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Best Places to Take the Kids


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Ask non-natives why they live in San Diego, and nine times out of 10 they’ll say it’s the weather. If they’re parents, however, it’s not just about weather. It’s also the abundance of playgrounds, theme parks, museums, theaters and other attractions made for children.

Locals aren’t the only ones who feel this way—more than 15 million visitors come to San Diego each year, and they bring their kids. For good reason: In the April FamilyFun, San Diego was the top vote getter in several categories of the national magazine’s 2002 Family-Friendly Travel Awards. Here are some of the reasons why San Diego is for kids:

San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo (www.sandiegozoo.org, 619-231-1515) isn’t “world-famous” for nothing—it’s got more than 100 gloriously groomed acres with some 4,000 animals representing 800 species. There’s plenty here for every age. The Children’s Zoo—a small section of the zoo set aside for the youngest visitors—is especially appealing to those under 12. Fences are lower, gates open easily, and throughout the day children can have close encounters with animals the zookeepers take out and walk around.

Also within the Children’s Zoo is the Petting Paddock, a place where animal touching is not only allowed but encouraged. Petting Paddock goats, sheep and piglets are so tame it seems there might be valium in the hay. Children can feed baby chicks or watch them hatch under the warm glow of an incubator light.

During summer, the zoo extends its hours and becomes also the Nighttime Zoo, with shows like “Dr. Zoolittle,” where live animals are brought on stage to make their own brand of mischief. There’s lots of live music, hula-hoop contests and, possibly best of all, the Stilt Birds—10-foot-tall prehistoric-looking puppets.

Wild Animal Park

The Wild Animal Park (www.sandiegozoo.org/wap, 760-480-0100) has 1,800 acres, of which 800 are actually in use. With a park this large and children in tow, the best thing to do is get on the Wgasa Bush Line Railway, a tram that takes you on a 55-minute tour around the grounds. One of the best spots for kids is Nairobi Village, right near the park’s entrance. At Lorikeet Landing, within the village, spend a buck for a cup of nectar, and the birds will come over to sip it from your hands. During the summer, the park is also open later and has a variety of entertainment, most of it African-themed.

Both the zoo and Wild Animal Park offer lockers and strollers for rent. And in contrast to other theme parks in San Diego, parents are welcome to bring their own food and drinks (but no straws, please, lest they wind up lodged in animals’ mouths).

Sea World

SeaWorld (www.seaworld.com, 619-226-3901) is a great place for kids of all ages, with five different shows scheduled throughout the day suitable for any child who can sit still for 20 minutes. Although the “Shamu Show” runs 30 minutes, it will usually hold even a toddler’s interest, and the addition of Baby Shamu—born in September 2001—adds a layer of mother-child comfort to the “killer whale” aspect of the show.

This summer, SeaWorld opens its newest show. “Pets Rule!” features cats, dogs, birds and other animals rescued from shelters across the country. In test runs, kids went wild over the show because “they related better to domesticated animals than to killer whales and dolphins,” says SeaWorld spokesperson Kelly Terry.

Twenty major exhibits include Rocky Point Preserve (where children can feed and pet dolphins that come right up to the side of the pool) and Shark Encounter (where one can literally walk beneath the sharks as they swim). During the summer, Club SeaWorld happens every Thursday night, geared toward teens and preteens. Drop the kids off and they’ll have some safe, wholesome fun watching a live band, getting a hair wrap or just enjoying the park until closing time. This year, the theme of Summer Nights at SeaWorld is “Mystique de la Mer,” with theatrical, often-acrobatic acts taking place throughout the park.
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