A 9-Day San Diego Itinerary – For the Trip That Wasn’t (Part I)

Here it is, in all its glory. Part I of my nine-day San Diego itinerary, covering Days 1 through 4. I spent the better part of a year writing this itinerary but I never took the trip. I spent a couple of hours (okay, who am I kidding, I spent a couple of days) wallowing over the time I wasted planning this trip before deciding to post the itinerary anyway. Here’s hoping that when all of this craziness is just a distant memory, my trip that wasn’t can help someone plan their own trip that was.

What am I going on about anyway?

For those of you that stumble upon this post months or years down the road, let me take you back to March 2020 and set the stage for you. Kids across the nation are being homeschooled and anyone that can is working from home, 3.3 million Americans just filed for unemployment, many states like my own are in a lockdown, and for some reason, toilet paper is very, very scarce. Oh, and did I mention the very contagious virus creeping (well… starting to sprint) across the nation? Welcome to Coronavirus: the US Edition.

Call me cocky or just plain stupid but I was still set on taking our family’s spring break trip to San Diego well into March 2020. My father had just canceled a riverboat cruise in Europe and a co-worker had just canceled his trip to Disneyland. But I was still going full steam ahead with my plans. I hadn’t left O’ahu in over a year and I was ready to see the world again, or at least see a delightful little town in California with a huge zoo (actually, two of them) and Legoland.

However, towards the end of the second week of March, I finally got a wake-up call. I realized it was time to throw in the towel and call it quits. So with that, I give you my warning. In full disclosure, I haven’t tried out any part of this itinerary to see if it would work or not, although I hope to someday. And if anyone has any comments on what they think would work or not work about my San Diego itinerary, I am all ears!

San Diego Itinerary: Day 0

The plan was to take an afternoon flight and arrive in San Diego late that night in order to start our vacation with a semi-good night sleep before our first full day in San Diego. We would have rented a car from the airport and made our way to our Airbnb in South Park.

San Diego Itinerary: Day 1

Finding a perfect local diner for breakfast

I had a couple of specifications for our first meal in San Diego. 1) walkable to our Airbnb. 2) Delicious (read: good yelp reviews). 3) Kid-friendly (read: very kid-friendly as the baby of the family turns into a monster when he’s not allowed to move around). Cue Big Kitchen Cafe. At the time I picked it, Yelp gave it 4 out of 5 stars with over 700 reviews. Pretty good for a diner! Open from 7:30 AM – 2:30 PM it could function as both a breakfast or a lunch haunt.

Visiting the New Children’s Museum

The first non-food stop on our San Diego Itinerary was going to be the New Children’s Museum. Part of the Gaslamp Quarter, this museum was designed to encourage children to think and play using hands-on exhibitions. Listed by some as being ideal for the 6 and under crowd, there seemed to be so many things that both 5-year-old Emily and 11-month-old Leo would love.

Photo Credit: The San Diego Union-Tribune
Further information:
  • Hours: 9:30 AM – 5 PM
  • Free entrance for Leo, $15.50 for each of the rest of us
  • Included on the San Diego Go Pass
  • Address: 200 West Island Ave, San Diego, CA 92101
  • Limited parking in Museum garage: $15 (Fri – Sun), $10 (Mon – Thu)
  • Other parking options:
    • ACE Gaslamp Quarter City Square (421 4th Ave)
    • ACE Westfield Horton Plaza (324 Horton Plaza)
    • ABM Parking Services (352 2nd Ave) ~ 2 hour discount for Museum visitors with code 8792

Shopping for sustenance at Trader Joe’s

In my pre-child life, I was one of the biggest self-proclaimed foodies you’d ever meet. Even after I had Emily, I tried to keep it up. After all, I would be horrified if I didn’t raise mini-foodies. I think to some extent I have succeeded in turning Emily into a foodie. But it didn’t happen overnight and it certainly didn’t happen by 11 months old (Leo’s age now). And Leo is A LOT more rambunctious than Emily was, meaning he is A LOT less capable of a fine-dining (or even casual-dining) experience. So when writing this San Diego itinerary, I decided to stick with fast food / take out options and dinners cooked at our Airbnb.

