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Since its founding in 1964, SeaWorld San Diego – located on Mission Bay – has been known for its aquariums, marine attractions and family-friendly shows. Over the past decade or so, however, some innovative new additions have made SeaWorld San Diego a way more exciting park! Updated for 2020, here are the top 10 thrills, chills and spills – old and new – that make SeaWorld San Diego rides and attractions some of the best in Southern California.
Top SeaWorld San Diego Rides & Attractions
Here are ten things you definitely won’t want miss on your next visit to SeaWorld San Diego!
SheBuysTravel Tip: Check the SeaWorld website for the latest information on SeaWorld opening days, operation hours and rules for visiting the theme parks, along with new cleaning protocols.
Top Thrills at SeaWorld San Diego
Set to open late 2020, Emperor is SeaWorld San Diego’s newest thrill ride. It will also be the tallest, fastest and longest dive coaster in California, and the only floorless dive coaster in the state!
Named for the world’s largest penguin, this new coaster mimics this species’ amazing underwater diving ability (emperor penguins can dive to a depth of 1,800 feet). Climbing to 153 feet with feet dangling in the air, you’ll be suspended on a 45-degree angle at the crown of the ride before plunging down a 143-foot facedown vertical drop accelerating to more than 60 miles per hour!
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Even more important than being one of the best thrill rides at SeaWorld, Emperor will also highlight an important new animal-conservation partnership between SeaWorld and Penguins International, an organization dedicated to penguin conservation and research. A portion of the proceeds from sales of penguin merchandise at the Emperor retail store will be donated to Penguins International to support the organization’s important conservation, education and research efforts. Win-win!
Another awesome thrill ride at SeaWorld San Diego is Manta. This super-fast coaster simulates the moves of a manta ray. The track is long and the ride is marvelously smooth. It features a 54-foot drop and plenty of twists and turns. Though it is no longer the most thrilling ride at SeaWorld, it remains one of our favorites and is definitely worth a go.
The area right outside Manta roller coaster features a 100,000-gallon marine-life habitat with touch pools, filled with California bat rays that you can touch and feed. This makes Manta a great spot to check out, even if your kids are still too little to go one the ride! (The height requirement is four feet.)
The Electric Eel is currently San Diego’s tallest and fastest roller coaster. Featuring multiple-launch experiences, Electric Eel propels you forward and backward, accelerating to more than 60 miles per hour in seconds. You’ll rocket skyward nearly 150 feet for an inverted roll and a twisting loop.
My teenage son and husband loved going on this ride, but I was more than happy to sit this one out!
Top Chills at SeaWorld San Diego
Sesame Street Bay of Play
When this area of the park opened in 2008, my son was at the height of his Elmo obsession, so Sesame Street Bay of Play was a highlight for us. Sesame Street Bay of Play is a family-friendly spot built with little kids in mind, with an oversized jungle gym and ball pit. The area has three rides: Abby’s Sea Star Spin (think teacup ride at Disney), Elmo’s Flying Fish, and Oscar’s Rockin’ Eel. Bay of Play also offers families a chance to meet and take pictures with Sesame Street characters.
Now that he’s a teen, Bay of Play is obviously no longer is my son’s favorite. But if you are visiting SeaWorld with young kids, this is the place to be.
On a related note, if you have a kid not quite tall enough to go on the big roller coasters such as Manta and Tidal Twister, SeaWorld San Diego has added many fun rides for younger kids. Be sure to check out Aqua Scout, Riptide Rescue and Sea Dragon Drop when you visit SeaWorld. They offer just enough thrill for kids who may be over Sesame Street but don’t quite meet the height requirements for bigger rides.
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This attraction features a realistic Arctic research station, including encounters with beluga whales, seals and walruses. It is a nice spot to duck in to when you need to cool off on a hot day at the park. You can even sign up for the Beluga and Walrus Encounter, a behind-the-scenes, interactive experience where participants have up-close encounters with beluga whales and walruses.
