Before going into the specifics of SeaWorld San Diego, let's clear up a few questions and misconceptions. The first thing to know is that SeaWorld is not closing. Although they experienced some rough years, their attendance was actually up by 20 percent in 2018, compared to other theme parks' modest 3 percent growth.
Shamu is not at SeaWorld, in San Diego or anywhere else. The original orca named Shamu died in 1971, but the company kept using the name for decades after that. The "Shamu show" in San Diego ended in 2017.
With that out of the way, you can find a list of the best things to do at SeaWorld below. But first, you need to know what to expect and how to decide whether it's a place you want to visit.
What to Expect at SeaWorld San Diego
Years ago, the most exciting thing that might happen to you at SeaWorld was to get soaked while sitting in the splash zone, watching a show.
At SeaWorld today, you can still watch animal shows, but you can also participate in one-on-one animal encounters and enjoy some exciting theme park rides.
Some people say the park is losing its identity, but it's also providing activities that appeal to a broader range of visitors. It's a strategy that seems to be working.
How to Decide if SeaWorld Is Right for You
If you object to animals being in captivity for any reason, SeaWorld probably isn't the right place for you. If that's the case, you can stop reading now and go check out some of the other top things to do in San Diego.
If your concerns are more specific to SeaWorld and its animals, don't make a snap judgment. Don't think you know everything because you watched one documentary film.
Learn a new phrase: confirmation bias. That's the tendency all humans have to interpret new information in a way that confirms what they already think. Suspend your confirmation bias for a moment. Consider that most animals at SeaWorld have lived in human care for most of their lives. They would die if they were released into the wild. SeaWorld has also suspended its breeding program.
Read some reviews: Not just one or two, but a dozen or more. Read good ones and bad ones.
At Tripadvisor, reviewers give SeaWorld an average of 4.5 out of 5. A few quotes: "You don't always get the chance to see marine life up close so don't miss it." and "the rides are brilliant, the animals are amazing, and it is a wonderful experience" to "The shows are lame and insanely loud." and "Everything I saw looked tired."
Yelp reviewers rate SeaWorld lower at 3.5 out of 5. Some people think it's better than Disneyland or say it's worth spending a day there. Others think the animals look unhappy, although it's not clear how they could tell, while some complain that it just isn't what it used to be.
Consider the cost and how much you will get from a visit. Tickets aren't cheap, but they cost less than Universal Studios Hollywood, Legoland, and Disneyland. If you're looking for a less expensive way to spend a day, think about going to the San Diego Zoo or San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Or head north to the Aquarium of the Pacific to see animals or to Knotts Berry Farm for the rides.
How to Plan a Perfect Trip
The park is busiest in summer. That's also when it can get so hot that you'll want to jump in with the penguins to cool off. If your travel plans are flexible, spring or fall are better times to go when the weather is more comfortable, and the park is less crowded. Use the guide to San Diego's average weather to get a better idea of common variations.
Plan to spend most of a day at SeaWorld, especially if you want to see all the shows and enjoy all the rides.
Buy your tickets ahead of time online. All of the ticket options, passes, discounts, and coupons are in the SeaWorld San Diego ticket guide which also includes ways to save on all the other places you were thinking of visiting in San Diego. When you buy tickets, also make reservations for animal encounters and experiences — and pay for your parking.
Set the kids' expectations. You can see all the height restrictions by clicking on What Are the Ride Height Restrictions at the SeaWorld FAQ page.
What to Take to SeaWorld
- Keep remembering that you have to tote every ounce of your stuff around all day. Be a minimalist: Leave the library card, car wash coupons, and other things you don't need at home. It will lighten the load, and in the unlikely event that you lose your wallet, you won't have to replace them all.
- Wear comfortable shoes and quick-drying clothing. The sunniest days are no time to be showing off those thighs. Instead, wear light-colored trousers that end below the knee to keep your legs from turning as pink as a flamingo while you're waiting to see the shows.
- If you want to sit in the "splash zones" at the shows or go on rides that get you wet, take zippered plastic bags to keep the water out of your electronic goodies.
- Take hats, sunglasses, and WATERPROOF sunscreen, any time of year. If you're wearing sandals, apply sunscreen to the tops of your feet or risk getting a strap-shaped tan line. Don't forget something for your lips, too.
- Take an extra layer of warmer clothing for the evening, even in summer.
- If you're traveling with kids, they're likely to get wet. A change of clothing, down to the socks and shoes can be welcome, and swimsuits are a good idea for kids' water play at Bay of Play.
Tips For Your Day at SeaWorld
- Crowds start building up around mid-day. Arrive at opening time to avoid them.
- Pick up a map at the information center inside the SeaWorld San Diego gate. It not only shows what's where, but it also lists showtimes on the back. You can also try the SeaWorld app, but it's much harder to use than that simple piece of paper.
- See an outdoor show in the morning before it gets too hot. Avoid midday shows, when sitting in the sun waiting could cook your skin until it's more well done than your lunch.
- Midday is a good time for indoor attractions and any activity where you might get soaked, giving plenty of time to dry out before evening breezes start blowing.
- Shows fill up most any time. You can pay for a reservation or just get there early to get the best seats. Lower rows at most shows get wet. Color-coded seats claim to be the "splash zone," but you can tell from the water on the ground where the danger lies.
- If you want to try a show but are unsure about whether you will like it, sit in the back so you can exit discreetly.
- You (and everything you have with you) are likely to get wet on some of the rides. To keep things dry, take advantage of the lockers at Journey to Atlantis, Manta, and Shipwreck Rapids, which you can rent for a small fee. And you might be glad you brought that extra pair of dry socks when your feet get wet.