Photo Credit: Forbes.com

In fact, one of the things I was most excited about on this trip was shopping and cooking food from Trader Joe’s. The California-started grocery chain is noticeably absent in Hawaii. So, this was my chance to try out all the food that my mainland friends constantly rave about.

Return to the Airbnb for food, rest, relaxation, and unpacking

The baby in the family would definitely need a long nap every day, but after the previous day’s late flight, the entire family would probably need a nap on Day 1. So I planned to take it easy on our first afternoon in San Diego. My plans were to feed the family some of our newly purchased Trader Joe’s food and spend the afternoon relaxing at the Airbnb. Note: almost every day in my San Diego itinerary included going back to the Airbnb after our morning activity so that Leo could squeeze in a nap before any afternoon fun.

Dinner by a Top Chef in Little Italy

One of my husband’s and my guilty pleasures is watching Top Chef. We pick a team of 3-4 chefs similar to a sports fantasy league. If the Top Chef of the season ends up being one of the people on your team you win the ultimate prize, bragging rights for life. We take Top Chef very seriously in our household. Even though fourth season runner up and eventual all-star Top Chef winner Richard Blais was on Bryan’s fantasy team, he was a fan favorite to us both. We dreamed of getting a chance to eat his food ever since we watched those early episodes on Top Chef. Once we realized that his restaurant, The Crack Shack, was kid-friendly and in San Diego, it became a must-visit spot on our itinerary.

The Crack Shack in San Diego
Photo Credit: The Crack Shack Instagram Account (@getcrackshacked)

San Diego Itinerary: Day 2

Food prep time

Kidding. Sort of. My plan was to serve breakfast a la Trader Joe’s as well as prep lunches that could be brought along with us in a small cooler.

Torrey Pines State Reserve

Torrey Pines has 2,000 acres of walking trails, stunning overlooks, and unspoiled beaches. There are 8 trails to explore in all, however with the little ones in tow I was interested in either the Guy Fleming Trail (a two-third mile loop listed as the best pick for families with young children) or the Discovery Trail (a half-mile loop near Torrey Pines Lodge that is doable for strollers and wheelchairs). The park is typically open from 7 AM to sunset and offers tons of parking, restrooms, and a gift shop. It seemed like the perfect way to see San Diego and do something healthy for a change.

My only big concern was the State Reserve’s rule that no food or drinks were allowed other than water. Obviously my husband, older daughter and I could survive. But could mini-monster handle it okay if he really wanted to eat and we were far away from food options? Probably not. Hence my decision to bring lunch and leave it in our car. I figured in a worst-case scenario, food wouldn’t be too far away.

Torrey Pines State Reserve: San Diego Itinerary
Photo Credit: sandiego.org

Belmont Park

After returning to our Airbnb for an afternoon nap for the kids and relaxation for the adults, my plan was to hit up Belmont Park. Known as San Diego’s beachfront amusement park and boardwalk, Belmont Park has free admissions and free parking. In looking into pricing options I found out that they have a “ride-as-you-go” option or the option to pay for an unlimited rides pass. I figured we could enjoy dinner at the park and enjoy a few rides before calling it quits for the night.

