The orca show at SeaWorld: a thrill for kids but hard for adults who know the fate of these endangered creatures.
The orca show at SeaWorld: a thrill for kids but hard for adults who know the fate of these endangered creatures.
Blaine Harden / The Washington Post
SAN DIEGO

Simple Pleasures for the Sippy-Cup Crowd

The orca show at SeaWorld: a thrill for kids but hard for adults who know the fate of these endangered creatures.
The orca show at SeaWorld: a thrill for kids but hard for adults who know the fate of these endangered creatures. (By Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)

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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 17, 2007

Keep it simple, limit theme parks and bring along a secret weapon. That is how my wife and I managed to vacation for seven days in San Diego with our two young children and never once (well, once at SeaWorld) lost our sanity.

This city challenges parental sanity because it offers children an almost endless list of things to do.

Some are astoundingly frivolous, such as strolling the faux Las Vegas Strip at Legoland, complete with an exploding volcano in front of a Mirage Hotel, all built out of more than 2 million plastic bricks. Some are rich with scientific wonder, such as "tidepooling" tours offered by naturalists at the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. And some offer memories that just might change a kid's outlook on the world, such as when children are asked to perform with African tribesmen in a rain dance at the San Diego Zoo's Elephant Show Amphitheater.

Parents with little kids, though, have to be careful not to overreach. We are semi-hostage to nap time and quiet time, tantrums and problematic potty events. This, then, is a story about discovering San Diego in carefully controlled doses, while lavishing time and love on the little darlings -- and, almost as important, escaping their sticky clutches now and then. As a family living in Seattle, we had dreamed for what seemed like a lifetime about an escape to Southern California: the sun, the warmth, the glorious absence of concrete-colored clouds squatting on our souls.

Much of the fun of going away with very young children is fantasizing wildly about it with them for months in advance. The words "San Diego" became a cure-all incantation in our house. My wife and I ended sibling fights and soothed boo-boos by talking about how much better everything would be when we arrived.

Our daughter, Lucinda, 4, filled in the fantasies with insider dope. Her well-traveled preschool friends briefed her on what to buy at SeaWorld and Legoland. She talked about the theme parks like a travel agent getting kickbacks.

Our son, Arno, like many politically correct 2-year-olds in the Pacific Northwest, was focused on orcas, the playful and endangered beasts that live wild in Puget Sound. We had discussed what it would be like to see them as captives at SeaWorld.

Flying south early on a Saturday, the kids were deliriously excited. When they said "San Diego," they seemed to be saying "Neverland." (I must admit we had been hitting Peter Pan books and videos pretty hard in the months before the flight. A day before we left, I was talking on the telephone with a colleague from work when Arno, wielding a rubber sword and wearing an eye patch, barged in, crawled into my lap and asked who was on the phone. "My friend Peter," I said. "Pan?" he asked.) What with all the anticipation, when we finally saw San Diego harbor from the air -- the big naval ships and the sun-dappled waters -- Arno seemed let down. From the air, he had been expecting to see leaping orcas. "I am sad," he said.

In nearly every other respect, though, San Diego delivered on our expectations. There were two reasons for this:

We did not do too much. We took only two day-long outings with the kids -- to SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo. We lost one and won one -- but more about that later.

The second reason San Diego worked so well for us was our secret weapon, which we smuggled in from out of state: Grandma, together with her husband, also known as Granddaddy.

They were waiting for us in the San Diego airport, having swooped in that morning from their home in Denver. They are frequent visitors to our house in Seattle and much loved by our kids.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company


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