AFTER WHAT MY DAUGHTER STERNLY reminds me are almost but not quite six and a half years of parenting, I have a few rules for taking the family away for the weekend: First, fly direct (because, these days, having to make a connection is an agita-inducing proposition). Second, spend no more than a couple of hours in the rental car during the entire trip (four words: “Are we there yet?”). Third, build a tight itinerary without a lot of free time. (You’re on vacation to do things. If you wanted to relax, you shouldn’t have had kids.) As getaways go, San Diego is, blessedly, perfect on all three counts: You can get there on a nonstop from most big cities in Texas; there’s little travel time once you arrive; and there’s so much to do that you’ll be kept busy racing from one activity to another. Plus, the time difference works to your advantage: You gain two hours going, when you want as much time as possible that first day, and you lose two coming back, when your brood is bushed and wants only to get home and sack out.
We always do this trip the same way, and it never fails us. We arrive in San Diego just before lunch and head immediately for the San Diego Zoo, which is a short drive from the airport (if your kids are like mine, they’ll be stir-crazy from the plane; think of this first stop as taking them to meet their fellow beasts). The zoo lives up to its superlative reputation as sprawling and clean and visitor-friendly, with every conceivable animal on earth behind bars, glass, or sturdy fencing. We’re partial to giraffes in our house, so we start off in their direction, looking in on meerkats and wallabies along the way. By the time we’ve had a little quality time with the pandas, we’re ready for lunch; luckily we’re right near our favorite place to eat on the grounds, the Canyon Cafe, which has tacos and other Mexican dishes, plus passable vegetarian fare for people grossed out by the thought of eating the talent and, um, beer and margaritas for Mom and Dad.
A short walk up the hill, past the bongos and pigs, brings us to the Skyfari tram, which is not nearly as scary as a rickety box that carries you hundreds of feet in the air ought to be. We touch down near the children’s zoo, which my two-year-old son absolutely loves: He gets to harass, under the guise of “petting,” goats and sheep and a Shetland pony that returns his affection each time by relieving itself right in front of us. Then it’s off to the sea lion show. By the time the last slimy creature is off the stage, we’ve had it, and we make our way back to the car, always thinking the same thing: The zoo is great, even if it seems to have been designed by someone who never parented hot, tired children; the exhibits are far enough apart that tiny legs take forever to get to them all, and before long you find yourself carrying around 35 pounds of your DNA.
You’ll forget all that quickly enough when you’re racing up the 5, as the locals charmingly refer to the million-lane highway that connects San Diego with points north. Late in the afternoon, as the sun is starting to go down and the light is just right, you remember why people sing about California dreaming. Your destination, half an hour away, is Carlsbad, a coastal town that’s home to surprisingly good shopping and restaurants, a really nice beach, and one of the highest hotel-and-motel-to-resident ratios this side of Colorado (on our recent trip, we chose the reasonably priced, if sterile, Grand Pacific Palisades Resort and Hotel). Check in, grab a bite, and hit the hay. The next day will be long.
But fun. Even the biggest cynics will crack a smile when they first gaze upon Carlsbad’s marquee attraction: Legoland, an amusement park whose name simultaneously says it all—it’s built, thematically, around the plastic blocks known as Legos—and does it no justice whatsoever. Honestly, you have to experience the place to believe it. It’s not just the nine-foot-tall dinosaur made of Legos at the entrance, or the Lego replicas of world landmarks inside, or the more than fifty attractions, including three genuinely thrilling roller coasters that are appropriate for preteens and the flat-out best set of toddler rides anywhere. It’s the look of the four-year-old park, with its bold colors and clean European architecture—a tip-off that the Legoland concept originated overseas. It’s the kid-friendly layout, which, frankly, puts the zoo’s to shame; the five “neighborhoods” are close together, and you don’t have to go far to find a restroom or food and drink. It’s the competence and cheerfulness of the employees, who by and large look like surfer dudes but act like Boy Scouts.
Your kids will love, among other things, the Aquazone Wave Racers, which whip them around in a circle—one of many opportunities to get wet at Legoland; the big-kid and little-kid driving schools, which put them behind the wheel of the Lego-equivalent of bumper cars; the coast cruise, a boat ride through miniature Lego versions of cities like New York and New Orleans; and what is a great playscape by anyone’s standards—three massive stories of rope ladders and wooden slides that are a foolproof antidote to hyperactivity. Since man cannot live by building blocks alone, you’ll be happy to know that all the restaurants in the park are quite good. And if you want to spend a few bucks on, I don’t know, Legos, the eight-thousand-square-foot Big Shop, near the exit, has the largest selection in the U.S.
Typically, we get to Legoland the moment it opens and call it quits an hour or two before closing, which puts us near the dinner hour. We always stay someplace with a pool, so we take a quick swim and then head into downtown Carlsbad to eat. On our last trip we had really wonderful pizza at Pizza Port and then shakes and cones at Cold Stone Creamery, whose dreadlocked, scoop-manipulating servers will remind you of the crew at Amy’s back in Texas. As you can imagine, the kids are worn out by nightfall; lights-out is a breeze.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast at Al’s cafe downtown and some window-shopping at Carlsbad Company Stores, an exceptional upscale outlet mall, we spend some time horsing around on the beach. (I wouldn’t call the sand pristine, exactly, but there are no cars, the waves are waves—and on the early side of the morning, you pretty much have it to yourselves.) My little ones spend the half-hour ride back to the airport shaking out various sneakers and underthings, but they don’t complain a bit. When you’ve had a weekend as full and festive as this one, not even a little sand in your shorts can put you in a bad mood.