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Weekend Escape: San Diego

Toddler Town

In search of the kid-friendliest spots in a city that caters to families

May 18, 1997|SARA LESSLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER and SAM, age 3; Lessley is a Times executive news editor

My mom wanted to stay at the Hotel del Coronado, where she and Uncle John flooded a bathroom about a million years ago. But Dad said that cost too much, so we stayed right on the freeway in Mission Valley, which was really neat because you could see all the BIG trucks all day and night.

My folks thought our hotel was functional, whatever that means, but my little brother and I really liked it. There was a special room for us next to my parents' big room--with a sofa bed for me and a place for my brother Ben's crib, and this great carpeted entry where we could chase each other. And there were TWO TVs so my dad could watch basketball while we jumped on him.

*

Once upon a time, when my husband, Paul, and I vacationed, it was to Fiji and Carmel and the Big Island--where we spent lots of money on trips that centered on the scenery and the fine meals and the ambience. Then we had a baby, and another, and for a while we didn't travel anywhere--although we still spent lots of money.

So in March, when we decided to venture forth for the first time in a year, we did so with completely different priorities: Kid-friendly, manageable for parents, no firm agenda.

On a free-form few days in San Diego, here's what we found and what we recommend:

No on the San Diego Zoo, with a toddler and preschooler anyway.

Now don't get me wrong. I lived in San Diego as a child, and I loved that zoo. But as parents of a 1-year-old and 3-year-old, here's our reaction:

* Too much competition with the constant stream of tour trams. It's unsafe for the little ones, who have to be herded onto the narrow sidewalks, and annoying for the adults (if you stand near the giraffes very long, you hear the same spiel over and over).

* Too hard to see. If you're 3 feet tall or under, someone will need to pick you up at almost every enclosure. And that makes for tired and cranky parents.

* Too many hills: Strollers jammed with supplies and kids get heavy fast.

On the plus side, the polar bear exhibit is a sure crowd-pleaser.

Our two children were glued to the glass as two VERY BIG furry bears tumbled and chased and batted at each other underwater. In fact, the adult spectators in the crowd were just as riveted as the kids, cheering every lunge and flip-flop.

Yes on Sea World.

Expensive, sure, but oh-so-kid-friendly. Wide paths, ground-level pools full of rays or turtles. An ingenious kids' play area. Lots of places to sit or snack. Above- and below-ground viewing tanks. Separate, well-equipped diaper changing rooms (a point of some significance when you do diapers/potty every hour).

Some highlights:

* The whale show. What can beat a bunch of magnificent killer whales leaping out of the water or skidding gracefully up a wet platform for a bow? Or watching all the spectators in the first few rows getting drenched by the splashing leviathans.

TODDLER TIP: You can stand RIGHT OVER the pool and watch while the trainer men play with the BIG whales. And it's really neat when the water shoots way high out of their blowholes. My little brother tried to climb over to swim with the fishies, but Dad yanked him back.

* The sharks: From the entryway lined with open pools to the deep underwater tank, it's fabulous. After checking first ("Dere is a window dere, right?"), the 3-year-old pressed his nose flat to see all the sharp teeth. There's something wonderfully ominous about the way they glide through the water.

* The play area: When you're tired of nature, there's always manufactured stuff. A sunken play area for the little tots, and a maze of rope and wood walkways overhead for the adventurous older kids. Plus slides, games and an arcade.

TODDLER TIP: My brother had to stay in one place, but I am big so I climbed way high on this netting, and my mom and dad were yelling. I just ignored them. It was great.

* The hordes of sea gulls, pigeons, ducks and flamingos (or anything moving at eye-level) are almost enough to occupy a 1-year-old full time.

Yes on the La Jolla tide pools.

Hours of fun trying to catch those pesky waves as they shower over the sand and rocks. And seaweed: Remember, you can SQUISH it! Sea gulls, they screech right at you, begging for a chase. Plus, wet sand to be fingered and tasted, shells for the digging and rocks to crawl over. Our 1-year-old, drenched in sand and saltwater, had to be removed--screaming--from the seashore.

No on the scenic drive into La Jolla.

Beware moms and dads: That view of the sea and those gorgeous homes may hold you enthralled, but in the backseat, there's a disaster waiting to happen.

TODDLER TIP: La Jolla is this place where my friend's grandma lives, and it's mostly a lot of sand and seaweed. My dad drove too long on some windy roads, and I told him my throat hurt. But he didn't stop, so I got sick right there in the car. And then we didn't have to look at any more waves.

So much for the window shopping along the tidy streets; ditto the outdoor lunch at a sandwich shop and the trip to the local aquarium.

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