A Guide to San Diego's Theme and Amusement Parks

Disneyland, Universal Studios, and Magic Mountain are just a few hours up the freeway from San Diego, but you don't have to trek up to Orange County and Los Angeles to enjoy a day at a theme park. This is because San Diego has its own share of famous tourist attractions -- the San Diego Zoo, Sea World, Legoland are destinations in their own right. But those aren't the only amusement parks around. Here's a sampling of some of the theme and amusement parks in San Diego where you can spend a fun-filled day with family and friends. 

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San Diego Zoo

Panda Bear at the San Diego Zoo
Katherine Reed / EyeEm / Getty Images

The San Diego Zoo is self-proclaimed as "world-famous," and rightly so. One of the oldest of the must-see attractions in San Diego, the zoo was founded on October 2, 1916, by Dr. Harry M. Wegeforth. Located just north of downtown in Balboa Park, the 100-acre San Diego Zoo is home to over 4,000 rare and endangered animals representing more than 800 species and subspecies, and a prominent botanical collection with more than 700,000 exotic plants. Although you can take a guided bus tour to get an overview of the park, the Zoo is a unique walking experience that exhibits animals in the most natural way possible in a number of "animal zones." Check out monkeys, apes, hippos and more in the Lost Forest, polar bears in Polar Rim, elephants in Elephant Odyssey and the famous giant pandas in Panda Canyon. Not only does walking give you an up-close view of the thousands of animals on display, you can immerse yourself in the lush landscape of the San Diego Zoo grounds. Plus, the sometimes hilly terrain will give you a nice aerobic workout, too. Part amusement park, part educational facility, the San Diego Zoo is one place you never get tired of visiting. 

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SeaWorld San Diego

Touch tank
 Sea World San Diego

SeaWorld San Diego focuses on the animals of the marine world. Its known for its sea animal shows, but also has interactive attractions, aquariums, and even has ​a rollercoaster and other rides. SeaWorld San Diego is spread across 189 acres on Mission Bay Park and while wandering around the park you can see exhibits like Turtle Reef, Shark Encounter, and an array of dolphin attractions. For rides, you'll find thrills galore on the Journey to Atlantis water ride, Shipwreck Rapids, Wild Arctic simulator ride, and Manta, a full-fledged roller coaster that opened in 2012.

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Legoland California

 Legoland California

If you have young children, then Legoland California is your best friend. Legoland California is a 128-acre family theme park located in Carlsbad, 30 miles north of downtown San Diego and is the first theme park in the United States created by Danish toy maker, the Lego Company. Legoland California offers interactive attractions, family rides, shows, restaurants, shopping and beautiful landscape features specifically geared for families with children ages two to 12, though all ages will find fun and wonder while walking through the park, particularly if you've ever played with Legos. There are more than 15,000 Lego models in the park created from more than 35 million Lego bricks. You'll see dinosaurs, miniature cityscapes, fairytale characters and more -- all made out of Legos. Legoland is also home to a water park and aquarium plus has a variety of rides to go on.

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San Diego Zoo Safari Park

If the San Diego Zoo is ultimate in a traditional zoo experience, then the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is the ultimate in an untraditional zoo experience. Located 30 miles north of downtown San Diego in the San Pasqual Valley near Escondido and is formerly known as the Wild Animal Park, the Safari Park is a unique and massive zoo. It is home to over 300 species with over 2,600 individual animals roaming its grounds. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is able to accommodate herd-style animals and actually let them roam together as they would in their natural habitat in Africa or Asia; some of these animals include rhinos, giraffes, and antelopes. While there are up-close exhibit areas in Nairobi Village, Lion Camp, and the African Outpost sections of the park, the real attraction is seeing animals in these far-flung open habitats where herds of animals live and intermingle together. In fact, the Asian and African habitats are so big that you need to take a tram to view the animals. Better yet, pay a little extra and take a Caravan Safari, where you ride an open bed truck into the animal enclosures, getting great photo ops of the animals. If you want to fork over some more dollars, take a ride on Flightline Safari, a zipline adventure where you soar high above the animal enclosure, giving you a real birds-eye view of the Park. Indeed, the Safari Park is unlike any local zoo you've ever experienced.

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Belmont Park

Roller Coaster at Belmont Park in San Diego, CA

TripSavvy / Ana Alarcon

If you're looking for more of a traditional amusement park - as opposed to a "theme" park - then it doesn't get more traditional than Belmont Park. Belmont Park is a quintessential beachfront amusement park located in Mission Beach, complete with a wooden roller coaster. Belmont Park first began entertaining visitors in the 1920s and the Giant Dipper roller coaster was built in 1925. The entire project was the idea of sugar magnate, John D. Spreckels, a major force in San Diego's development with the Giant Dipper being the centerpiece of the park. The park coaster fell into disrepair in the 1970s and closed for a number of years. The Giant Dipper was fully restored in 1990 and Belmont Park found a new lease on life, becoming a seaside attraction to a new generation of visitors. Today it has a number of rides plus games and restaurants. Visitors can even play mini-golf or try catching a wave on the adjacent Wave House's simulated surf machine. Belmont Park is located on the surf and sand in Mission Beach and offers free parking and free park admission, though you'll need to purchase tickets for rides and games. 

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Birch Aquarium

OK, so it's not exactly an amusement or theme park, but Birch Aquarium makes the list because it provides learning about the ocean accessible in a fun and interactive way. Birch Aquarium at Scripps is the public exploration center for the world-renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. You'll find informative displays with aquariums that feature over 60 types of fish and invertebrates plus an interactive museum where you'll learn about current research and discoveries Scripps scientists have made.