It’s one thing to see SeaWorld San Diego’s remarkable collection of exotic animals performing in shows or in their enclosures. It’s another (unforgettable) thing entirely to get up close to the creatures—and even touch them. Two of the most remarkable exclusive experiences involve you climbing into a SeaWorld San Diego wetsuit to get into the pool with the gentle, snow-white beluga whales, found in Arctic waters.
At Dolphin Encounter, you get to feed, touch and use special signals to communicate with bottlenose dolphins; the Dolphin Interaction Program lets you get right into the pool with the creatures and play with them. Go behind-the-scenes again with the Penguin Up-Close Tour to discover everything there is to know about these little black-and-white seabirds, including what they eat and how to help protect them in the wild. If your family still hasn’t had its fill of wildlife, take them on the 45-minute Killer Whales Up-Close Tour, which offers an insider’s look at how these awe-inspiring mammals are cared for.
From swooshing and swooping rides to interactive animal experiences and world-class attractions, SeaWorld San Diego truly makes a big, big splash. See and learn about the amazing under-sea worlds of animals from around the globe, including penguins, turtles, walruses, beluga whales and sea lions. Behind the scenes, SeaWorld is also home to marine animals that have been injured or orphaned on Southern Californian beaches and are being nursed or rehabilitated before they can be returned to the wild.
Located just off San Diego’s Mission Bay, the park offers a variety of ways to learn about and celebrate marine life. Dive into a deep-sea adventure in the Ocean Explorer area, the family-friendly realm that opened in 2017. There, you’ll find five children’s rides and unique aquariums with giant Pacific octopuses, Japanese spider crabs and Californian moray eels. See (and touch) harmless rays and sharks, or just be inspired by the killer whales in one of the park’s latest additions, Orca Encounter. Rather than a traditional show, the area with a Pacific Northwest-themed setting features the orcas breaching, spouting and generally acting naturally in the water, against the backdrop of an infinity screen showing a documentary-style presentation containing interesting facts about the majestic mammals. Or, take one of the park’s exclusive tours and you can have up-close encounters with the resident dolphins, sea lions, penguins or gentle beluga whales, which are also known as the 'canaries of the sea'.
Climb aboard a host of rides, too, including the teacup-style Abby’s SeaStar Spin, the flume ride Journey to Atlantis, or Manta, a high-tech, double-launch rollercoaster that has you twisting and diving like a ray. Stay late during the summer (until September) for the Electric Ocean, a light show that transforms the rides, shows and attractions into vibrantly coloured displays inspired by the phenomenon of ocean bioluminescence.
The aquatic animals are not the only ones who get wet at SeaWorld San Diego. Climb aboard water rides such as Journey to Atlantis to sploosh through flumes and kersplash at the bottom of an 18-metre plunge. On Shipwreck Rapids, board a glorified inner tube to follow a winding watercourse through peaceful islands and then hold on tight for the finish—over waterfalls and into a watery cave (this version of a shipwreck happily includes a café at the end). The 45-metre Electric Eel, which opened in 2018, is now the tallest and fastest rollercoaster in San Diego.
Other rides transport you in different ways: Bayside Skyride offers a scenic ride above the bay—and make sure you take the lift up the Skytower, with its panoramic view of Mission Bay, the Pacific Ocean, central San Diego and beyond. Or, climb aboard a simulated jet helicopter to zoom above icy landscapes on the Wild Arctic ride, which transports you to a realistic Arctic research station with the chance to take an up-close look at beluga whales, seals and walruses. For an immersive 'underwater' experience with killer whales, check out the virtual reality DeepSeeVR Orca 360, a mesmerising attraction that takes you on a virtual up-close expedition.
The Ocean Explorer area, which opened in 2017, includes the Submarine Quest ride, the swing-style Tentacle Twirl, and little-explorer-friendly rides Octarock, Aqua Scout and Sea Dragon Drop.
Gentle ride options abound at SeaWorld San Diego, especially for the smaller ones. On Riptide Rescue, kids climb into seats styled to look like yellow life rafts before setting off on a simulated sea turtle rescue mission. Little ones will love the rides in the Sesame Street Bay of Play, including Elmo’s Flying Fish, the teacup-style Abby’s Sea Star Spin and the not-too-rocking Oscar’s Rockin’ Eel.
