Planning a family trip to Sea World with young kids? Here is everything you need to plan a perfect day at Sea World San Diego–especially for families with little ones. Disclosure: I received complimentary Sea World tickets in exchange for sharing my experience in this post.
Happy summer, everyone! We kicked off summer a little early and took advantage of kindergarten testing week (which really meant that Little Man just didn’t have school) by taking a week-long family trip to San Diego. Ironically, it was colder there than it was at home in Utah (so much for “sunny California”), but we had a fabulous time!
We stayed with my childhood best friend, Steph (we met on the kindergarten playground and have stuck together like glue ever since…even with 750 miles separating us). She happens to have a great Airbnb at the back of her property, which made the trip convenient and SO much fun. She has two little boys as well, so we had a whole army of little men running around the place all week–and we were all in heaven.
One of our last big adventures of the week was spending a day at Sea World. Steph’s family has season passes to Sea World, and she made a great tour guide throughout the day. Because Sea World offers so many activities–more than you could ever feasibly do in one day–I was grateful to have her around to steer us toward the experiences that would be best.
The tips below are a combination of my experience as a first-time visitor, and her expertise as someone who has been to the park many times.
So if you have young kids, read on to learn how to make the most of your visit to Sea World!
Keep in mind, Sea World is not Disneyland. If your goal is to go on ride after ride all day long, you’ll be disappointed. That’s not the experience Sea World offers. Sure, there are several fun rides, and my kids loved that part of the day. But the truly unique characteristic of Sea World is the ability to learn about and interact with so many kinds of marine life.
It’s a completely different experience from a traditional “amusement” park where you just run from ride to ride. Here you can take it slower and really enjoy all of the unique experiences Sea World has to offer. The variety of activities available at Sea World is actually one of the things I liked best about the park.
That being said, there is SO much to do at Sea World. We could have easily come back and spent another full day exploring things more in depth. Whether you have one day to explore or several, these tips for visiting Sea World will help you make the most of whatever time you have to spend there.
TIPS FOR VISITING SEA WORLD WITH LITTLE KIDS
Arrive before the park opens
As with most theme parks, the earlier you get inside the gates, the better. We were lucky to visit Sea World on a not-too-busy weekday in May, so we didn’t have any problems getting on rides or getting good seats for shows. Hooray! But my local friend (who has a season pass) said that in the peak summer months, it can get pretty busy. To make the most of your day, try to arrive at least fifteen minutes before the park opens so that you have time to park and be up to the gate when they open. Bonus, by arriving early, you’ll get a closer parking spot.
Note: Remember to figure the cost of parking into your budget. General parking for a single car costs $20 (as of May 2018), and more for VIP parking. If you buy your parking pass online ahead of time, you can save a few bucks over the price at the gate.
When you first enter the park, grab a map and a schedule of the days showtimes. Better yet, you can access the daily schedule on their website or on the Sea World app so you can make your plan before you go. That way you’re not trying to think through the day while making sure your toddler doesn’t suddenly decide to go swimming in the touch pools. However, be sure to check when you get to the park that none of the showtimes have changed.
If you have young kids, pick 2-3 shows that really interest your family, and building your day around them. We chose to see Sea Lions Live, Pets Rule!, and Dolphin Days. They were all totally entertaining and well worth the time.
I was interested in the Orca program, but research I’d done (and the recommendation of my friend) led me to believe it is a slower-paced show that might not hold the attention of toddlers as well as some of the other options. For older kids, I think it would be fabulous!
In a place where there is something exciting to see and do everywhere you look, it’s easy for kids to get distracted and accidentally wander off or get left behind. Make sure you teach your kids what to do if they get lost. If you have very young children, consider writing your phone number inside their shoe and teach them to show it to someone if they get lost. Or you can buy or make an ID band that they can wear.
Don’t assume it will never happen to you. After losing my son at the parklast month, I’ve become more sensitive to the need to have a safety plan in place. Your peace of mind your child’s safety is worth it!