Photo Credit: Belmont Park Instagram Account (@BelmontParkSD)

San Diego Itinerary: Day 3

Wild Life Safari Park

After another Trader Joe’s breakfast made by yours truly, we were going to pile everyone into the car for a trip to the Wild Life Safari Park. Known as a 1,800-acre wildlife preserve that’s home to over 3,500 animals across 260 species from 6 continents of the world (with an emphasis on Africa), I was more excited to visit this place than the world-renowned San Diego zoo. Its flagship offering is the Africa Tram, which takes guests on a 30-minute safari across the park’s African Plains. In addition to the Tram, I was also excited about the goat petting zoo and the late afternoon cheetah run.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Photo Credit: San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Perhaps one of the blessings in disguise about having to cancel our trip to San Diego is that the park has so many amazing options that are not age-appropriate for my children. I would love to experience the Roar & Snore Safari (read: sleep overnight at the zoo) but it is for families with kids 3+ years-old. The Caravan Safari, Cheetah Safari, and Ziplining Safari sound like amazing options as well. Click here for a listing of all the additional tours you can go on (for an extra fee). Maybe in my future San Diego itinerary, some of the above additional tours will get to be added.

Further information:
  • The park would have been open from 9 AM to 6 PM on 03/23/20
  • Address: 15500 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido, California
  • Parking is $15 per car
  • Download the “San Diego Zoo and Safari Map” App before you go
  • Stroller Rentals are available – $14 for a single stroller and $18 for a double side-by-side stroller
  • Food is allowed to be brought in (but no large coolers) ~ I heard that the food options inside the safari park were not anything to write home about and was pretty expensive as well, so I had planned to make lunch for the family and bring it into the park for a midday picnic
  • Conservation Carousel: $6 for unlimited rides all-day
  • Playgrounds for the little ones can be found at Samburu Jungle Gym (African Woods), Tiger Trail Play Area (Tiger Trail), Savanna Cool Zone (Lion Camp), and Village Playground (Nairobi Village)
  • Bring Swimsuits or a second set of clothes for the kids if they are going to play at the Savanna Cool Zone waterplay area

S’mores on the Beach at Coronado Island

One of my bucket list items for San Diego was to enjoy s’mores at a campfire on the beach on Coronado Island. I thought it wasn’t meant to be when I looked into it and found that it was an offering at the Hotel del Coronado. A beautiful hotel to be sure, but one that I probably couldn’t afford. Disappointed, I was about to cross it off my San Diego itinerary when I found out that the Hotel del Coronado did not care if you were a guest or not.

Called “The Roast“, the Hotel del Coronado offers a 1-hour firepit on the beach for up to 10 people. While unlimited s’mores is no doubt one of the most popular items, they also offer a full dinner menu. I figured my family could make a night of it out at Coronado Island and so I ordered hot dogs, cheese and charcuterie, and edamame along with our unlimited s’mores. (I might have been really hungry when I placed our order.)

The Roast at Hotel del Coronado
Photo Credit: theresandiego.com

San Diego Itinerary: Day 4

Legoland

No San Diego itinerary is complete without a trip to Legoland. Our plan was to head up to Legoland first thing in the morning in order to avoid as much of the crowds as possible.