Big kids, meanwhile, will love Manta. Shaped like a giant ray, this roller coaster uses advanced technology and computerised imagery to make you feel like you’re swooshing, soaring, twisting and diving through the air, just like a ray. After the ride, see the elegance of these amazing underwater creatures in the giant aquarium and visit the grotto, where you can touch the harmless California bat rays as they glide by.
Insider tip: queues tend to be shorter during the most popular shows. For the speediest ride, get a Quick Queue Premier all-day pass for express entrance.
Mission Bay and San Diego Bay adorn the edge of the city like sparkling gems and the 4,600 acre Mission Bay Aquatic Park is the centrepiece of it all. Regardless of your experience level there’s some kind of water activity at this sprawling aquatic wonderland that will fit the bill. Dozens of outfitters such as those at the Aquatic Center at Santa Clara Point can get you out on the blue via every imaginable conveyance; kayak, stand-up paddleboard, motorised watercraft, yacht or kite board. For a more novel approach board the Bahia Belle, a Mississippi River–style paddleboat, snuggle aboard a romantic Venetian gondola or try jet-packing to skim across the water like James Bond.
If you prefer a cruise experience, Hornblower and Flagship Cruises let you get a millionaire’s view of the bay on scenic tours, as well as offering dinner and brunch cruises and whale watching tours. If you're in the area over the 4th of July you’re in for a treat as San Diego Bay hosts Big Bay Boom, the largest fireworks display in the county. In winter it hosts the Parade of Lights which begins at Shelter Island and finishes at the Coronado ferry landing. The free parade features about 80 seriously elaborately adorned boats and draws huge crowds along the shoreline.
Mission Beach, the narrow strip of land between Mission Bay and the Pacific, is chock-a-block with surfing shops, t-shirt stores and funky beach bars and there’s a 3 mile oceanfront boardwalk that rivals Venice Beach for people watching. At Belmont Park, classic amusement rides include the Giant Dipper wooden rollercoaster and FlowRider Wave House as well as rock climbing, bumper cars, miniature golf and arcade games. Mission Bay also has 27 miles of water’s edge pathways, perfect for walking and cycling and at the end of South Mission Beach Park you can cast a line from the Mission Beach jetty and maybe catch some dinner. While in the area set aside a day or two to experience SeaWorld San Diego, the largest aquatic park of its kind.
Insider tip: dogs are only allowed on Fiesta Island, which closes at 10 pm.
Tired of shouting, 'Don’t touch'? Then SeaWorld San Diego is the place for you and your younger children. At this San Diego attraction, children are invited to get their sticky fingers on everything—including the sea life itself. At the Explorer’s Reef and California rockpools, they can get touchy-feely with schools of cleaner-fish, crabs, sea stars and brown-banded bamboo sharks, before heading to the park’s two-acre children's zone, the Sesame Street Bay of Play. In addition to the water-based fun and three Muppet-themed rides—Abby’s Sea Star Spin, Elmo’s Flying Fish and Oscar’s Rockin’ Eel—children will get a chance to have their photo taken with Elmo himself. Or perhaps they'll prefer the giggle-inducing Pets Rule! show, where rescue animals perform spectacular stunts.
You won’t find much refuge from the SoCal sun here, so stay on top of the sun cream and take advantage of the indoor displays too. Toddlers can put their noses up against the enormous Turtle Reef window, or walk through the acrylic viewing tunnel at Shark Encounter (as sand tiger and bonnet-head sharks circle overhead).
To help ensure a stress-free day, hire a pushchair at Guest Services, just inside the park entrance. For more mobile children who might like to wander, pick up a wristband on which you can enter your mobile number just in case you and they get separated. And if your children love to sit in splash zones, don't forget to bring a change of clothes in your bag.
Come and watch the acrobats of the ocean jump, flip, spin and exude their natural charm in both SeaWorld’s classic shows and its all-natural marine life experiences.
Go to the lively yet intimate Dolphin Days show to see bottlenose dolphins and short-finned pilot whales take to the waters—a great chance to see how SeaWorld San Diego’s professional trainers work closely with these marine mammals. It’s also a lot of fun, and a chance to get soaked in the designated splash zones.
