boston Science Center a couple of years ago that was pretty electrifying, but what Sea World has produced here turns the science of electricity into an art form. The star of the show, dressed in chain mail and a spartan helmet, uses different implements to arc electricity across the stage. From a pike to a sword to his hands and even his head, electricity was flashing everywhere that seemed beyond what would be considered safe. Not only was the show visually stunning, but the arcing electricity could also be manipulated to be in tune with the pulse-pounding soundtrack that was like icing on the cake. Again, I would pay for a day’s admission to Sea World just to see this show, it was that good.

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As the evening wound down, the line for Electric Eel never did, so I decided I would just try to grab a ride on it the next day. Unfortunately, the coaster never opened to guests on Monday, so I'm not able to compare it to Tempesto, though I suspect it's pretty much the same experience. We arrived back at Sea World as the park opened and headed straight for Manta to get in a few more rides while the lines were still reasonable. The rest of our day was spent seeing all of the shows and exhibits in the park. The newest daytime show, Sea Lions Live was an entertaining spin on the classic Clyde and Seamore show poking fun at Hollywood. The Orca Encounter is still the most awe inspiring show in the park, but has lost some luster because of Blackfish and concern about keeping these majestic animals captive. I still miss Blue Horizons, as Dolphin Days inserts far too much edutainment into a show that was one of my favorite theme park shows of all time.

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We also took time to walk through all of the smaller exhibits, touch tanks, and aquariums around the park, but before we knew it, it was time to head to Petco Park for the baseball game.

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Our next and last day in the San Diego area would be spent at Legoland.

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Thanks to the proximity of our hotel to the park, we were able to take a shuttle to Legoland, saving us on the parking fee, but forcing us to preschedule our drop off and pick up times. We arrived shortly before the park opened and headed straight for Ninjago. This spin on the traditional shooting gallery-style dark ride is a lot of fun, but for some reason I was not very successful hitting targets despite quickly mastering the identical ride in Florida. Humbled by my low score, I whisked my family along to schedule our Mindstorm session and headed towards Knights Tournament. This was an attraction my son and I were really excited to ride. After riding Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey a few days earlier (as well as the version at IOA), my son was looking forward to another experience with a Kuka Robocoaster. Unfortunately, the height restrictions on this attraction are very unusual. Guests as small as 40” tall can ride, while guests 55” and under must ride with a responsible person. When I reviewed these height restrictions on the website, I figured it would be no problem for my son to ride, and showed him some videos of the ride spinning riders upside down over a dozen times. However, when we arrived at the front of the line, we learned that guests under 55” are not only forced to ride with an adult, but are limited to the 2 lowest intensity ride programs, which meant the top 3 ride programs, including the one that flips riders upside down 18 times, was forbidden to my son. I thought this was a very strange way to control ride access, and was annoyed that these restrictions were not clearly described on the park’s website. My son is a huge thrill seeker, and he was really perturbed by being forced to ride what was more like a “kiddie” ride with the level 2 ride program. The level 2 program was nothing to sneeze at, but to see how intense the level 5 program was, it was disheartening to him. For a park that is specifically aimed at kids from 5 to 11, you would think they would not have a ride with a 55” height restriction, higher than even the biggest, most intense roller coasters in the world. I felt so bad for my son that I didn’t even ride the level 5 program so as to not make him feel any worse about not getting to experience the full intensity of the ride.

With the disappointment of Knights Tournament behind us, we walked around the park, experiencing attractions as we reached them. Many of the rides here are identical or very similar to those at Legoland Florida. Luckily lines were pretty manageable throughout the day, so we never felt like we waited in a long line for a ride that we had already experienced in Florida. The one ride I found very interesting was Pirate Reef. The ride itself is a pretty standard shoot the chutes ride, though extremely soaking, but what I found interesting was the way guests can queue to this attraction through the water park or through the dry park. Ride ops load boats alternating guests wearing bathing suits with those wearing standard park clothes. It was a very interesting way to allow an attraction to be accessible to two parks with separate admissions.

Many of the other attraction here are either identical or similar to one in Florida with the new Deep Sea Adventure being one of the few exceptions. This attraction is pretty similar to Finding Nemo Subs at Disneyland, but instead of just seeing projected scenes of fish and practical props, Legoland’s submarine ride goes through a real aquarium with actual fish swimming among the practical props. The ride even takes it a step further by introducing a bit of a game to guests as they can interact with a touch screen to identify treasure they see throughout the attraction. I was really impressed with this ride, but it was a bit of a slow loader (though still seemed faster than Disneyland’s Nemo thanks to the wider, more modern stairway down into the sub).

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It was eventually time for our Mindstorm appointment. Our Midstorm session here was a bit different than in Florida. The version if Florida was introduced by a costumed employee with a detailed backstory, while here, the intro was very simplistic and instructional without any story even though there was a clear story associated with the tasks we needed to program our robot to complete. It was still a fun diversion, and something I recommend to any guests visiting with kids in that 7-12 age range who are interested in STEM activities.

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As I expected, the Miniland here in California was as impressive as the one in Florida. The different city scenes are incredibly accurate, and a worthwhile distraction on any visit.

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One of the attractions unique to California’s Legoland is the Coast Cruise which is essentially Legoland’s answer to Jungle Cruise. The jokes here are not quite as corny as the ones as Disneyland, but the ride through the heart of Legoland was still a funny jaunt. Before we knew it, our pickup time was approaching, and it was time for us to end our time in San Diego. Our next day would start the main course of our Epic Adventure.

Next up – Disneyland Resort…

Epic Southern California Adventure: Part 1 - Six Flags Magic Mountain
Epic Southern California Adventure: Part 2 - Hollywood

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