Things to know before we go:
  • Bring a swimsuit and change of clothes / dry fast clothes for Pirate Shores and the Legoland Water Park
  • Note: because we were going in March, I was planning on skipping the water park as I thought it would be too cold for us. However, if you are a little more accustomed to the cold than we are, spring break may be a good time to visit as the water park had just opened and wimps like me would still be staying away.
  • Download the Legoland California app before you visit. If you are less technology savvy, they also provide paper maps at the park.
  • To avoid all wait times you can purchase “Reserve ‘N’ Ride” for $35-$100 per person. The difference in pricing primarily relates to how much you want to reduce your wait. My plan was to see how busy the park was once I got there and purchase one of the “Reserve ‘N’ Ride” options once I saw what type of wait time my family would be up against.
  • It is cheaper to purchase admission tickets online in advance than at the gate
  • Parking is $25 or preferred at $35. Since the regular parking is only a row behind the preferred parking, it may not be worth it depending on how empty the park is.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Rides we can’t miss (but not baby appropriate):
  • LEGO Ninjango The Ride (located in LEGO Ninjango World)
  • LEGO Technic Coaster (located in Imagination Zone)
  • Lost Kingdom Adventure (located in Land of Adventure) *Note that Land of Adventure opens at 12 PM
  • The Dragon Coaster (located at Castle Hill) *Note that Castle Hill opens at 12 PM
  • The Royal Joust (located at Castle Hill) ~ This ride isn’t fast-paced like the others and is actually only for kids between 4-12 years old but I thought Emily would adore straddling a pretend horse trotting through a forest dotted with life-sized LEGO knights and other characters
  • Lego City Deep Sea Adventure: Submarine Ride (located in LEGO City Deep Sea Adventure)
  • Driving School or Junior Driving School (located in Fun Town)
    • Junior Driving School is for 3-5-year-olds while Driving School is for 6-13 year-olds. I thought it was pretty cool that at the end of the “school” the kids earn their own driver’s licenses
  • Coastersaurus (located in Explorer Island)
  • The Lego Movie World: A brand new world that was slated to open the weekend we were there (opening day was obviously been pushed back due to the Coronavirus pandemic)
Rides / attractions for the baby of the family:
  • (Imagination Zone) Duplo Play: Giant bins of Lego Duplo Bricks
  • (Land of Adventure) Cargo Ace: Kids become pilots on an airplane (Note: I included this since I didn’t know what milestones Leo would meet by the time of our trip. However, this attraction would have been out for Leo since you need to be able to stand on your own (which he currently cannot do).
  • (Castle Hill) The Hideaways: Multi-level play structure with different obstacles
  • (LEGO City Deep Sea Adventure) Submarine Ride (also touted as a “Can’t Miss Ride” by many)
  • (Pirate Shores) Swabbies Deck: water play in crystal clear waters
  • (Fun Town) Duplo Playtown: Interactive playground with farm, hospital, slides, pretend vehicles and a crawl-through maze
  • (Fun Town) The Baby Care Center
  • (Explorer Island) Dig Those Dinos: An interactive area that will allow kids to dig for “skeletons”
  • (Explorer Island) Fairy Tale Brook: An enchanting boat ride through a world populated by many childhood favorite storybook characters
  • (Miniland USA) Coast Cruise: Leisurely boat ride around the world of animated Lego Models
  • (Miniland USA) Coast Guard Build-A-Boat: Build a rescue boat and race it down a 42-foot long water trail
  • (Miniland USA) Model Shop: Watch Lego Master Builders at work
  • (Miniland USA) Las Vegas, New Orleans, New York, Ferndale, San Francisco, Southern California, Block of Fame, Washington DC – a collection of American landmarks with more than 20 million lego bricks
Eating options that seemed well received by others:
  • Ninja Kitchen in LEGO Ninjango World. Options include:
    • Bánh Mì Vietnamese sandwiches on a fresh-baked baguette
    • Steamed Bao Buns, filled with crispy pork belly, lemongrass chicken or baked sweet chili tofu
  • Granny’s Apple Fries in Castle Hill – one friend told me she goes to Legoland just to eat this and every Legoland review I read raved about this.
  • Knights’ Smokehouse BBQ (note that there is outside seating only)
  • Garden Deli and Café in Pirate Shores
  • Fun Town’s Urban Kitchen in Fun Town. Options at this made-to-order buffet-style restaurant include:
    • Philly cheesesteak sandwiches
    • Oriental chicken stir fry
    • Extensive soups and salad bar
  • City Park Creperie at LEGO Friends Heartlake City
San Diego Itinerary - Granny's Apple Fries
Granny’s Apple Fries at Legoland
Photo Credit: Legoland

Quick fast food option for dinner… a.k.a. Why have none of the good fast food joints made their way to Hawaii?

I’m talking about you Chipotle (amongst others). After a full day at the park and no nap for Leo, the most energy this family would be up to was takeout from one of Bryan’s and my favorite chains that still hasn’t made its way across the pacific yet.

Hawaii Girl Travels…

Check back in next week for Part II of my San Diego Itinerary.

Check out Destinations to see all the other places I’ve talked about. For other California-related information, read about how my family rode Rise of the Resistance multiple times at Disneyland on opening weekend.