- You can rent strollers or bring your own, but they can't go inside most exhibits and attractions,
Things to Do at SeaWorld San Diego
On selected days, you can enjoy Animal Morning Moments, which allow visitors to get inside the park 30 minutes before the official opening time to visit Explorer's Reef Interactive Touch Pools, Orcas Up-Close Underwater Viewing, Dolphin Point, and Otter Outlook. You will find those days in the park schedule.
Rides at SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld has more than a dozen rides which are described at their website. Of those, about half are in Sesame Street Bay of Play and designed for younger children. They also have a sky ride and a ride to the top of a tower, which you have to pay an extra fee to experience.
Rides elsewhere in the park include a white-water adventure ride, fly in a simulated jet helicopter, and a rush to rescue sea turtles.
In the past few years, they have added roller coaster rides that prompted Tripsavvy's Theme Parks expert Arthur Levine to say: "Coasters such as Manta and Journey to Atlantis, however, now offer considerable thrills." And that's despite California Coastal Commission restrictions that limit the park's ability to build big thrill rides.
The most exciting rides are:
- Tidal Twister: Added in 2019, the twister is a dueling roller coaster, with two trains that start at opposite ends of a figure-8 track. They accelerate to 30 miles per hour and cross in the center, doing a dynamic Zero-G roll at the center section. Minimum height is 48 inches.
- Electric Eel: Riders drop from heights of 150 feet, get boosted at 60 miles per hour forwards and backward. There are looping twists and an inverted heartline roll. Minimum height is 54 inches.
- Manta: Named for the sleek, fast-swimming manta ray, this steel tracked-roller coaster maxes out at 43 miles per hour. It includes a drop that goes 54 feet underground. Minimum height is 48 inches.
- Journey to Atlantis: This ride combines the kind of ups and downs you would expect on a roller coaster with boat-based segments and splash-down landings. Minimum height is 42 inches.
Shows at SeaWorld San Diego
Most of the shows are outdoors, and you can reserve seats for a small fee. You can get the show schedules online.
- The Orca Encounter: Intended to be both entertaining and educational, this seasonal show replaced the older, theatrical-style killer whale show. It gives a behind-the-scenes look into training sessions and killer whales in general.
- Dolphin Days: You'll see high-flying dolphins, pilot whales, and human acrobats.
- Sea Lions Live: TV and music spoof performed by the sea lion comedy team, Clyde, and Seamore has been around for years. The duo also does an evening show called Sea Lions Tonight.
- Sea Rescue: This film tells the stories of the SeaWorld Rescue Team's marine animal rescues, animal rehabilitation, and returning them to the wild.
Seasonal shows at SeaWorld include the Sesame Street Parade and Electric Ocean, which includes a dance area, laser shows, acrobats and lighted nighttime effects on the Manta ride.
Other Things to Do at SeaWorld San Diego
Included your park admission are opportunities to learn about the critters from their trainers or just look at them in the aquariums and exhibits. Visitors can also pet bat rays, feed dolphins, seals, and sea lions — or touch tide pool creatures.
For kids who need to run off some of their excess energy, the Sesame Street Bay of Play is an over-the-top playground that will make you wish you were little enough to romp in it.
More experiences are available, but you'll have to pay for them — and make reservations ahead of time. You can dine with the orcas, have a one-on-one encounter with seals, sea lions, dolphins, sea otters, or meet a friendly white beluga whale. At that's not all, as they say on late night television. You can also get close to the orcas, penguins, flamingos, and even a friendly sloth. You can find more info about the experiences at the SeaWorld website. Pay attention to the restrictions, reserve ahead, and know the cancellation policies.
SeaWorld also offers resident adventure camps, day camps, and family sleepovers.
Where to Stay When You Go to SeaWorld
SeaWorld is on the south end of Mission Bay near the intersection of Interstate Highway 8 and Interstate Highway 5 north of downtown San Diego. You could choose a hotel almost anywhere in San Diego and get to SeaWorld easily, but if you're looking for the very closest SeaWorld hotels, try these areas:
- Mission Bay: North of SeaWorld, less than 5 minutes away. A good choice if you're looking for a nice resort with a pool or if you want to stay near the water.
- Hotel Circle: East of SeaWorld just off of I-8, less than 10 minutes' drive. Some of the lowest-priced hotels are here, and all are very close to the freeway and restaurants.
- Old Town: Southeast of SeaWorld, less than 10 minutes' drive. Moderate-priced hotels within walking distance of restaurants and near the Old Town Transit Center, where you can catch a Metropolitan Transit bus to SeaWorld.
- Pacific Beach: North of Mission Bay and parallel to the beach, you'll find some hotels along Mission Boulevard north of Mission Bay.
What You Need to Know About SeaWorld
SeaWorld San Diego is open year round, with longer hours in the summer and during holiday weekends. They also have shows and activities for Independence Day, Halloween, Christmas and New Year's Eve. Get the current lineup at their website.
Use the accessibility guide to get current details about what is available. Download a questionnaire there that will help you get a list of rides and attractions personalized for your restrictions. All you have to do is fill it out and take it to Guest Services when you arrive. They are just past the turnstiles on the right side.
How to Get to SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego is at 500 SeaWorld Drive, San Diego, CA 92109
If you're driving, SeaWorld San Diego is near the intersection of Interstate Highway 5 and Interstate Highway 8. Exits from both freeways are well marked. Follow the signs, but be aware of a weird gotcha: SeaWorld Drive IS NOT the exit you need to take to get to the park. Trust your navigation and the signs that point toward the park instead.
Some local hotels offer free shuttles to SeaWorld, and you can get more directions at the SeaWorld website. The cost of a rideshare or a taxi from downtown is partly offset by what you save on parking.