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Escape to San Diego for family fun

SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo and the beach make for a perfect combination for a family vacation with kids of any age, from toddler to teen.
Image: San Diego, SeaWorld
Orcas perform during a show at SeaWorld in San Diego, Calif. Seaworld San Diego / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

I hate change, so for me, vacation happiness means going to the same place each year.

Which is why I've taken my girls, ages 11 and 14, to San Diego for six years running over their spring break.

Our motto: See SeaWorld, and see a lot of it. But we also include the San Diego Zoo and the beach on our visits, a perfect combination for a family vacation with kids of any age, from toddler to teen.

Visiting SeaWorld requires planning if you want to pack in as much as possible. The park hands out a map with the day's schedule at the entrance, and we find it's best to spend a little time using that to decide where to start. The 11-year-old, an avid Animal Planet watcher and bossy to boot, usually calls the shots.

First stop is the Shamu show, showcasing the big black-and-white orcas for which the park is famous. We find the earnest introductory narration a bit goofy. But when the big mammals start swimming, we're riveted.

The dolphin show is always fun. We listen to the same corny patter and old jokes every year and still thrill at the sight of the animals leaping and twirling above the water.

If we're feeling adventurous, we sit in the "splash zone" — the front rows where you're warned you may get wet. They're not kidding. Unless you have something waterproof to protect expensive cameras etc., you really should move. You may get cat-caught-in-the-rain drenched. We took a pounding at the dolphin show last year, but luckily, we had our official SeaWorld plastic ponchos at the ready.

The park also offers quieter attractions. The 11-year-old can spend half an hour leaning over the wall of the bat ray pool (stingers removed) reaching out to stroke their soft, velvety backs. Feeding the rays is fun, too, although it's definitely an odd sensation the first time you feel them suck the fish out from your fingers.

At night there's Sea Lions Tonight — running in the summer and during a few weeks in the spring — parodying the park's other shows with surprisingly irreverent wit.

It doesn't come cheap, although there are ways to pinch a few pennies from your travel budget. There are various offers available on the Web, including 3-for-1 tickets good for SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

After a day at SeaWorld, we're usually ready for the calmer pace of the zoo. It's always interesting to walk through the panda exhibit — they don't seem to do a lot, but they look good anyway — and we like to spend time wandering along the zoo's tree-lined pathways looking to see what animals may have come out of their lairs to take a look at the passing people.

The sea lion show here is an interesting contrast to SeaWorld, not many props and flashy tricks, but still entertaining. Watching a sea lion impersonate a seal and a swimmer were highlights for us on last year's visit.

And there are always stupid human tricks. On one visit, we spent some time looking for the zoo's Galapagos tortoises; all we could see were some big rocks. Then one of the rocks got up and we realized our mistake.

If you're going to the zoo, be prepared to walk. There are signs pointing out steep and less steep inclines and a bus for those who are not up to long treks. This year we were just about done when we got to the polar bears (they were doing some serious napping) and were more than ready to ride the cable car back to the park entrance.

Of course, San Diego is about more than amusement parks.

There's the historic Gaslamp Quarter, a mix of shopping, entertainment and restaurants downtown that makes a nice getaway without kids, if you have that option.

Another option is to take the ferry to Coronado and rent bikes for a spin to the famous Hotel del Coronado, site of the movie "Some Like It Hot" and instantly recognizable with its deep red roof.

And, of course, there are the beaches. We usually visit in the spring, when crowds are smaller but temperatures are also lower. But in any weather, it's cheap fun to take a long walk at the water's edge looking for shells, followed by a snack at a beach-side diner.

Every year we come back sun-burned, broke and resolved to return.

A change is as good as a rest, it turns out, even for someone who hates change.