Shamu. Credit Abi Skipp
Dine with Shamu at San Diego's famed Sea World. Credit: Abi Skipp.

By Steve Jermanok

It’s not every day that you can dine on a buffet of chicken dijon and beef bourguignon while watching a killer whale do tricks  right beside you. Yet, “Dine with Shamu” is one of the many latest attractions San Diego vacations has recently unveiled to mesmerize families. Thirty miles north, the often overlooked Wild Animal Park has introduced hot air balloon rides, giving guests a bird’s-eye view of the lions, giraffes, elephants, rhinos, and other animals in safari style. Then there’s the new water park at nearby Legoland.

At Shamu Close-Up Stadium, orcas do back flips no more than ten feet from where your child will be stuffing his face. Then wander over to the larger Shamu Stadium to watch the whale smack his tail and drench all the people in the first ten rows.

San Diego Zoo’s forte is keeping animals in natural settings like aviaries or rain-forests, to make them feel at home. The 2200-acre Wild Animal Park, set in Escondido’s San Pasqual Valley, takes this one step further by allowing animals to mingle on the grounds to simulate the wild. Opened by the San Diego Zoological Society in 1972, the park is used as a breeding facility with a specialty on endangered creatures. On the 45-minute monorail tour, you’ll find the requisite elephants, giraffes, and hippos, but also rare examples of the black rhino or a Mongolian Przewalski’s horse. Also try the tethered hot air balloon that brings folks 400 feet above the park to watch the lions and elephants from up high.

A 40-minute drive north of San Diego, in Carlsbad, Legoland has garnered a reputation as a perfectly designed fantasyland for 2- to 8-year-olds. Many of the rides are not in the least bit threatening to a preschooler, and, even more impressive, much of the 128-acre theme park is created from, you guessed it, Legos. In the summer of 2010, Legoland unveiled a new water park that features a 45-foot tower, water slides and a lazy river.

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Steve Jermanok has explored more than 75 countries and written over 1,000 articles on subjects ranging from art to adventure. He has worked as a columnist for National Geographic Adventure, contributing editor for Budget Travel, guest editor for The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine and writes regularly for Away.com, Health, Men’s Journal, Outside, and Yankee.

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