Sea Lions LIVE, meanwhile, offers SeaWorld’s take on a comedy sketch show, starring the park’s beloved pinnipeds Clyde and Seamore, and the fun-loving O.P. Otter; the trio are pretty pop-culture savvy, with their marine-life-based spoofs on TV shows (as evidenced in 'Dancing with the Pinnipeds' and 'SLSI: Sea Lion Scene Investigation'). For furry-animal entertainment, go to Pets Rule! and watch a talented cast of dogs, cats, birds and pot-bellied pigs (most adopted from shelters) doing entertaining stunts with their trainers—and watch out for cameos by emus and kangaroos.
During summer 2017, SeaWorld San Diego debuted an experience with the park’s majestic resident killer whales: Orca Encounter features a Pacific-Northwest-themed backdrop and a three-storey-high video screen that shows a documentary-style presentation about how these mammals move, hunt and communicate in the wild. Taking centre stage, you can watch the resident orcas splash, breach and otherwise act naturally in the water.
Even from your first few steps into the park, SeaWorld San Diego aims to transport you to the edges of the ocean and beyond. Start by entering Explorer’s Reef, near the park’s entrance: walk under a huge wave sculpture to discover the edge-of-the-sea world of the coral reef. Wrap-around touch pools let you stroke brown-banded and white-spotted bamboo sharks (don’t worry, they’re harmless), as well as California round rays and other creatures. For one of the world’s weirder sensations, dangle your fingers and let some of the exhibit’s 4,000 cleaner fish, each about the size of a child’s pinky, harmlessly nibble on your skin.
Go a little further into the park for a wide range of aquariums and marine-life encounters, including the up-close Dolphin Point and Sea Lion Point. The 1-million-litre Shark Encounter takes you underwater—safely through a 17-metre acrylic tunnel—to get up close to a shark habitat that includes sand tiger, bonnet-head, black-tip and white-tip reef sharks. The nearby Turtle Reef is home to dozens of threatened loggerhead, hawksbill and green sea turtles, as well as thousands of tropical fish (play the touch-screen game, Turtlelink, to learn about sea turtle tracking and SeaWorld’s turtle rescue efforts).
One of the cutest zones is Otter Outlook, which features a display of Californian sea otters, and is part of a partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium; check the schedule for daily presentations about this threatened species. And don’t miss the Penguin Encounter, which has nearly 300 smartly dressed birds, representing six Antarctic and sub-Antarctic species (including the Gentoo, Macaroni and Emperor).
For the quirkiest creatures, visit the Ocean Explorer area—which opened in 2017—and see the quick-camouflaging giant Pacific octopus, eerie moray eel and the massive Japanese spider crabs (the biggest of their kind in the sea). Make sure you call in at The Rescue Plaza near Orca Encounter, to learn about the SeaWorld Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Program, which has rescued more than 17,000 animals over the years—mostly sea lions, seals and marine birds—with the goal of nursing them back to health and then returning them to the wild. If you’re a fan of Sea Rescue , ABC’s Emmy-Award-winning series (many of which are based in San Diego) you can watch episodes on the big screen at the park’s Mission Bay Theater.
Depending on the time of year you visit, there are fun seasonal offerings at SeaWorld San Diego too. During the summer, the park has a new take on an evening light show: Electric Ocean takes its inspiration from the ocean phenomenon of bioluminescence, where the ocean glows in the moonlight. The night-time show, which runs until Labor Day (first Monday in September) also features dance music, a DJ and costumed sea creatures taking to the dance floor.
Come autumn, SeaWorld’s Halloween Spooktacular (weekends from late September until end of October) invites children to dress in fancy dress, mingle with the characters strolling around and go trick-or-treating in the park. Don’t miss the Halloween-themed sea lion and otter show, Clyde & Seamore’s Big Halloween Bash.
When the Christmas season gets into full swing, the park takes on an ocean-meets-Santa’s Workshop ambience. SeaWorld’s Christmas Celebration (typically running from mid-November to around New Year) includes Santa’s Christmas Village, Rudolph’s Christmastown and seasonal shows, such as Dolphin Island Christmas and Clyde & Seamore's Christmas Special, starring the popular sea lion and otter.
During the holiday season, the O Wondrous Night show tells the Christmas story using 30 carols and a variety of live animals. Stay until sunset to catch the nightly lighting of the 12-metre-tall animated tree and to see how the park’s main landmark, the 98-metre Skytower, looks with its Christmas lights atwinkling.