We usually take the train down since Isla is not too keen on the car seat for extended periods of time. It is an easy and beautiful commute, and takes less than 5 hours to our stop at Solana Beach (and just a bit more if you're headed all the way to downtown San Diego.) The most recent trip we took was for Isla's birthday, and we took her to Sea World for the first time. While I'm generally very conflicted about zoos and animal parks, I feel pretty good about Sea World. The animals seem well cared-for and happy, and most importantly I feel it instills a love of the ocean and it's creatures in all who visit. The connection children and adults make when they see the whales and other sea life up close ostensibly contributes to the percentage of visitors who go on to help protect and preserve these animals and their environments. That said, Isla's favorite exhibit was the beluga whales, although she was ridiculously entertained the entire 4 hours of our visit. We barely covered 1/3 of the park, and are planning our next trip for September.
Click here for an amazing story of a hero-beluga whale.
Even if the main focus of your trip is to visit Sea World (or the San Diego Wild Animal Park, or Zoo), I highly recommend a pit stop in North County. Just ever so slightly North of Solana Beach is Encinitas, home of The Magical Child - one of the best natural baby and kids stores I've seen. Expect to find Waldorf dolls, amazing CDs and books, fairie dress-up, safe and natural toys, organic clothing, cloth diapers, organic toiletries, etc., and a great play area for your little one. I make a trip here every time I'm in the area. As for restaurants, the Pannikin is a daily must for my family. It's the best coffee house I've ever tried. The ambiance is so cool, and different at each of the three locations (La Jolla, Encinitas, Solana Beach), and the food and coffee is amazing.
The beaches in San Diego are incredible, and the water is so warm. There are plenty of great spots, but my favorite is Windansea in La Jolla. If you're planning on taking your little one in the water, though, I'd skip this one - while an older child would have a blast, the shore break is not suitable for young kids.
**I want to add that my feelings about Sea World - and other sea parks - are extremely ambivalent. The Shamu show was one part cool, to three parts sad. The giant, intelligent, amazing wild animals were in such a tiny, artificial environment. While I do feel sea parks are important in keeping people connected with whales and dolphins enough that they would fight for their welfare (i.e. trying to stop the mass-slaughtering of both in Japan!), I feel just as strongly that something needs to be done to protect the animals in these parks. Better, larger tanks that better simulate their natural environment, and breeding animals specifically for the parks rather than poaching them from their home in the ocean would be a start.