Balboa Park is the perfect destination for families and is filled with recess-worthy opportunities for exploration and discovery.
Balboa Park is a can’t-miss for families with a wide selection of things to do and see including the world-famous San Diego Zoo, train and carousel rides, and puppet shows as well as museums that explore everything from outer space to model trains to dinosaurs and more. Families can also mix and mingle with locals at free Sunday concerts at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion or enjoy the hijinks of buskers along the El Prado. There’s ample room to spread out for picnics and the popular Pepper Tree Playground is handy if the little ones need to run free while mom and dad take a break and refuel along the way.
Hands-on is the name of the scientific game at the Fleet Science Center. Check out the more 100 interactive exhibits that unlock the mysteries of science in a fun and accessible way. Want to explore the wonders of our world and beyond? Immerse yourself in an IMAX film in the center’s and Eugene Heikoff and Marilyn Jacobs Heikoff Giant Dome Theater. For the under-six crowd, there is Kid City that allows them to play in a child-sized grocery store, that will engage their mind – and tire them out.
Get a big window into the world of miniature railroads at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. At 28,000 square feet, it is the largest model railroad museum in the world and houses eye-popping miniature representations of California railroad stations, including four large scale models of Southwest railroad. The museum is also home to a Toy Train Gallery with an interactive Lionel layout.
Get a taste of olden times and take a whimsical ride by either climbing aboard the Balboa Park Miniature Train – one of only 50 models currently remaining – or saddling up on the 1910 Balboa Park Carousel, which is filled almost entirely with the original European hand-crafted creations. Both attractions are located near the entrance to the San Diego Zoo.
From insects to elephants, there are no shortages of opportunities to get up close and personal with the more than 3,700 animals at the world-famous San Diego Zoo. Want to move past observing and actually learn more about their habits and natural habitats? Check out the Keeper Talks, typically held around noontime, to find out more about some of your favorite animals including koalas, polar bears and rhinos. Another great way to take in the expansive Zoo is by hopping on a double-decker bus for a 35-minute narrated tour. With this tour, you’ll get to see much of the Zoo as well as get the inside scoop on many of its animals as well as learn about the Zoo’s pioneering work in creating open-air, cageless exhibits that recreate the animals’ natural surroundings. Better yet, the guided bus tour is included with all admission tickets.
Explore the natural history of Southern California – from past to present – at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Spread across five floors you’ll find innovative exhibits on everything from flesh-eating beetles to dinosaurs to wildfires. The museum also has a giant-screen theater with daily showings of 2D and 3D films as well as rotating exhibitions that bring nature to life.
From puppet shows to outdoor concerts to the mean one Mr. Grinch, there is plenty to capture the attention of the under 12-set. For fun with some strings attached, check out the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater, which has some 200 seats and is the longest continuous running puppet theater in the United States. For music that the whole family can enjoy, there are the Sunday free Spreckels Organ Pavilion concerts featuring Raúl Prieto Ramírez, the celebrated civic organist, who plays music that ranges from Bach’s Toccata in C to the theme from The Pink Panther. December in Balboa Park is made for kids with The Old Globe’s annual production of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” and the holiday extravaganza that is the annual “December Nights” celebration, which is filled with food, lights, music and fun. For a complete list of upcoming events, check out the Balboa Park events calendar.
Let your kids’ imagination take flight at the San Diego Air and Space Museum. The unique collection takes visitors through the history of flight starting with a replica of the Montgolfier Brothers hot air balloon of 1783 to actual Apollo 9 Command Modules. The museum is also home to the only real GPS satellite display in the world and is chock full of the artifacts from the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and other aviation and space pioneers.
See the creative process in action at the Spanish Village Arts Center. Home to more than 200 artists, this quaint historic village often features demonstrations by its residents in variety of mediums from glass blowing to water colors to ceramics. Just next door to the village is the San Diego Mineral and Gem Societies' museum, which is filled with a variety of treasures the will delight any kid – or adult for that matter. Collected from around the world over the last 75 years, the museum features everything from dinosaur Coprolites, also known as fossilized animal droppings, to glimmering green of crystals of Tobernite.
For things that make you go vroom, travel on over to the San Diego Automotive Museum. With more than 80 historic cars and motorcycles, it’s the perfect place to rev up a kids’ interest in the automotive evolution and the culture that surrounds it.
Trace this region’s progression from a dusty outpost to a leading-edge innovation hub at the San Diego History Center, one of the oldest and largest historical organizations on the West Coast. The San Diego story is told through a variety of hands-on exhibits that bring the place and its people to life. Better still is that paying an admission fee is optional.
Want your kids to sink their teeth in to a meaty – and slightly uncomfortable – topic? Check out the Museum of Us's exhibit on cannibalism, which is thankfully gore-free but extremely provocative, as it looks at cannibals throughout time from warriors to European royalty to sailors to American colonists. Flesh-eating humans not your cup of tea? No worries. The museum has plenty of other thought-provoking themes to explore, including race, monsters and ancient Egypt.
In today’s world, media literacy is critically important, but you can’t be media literate if you are not visually literate – able to understand and put in context the images that flood your way. The Museum of Photographic Arts works to train kids of all ages in the art of photography and the meaning behind the images. There is always a youth exhibit on display and throughout the year, the museum hosts photo contests as well as photo classes for kids and young adults.
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