San Diego’s model railroading clubs put together this expansive set of O-scale, HO-scale, N-scale, and toy (3-rail) layouts depicting Southern California locales. (It’s sometimes difficult to tear the little ones away from the play room with its wooden Thomas train tables, though.) There’s even 10-foot-high model of the Goat Canyon trestle, once the largest timber railroad trestle in the world. To complete the train experience, be sure to take a quick ride on the Balboa Park Miniature Railroad near the Zoo.
The Fleet is known for its hands-on science exhibits on subjects like vision, time, aging, and space technology. A demonstration cart roams the museum throughout the day showing off oobleck, bugs, lasers, and other fun topics. For the little ones, there’s a Kid City that applies the same hands-on techniques to exploring everyday places like a factory and a grocery store. If you happen to be in town on the first Wednesday night of the month, try the planetarium show followed by amateur telescope sky viewing outside.
Formerly the Aerospace Museum (as the signs still indicate), the Air & Space Museum is jam-packed with airplanes, spaceships, memorabilia, and history. My son’s favorite bit is sitting in the cockpit of a homebuilt Kitfox, part of their new You’re in the Pilot’s Seat exhibit. My personal favorite is the Apollo 9 Command Module (actual flight hardware) on display in the lobby. Even if you don’t go inside the museum proper, it’s worth ducking in just to tell the geeklet, "You see that? We went to the *moon* in that thing."
If you’re more of a gearhead than a spacehead, then this might be more your speed. The exhibits are rotated out frequently, and some of the cars on display are truly rare. (Everything I know about the Tucker was learned from this museum.) The geeklet doesn’t have much patience for the hands-off cars while we’re there, preferring to play in the hands-on Kid’s Corner, but he asks to go back again and again.
It kinda goes without saying, but the San Diego Zoo is "world famous" for a reason. Still, it’s easy to fall into the casual-tourist approach to visiting such a huge place, filing past enclosure and enclosure without taking in much about any one animal. Geekdad tip: pick two or three favorites from the map and spend at least half an hour at each, watching them eat, play, and interact with each other. Use the Zoo staff to help you decide; they’ll know which animals are likely to be active and where special activities are planned for the day. Personal favorites include Ituri Forest (monkeys and otters playing with each other) and, if you time it right, Absolutely Apes (personable orangutans and siamangs).
Dinosaurs. Mammoths. Giant cats. What more is there to say? Well, how about exhibtions about chocolate or the Dead Sea Scrolls? How about a hands-on fossil exhibit? Body casts from Pompeii? Oh, and a giant-screen theater? This is a museum that really gets it right.
Two notable attractions can be found at San Diego harbor, a short hop away from Balboa Park:
The main attraction is the Star of India, the world’s oldest active ship (dating back to 1863). If the Star’s billowing sails aren’t enough to put you into a piratey mood, there’s always the HMS Surprise, a replica Royal Navy frigate used in the film Master and Commander. The collection also includes a russian B-39 submarine for those interested in more modern ships (circa 1970, in this case).
If aircraft names like Tomcat, Intruder, Seasprite, Huey, and Hornet catch your attention, The Midway (a.k.a. San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum) has more military planes, life-at-sea exhibits, and lore than you can shake a stick at. Oh, and don’t forget that it’s on. an. aircraft. carrier. Oh yeah.