Travel clockwise around the park
Most people enter the park and head to the right, toward the thrill rides and main attractions. Instead of following the crowd, consider heading to the left instead. Especially if you have little kids, they will likely be too short to ride the big rides, and you can maximize your time by going the opposite direction and getting in some quality time with the animals before the crowds make it around to that side of the park.
When we first arrived, we spent a few minutes exploring the touch pools by the entrance and then headed over to the orcas. We were the ONLY people there, and we were greeted by an orca jumping completely out of the water during an unscheduled interaction with the trainers. It was a fabulous way to start the day!
We spent the morning moving around the park, looking at all the animals and attending a couple of shows. We didn’t even make it to the rides until mid afternoon! This ended up being a good thing though. We were able to see most of the animals in the morning when my kids had more energy and longer attention spans for watching the animals, and then in the afternoon when they were more tired, we just had fun riding the rides. Plus, we didn’t have to worry about dragging them away from the rides to go see the things the adults wanted to see. We did all that first and then the rides were a great way to finish off the day.
Check height requirements for rides ahead of time
Sea World’s website lists the height requirements for all their rides, so check those you’re interested in before you arrive. If you have toddlers or preschoolers, you’ll probably stick with the rides in the Sesame Street Bay of Play and Ocean Explorer. The good news is that there are plenty of low-thrill rides that my boys LOVED, plus there is a huge bouncy play area and cargo net/bridge climbing area.
The Jellyfish swings were a family favorite!
My six-year-old was tall enough to ride Manta, but after going on it, he said he’d NEVER do it again–too scary. Oops. For the record, I thought it was an awesome ride, so if you’ve got older kids who don’t scare easily, you definitely don’t want to miss it.
GET UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH THE ANIMALS
Sea World has so many opportunities to interact with the animals in the park. The first thing you see when you enter the park, in fact, are touch pools with spotted bamboo sharks and cleaner fish. My boys thought it was SO cool that they could actually touch a shark! Throughout the day, we were able to touch sea urchins, anemones, bat rays, and even dolphins!
One of my favorite moments was something so simple. We were at the “tide pool” touch exhibit outside the “World of the Sea Aquarium” and my boys commented on how they didn’t want to touch the scary urchins in the water. The Sea World employee overseeing the area took the time to explain to my boys that the urchins wouldn’t hurt them. In fact, he described how if you put your finger between the urchin’s spines, it will “hug” its spines around your finger. Trying this out gave my boys great pleasure! By learning about and interacting with the urchins, they were able to develop an understanding of an unknown, frightening creature. What a good life lesson!
DON’T MISS THE DOLPHIN POINT EXPERIENCE
You don’t have to pay for a dolphin encounter (although some day I REALLY want to do that) to touch a dolphin at Sea World. We learned that first hand during my favorite experience of the entire day–our visit to Dolphin Point. We happened to be there right as they were about to start a training/play time with the dolphins.
We squeezed into a spot right by the trainer’s platform (see how close we are!), and the dolphins swam by repeatedly and let us touch them. Also, right before it started, one of the workers came up to us and explained that during the session, they would be tossing toys to the dolphins to play with. She gave my son a basketball to throw into the pool during the session. He felt so special, and was thrilled when he later threw it in and the dolphin started playing with it!
They do these sessions several times throughout the day, but it’s not on their online schedule, so I recommend stopping by Dolphin Point (which is over by the orca viewing area) early in the day to check the times. If you go clockwise through the park it will be one of the first things you see.
Keep in mind, you’re not guaranteed to be able to touch a dolphin during one of these sessions, but you do have a chance. For this girl who LOVES dolphins (I’m still an eight-year-old little girl at heart), it was the fulfillment of a life-long dream. If you want the best chance at getting to touch the dolphins, try to snag a spot near one of the trainer platforms with the food boxes (we stood just to the right of the left-most arrow in the image below).
SIT AT THE BACK OF THE SPLASH ZONE FOR SHOWS
Many people avoid the splash zone during shows, and for good reason–especially if you have little ones who won’t appreciate getting soaked by cold water (particularly on a cool, overcast day like when we visited). I saw more than one crying toddler who wasn’t expecting to get quite so friendly with the animals. Poor kids.