Also in the “chill” department is Penguin Encounter, located next to Wild Arctic, where you can get a close-up view of penguins as they swim and waddle in the 25-degree, snow-filled habitat. Penguin Encounter also is home to nearly 90 puffins and murres.
Orca Encounter is a live documentary-style presentation aimed to help adults and kids alike gain a deeper appreciation and respect for the orcas. Based on killer whale behavior in the wild—how they move, hunt and navigate, what they eat, and even how they communicate—Orca Encounter features a large infinity video screen (three stories high and nearly 140 feet in length! ) that displays imagery of orcas in the wild as well as graphics and information about killer whales. The Orca Encounter show replaces the old Shamu show.
Dolphin Days is SeaWorld’s latest show featuring its wonderful dolphins! The show combines high-energy animal behaviors with a close-up look at SeaWorld’s dolphins and the relationship they have with their trainers.
SheBuysTravel Tip #1: Sit in the first couple of rows if you need a cool-down splash.
SheBuysTravel Tip #2: Get to Dolphin Stadium early, as this show tends to fill up fast!
Finally, Sea Lions Live is a comedy show starring the park’s prank-loving pinnipeds Clyde and Seamore. The team performs their own versions of some of today’s most popular shows including, Super Seamore, Survival: Mission Bay and Dancing with the Pinnipeds. This show is extremely cute and extremely funny.
Visit SeaWorld San Diego and the shows transform into holiday spectaculars. Sea Lions Live becomes Clyde & Seamore’s Christmas Special sea lion and otter show, and Dolphin Days becomes the Dolphin Island Christmas show. Read more about Christmas at SeaWorld San Diego.
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One of SeaWorld’s most popular attractions, Shark Encounter is a family favorite you won’t want to miss! Shark Encounter takes you under water with sharks and tropical fish. The 280,000-gallon attraction features a 57-foot acrylic tube running the length of the sharks’ habitat. Sand tiger, bonnethead, blacktip and whitetip reef sharks are among the species living in this popular attraction. There is a line to get in during busy times but it is totally worth the wait!
Skytower and Bayside Skyride
Skytower and Bayside Skyride are SeaWorld’s two landmark rides, so it makes sense to group them together! The Skytower takes passengers high above SeaWorld for some amazing panoramic views, while the Bayside Skyride offers a scenic ride above the bay.
Opened in 1969, Skytower is one of the oldest rides in the park. The 6-minute ride takes passengers high above SeaWorld and offers spectacular views of SeaWorld, Mission Bay, San Diego and beyond, all from 320 feet up in the air. Built just two years prior to Skytower, Bayside Skyride also takes guests up in the air – 80 feet up to be exact – and travels over Mission Bay and back aboard suspended gondolas.
While Skytower and Bayside Skyride are both iconic SeaWorld experiences, they come with a price tag. There is a $6 entrance fee per attraction for guests ages 3 and older to experience each of these rides.
Top Spills at SeaWorld San Diego
Journey to Atlantis
Be prepared to get wet! Part water flume, part roller coaster, Journey to Atlantis is a six-minute adventure featuring a 60-foot plunge. The ride tells the tale of Atlantis through a simulated flood, projected lights, fog and water cannons. It is a favorite among all ages tall enough to ride!
Shipwreck Rapids is a traditional raft ride that takes you on an adventure through raging rapids, roaring waterfalls, past sunbathing sea turtles, and a near collision. You’ll definitely get wet, so beware if you go on a chilly day and know the ride closes all together on days when the temperature drops below 60 degrees. One of the best water rides we’ve been on!
Gwen Kleist is an award-winning writer based in Southern California. She is the mother of one very active son who shares her love of travel and adventure. She writes about their adventures and more on her family travel website, CaliforniaFamilyTravel.com. Her articles have appeared in San Diego Family Magazine, Sunset Magazine, Cat Fancy, Huntington Beach Magazine, and she was a contributing author to Explorer Publishing’s guidebook, Los Angeles: The Complete Resident’s Guide.