However, we discovered a great strategy while we were there. If you sit in the last row or two of the splash zone, you don’t get wet, but you get great seats! Sure, there’s a chance you’ll get a drop or two, but the water never came close to us. If you want the best seats without staking out a spot an hour in advance, try it out!
PLAN FOR FOOD
Sea World’s official policy is that no outside food or drink is allowed. They do allow bottles of water, so be sure to pack those! In our experience, they did allow us to bring some basic snacks, especially for the baby. Just don’t plan on bringing a big cooler with enough food to feed a large family all day long.
Pro tip: We make it a habit to bring a hearty snack to eat right before we enter the park (like sandwiches and fruit). Then we purchase one meal during the early afternoon. Because we were visiting during off season, the park closed at 5:00, so we just went and got dinner after we left the park.
Alternatively, you can leave food in your car, and picnic outside the park (just be sure to get your hand stamped). It’s just a matter of whether you value time or money more during your visit.
HERE ARE A FEW MORE TIPS TO KNOW:
IF YOU WANT TO RIDE THE BIG ROLLER COASTERS…
Ask the ride operators about the park’s “Child Swap” policy. Essentially, one parent can wait with the child who is not riding while the rest of the family boards and rides. After they exit the ride, the remaining parent can board the next available seat.
IF YOU’RE A LOCAL WITH A PRESCHOOL-AGED CHILD…
Check out the Preschool Fun Card. Basically, your child can get an individual annual pass for $10. What a steal!
IF YOU’RE A NURSING MOM…
Sea World has a dedicated nursing room (near the Sesame Street Bay of Play), but you can also nurse anywhere else in the park that you feel comfortable. With a wiggly nine-month-old, I planned to use the nursing room just to have a quiet place free of distractions, but I ended up finding a few other great spots instead:
- “Animals of the Sea” aquarium – It’s dark, pretty quiet, and I was able look at the pretty fish swimming all around while baby ate happily.
- The garden by the Sea Lion show – It’s enclosed, and it has a great sandbox digging spot to entertain older toddlers while mom feeds baby.
- Turtle Reef – I didn’t use this one, but–like the aquarium above–it’s dark and soothing, perfect for baby.
- If you have a baby who isn’t bothered by commotion, during shows would be a great time for baby meals. I have a wiggle-worm, so we sought out quieter moments.
FAVORITE ATTRACTIONS FOR YOUNG KIDS:
- Turtle Reef – There’s something so soothing about watching these peaceful creatures float along in the water. Plus, we discovered a fun video game inside this exhibit that my boys loved! I’m not really a fan of video games in general, but this one was really fun for all of us to play. It’s a four-player game where each person guides a turtle through its migration using a turtle-shaped video game controller to swim through a course, avoid predators, and catch food. Little ones will probably need some help steering…but then again, my six-year-old beat me…so who am I to judge.
- Sesame Street Bay of Play – This place is simply awesome. Full of kid-friendly rides (my boys especially loved Elmo’s flying fish), a giant cargo net, climbing structure, and a bouncy arena…it’s heaven for littles. Plan to spend at least an hour or two of your day here if you have preschoolers.
- Touch tanks – I already talked about these above, but it’s worth repeating. Take the time to let your kids explore and learn through touch. Hands-on learning is the most effective…and it’s fun, too! There are touch tanks at the front of the park (bamboo sharks & cleaner fish), near the Manta coaster (bat rays), and outside the “World of the Sea” aquarium.
- Sea Lions Live show – Get there early for this one. The pre-show is a ridiculous slap-stick routine that elicited belly laughs from my three-year-old. And it just got better from there. Cheesy? Very. But oh so fun.
- Pets Rule! show – The kids loved watching all the tricks the dogs and cats (among other animals) in this show could do. The pig stole the show though.
- Dolphin Days show – After the Dolphin Days show ended, I asked my three-year-old what he thought of it. His response…”Mom, I can’t even say–it was SOOO cool!” Thumbs up, Sea World.
Are you getting excited for your trip yet?! Pin these Sea World tips for later to remember all the good stuff!