San Diego and Sea World Trip Report – August 2007 – Part 1

As a bonus for hard work and extra hours put in for a major project early this year, my employer offered me a pretty large credit at my choice of several resort hotels. After researching the various options, we decided that our family would get the best use out of a stay at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina. We reserved an “Executive Suite” room there for the weekend of August 24-26. Since the hotel is very close to Sea World, the center point of the trip included a visit to that theme park on Saturday.

This report shares some of our experiences during our visits to the Sheraton, Sea World, and nearby Balboa Park. The traveling party for this trip included my wife, my 3-year-old son and me. There are some photos included in some parts of this report, but I admit that I’m not the most diligent photographer when traveling, so I don’t have an exceptionally complete collection of photos. Part of this is the nature of traveling with a 3-year-old, where the job of parenting frequently trumps the job of photographer. In a few cases, I do include some external links to official sites where you can find some photos of places where I didn’t take any.

Day 1: Arrival at the Sheraton and Balboa Park

Hoping that it would be late enough to miss the worst of the Friday morning rush hour traffic, we left our home in the San Fernando Valley at around 10am and started the drive to San Diego. The timing actually seemed to be pretty good, as traffic was moving pretty much full-speed through the entire Los Angeles metropolitan area. It took us about 90 minutes to get to the rest area just north of Carlsbad, where we stopped for a restroom break.

We ended up feeling very glad that we had made that stop as traffic slowed to a crawl just a short distance further south. This turned out to be caused by some construction work just south of Carlsbad and it ended up taking us right around 1/2 hour to get through this one small stretch. We finally ended up getting to the Sheraton between 1 and 1:30pm, which was a bit later than we had hoped, but still not too terribly bad for a Friday morning.

The hotel is located right at the waterfront, pretty much right between San Diego’s Sky Harbor Airport and the cruise ship port. Even with the close proximity to the airport, we never were bothered at all by airplane noise and my son, who is very into airplanes right now, really enjoyed watching the low-flying planes going overhead when we were outdoors. The proximity to the harbor means that many of the hotel’s rooms (including the one we stayed in) have ocean/marina views, as do the main pool area and various restaurants and lounges.

At the time we arrived, there was no line at the check-in desk and we were quickly registered and received keys to room 1026, on the 10th floor of the main tower. As soon as we opened the door to the room, we were certain that something was seriously wrong. We had reserved an “Executive Suite”, but this room would be tiny even at a typical motel. The fairly tightly-packed room had a single king-sized bed, a small desk, and a small chair in the corner. Not only did this not fit the definition of a “suite” by any stretch of the imagination, it also provided absolutely nowhere for our son to sleep.

Hotel Bedroom

When we got back to the registration desk and expressed our concern, the front desk clerk insisted it was the right room. As we continued to state that it was completely unsuitable he finally called a manager over to talk with us. After a bit more arguing, the manager finally said “don’t you realize that you have room 1024 as well?” It turns out that the clerk had failed to explain that their suites have separate entrances allowing the bedroom and living area to be rented separately, if they wish. The clerk was also supposed to give us keys for both rooms, allowing us to use either entrance and to unlock the connecting doors.

Armed with the new information and the key to 1024, we went back upstairs and found that 1024 was a very spacious suite-type room with a large living area (with a pull-out sleeper sofa), a small kitchenette, and a dining area that could be converted to a bedroom via a hide-away Murphy bed. By unlocking the connecting door with 1026, we then had a good-sized, 1-bedroom, 2-bathroom suite. The room certainly met our needs, although they really need to better train their staff in order to eliminate some unnecessary confusion.

Hotel Dining Room

Hotel Living Room

The room was overall very nice, although it did seem to lack a few amenities that would generally be expected in this type of high-end suite. Oddly, while the room had a kitchenette, it wasn’t actually equipped with a refrigerator, microwave, or any kind of dishes or utensils. It basically was just a sink surrounded by some cabinets and counters. The room also could use some modernization. The TVs were typical 19-inch hotel televisions and not the nicer flat-screen sets that are becoming common in high-end hotel rooms. Internet access was via wired Ethernet connections rather than wireless and cost an additional $12/day.

Hotel Kitchen

These are mostly minor points, of course, but these areas just seemed a bit below present-day expectations for a very high-end hotel room. The one aspect of the room that we had absolutely no complaint about at all, though, was the view. The room was on the 10th floor and faced the marina. There were three balconies, one each in the dining room, living room, and the bedroom. Although they did have childproof locks on the sliding glass doors, we never actually opened them as we decided we preferred for our son not to know that they actually opened. We still greatly enjoyed keeping the curtains opened and being able to look out at the view while we were in the room.

View from our room

The whole complex actually seemed to be a bit on the border between a high-end resort hotel and a more moderate property. I spent a little time exploring the grounds after getting our son to bed on Friday evening and noticed that there were wings off the tower that had exterior staircases and room entries that were pretty typical of an old-fashioned Holiday Inn design. Note that the hotel has a second tower that looked to be a 1/2 mile or so away from the main tower. We never went over there, so I don’t really know what was there.

Once we had checked in to the hotel, we were pretty hungry after the long drive and ready for lunch. Knowing that we were likely going to get a pretty big dinner at the hotel’s main restaurant that evening, we decided that we wanted to find somewhere that we could get sandwiches of some sort. We opted for Shoreline, the hotels pool-side restaurant and bar. Initially, we had expected to get burgers or something similar, but my wife and I both knew that we had found exactly what we wanted when we looked at the menu and saw that they had BBQ pork sandwiches. The sandwiches were generous in size and were spiced pretty much just right for our tastes, although the waitress made a point to warn us that they were pretty spicy. They came with french fries that were ok, but not really too my taste. I tend to like fries to be pretty much unflavored other than salt (and potato, of course…) while these were much more heavily spiced. Our son actually ended up eating most of my fries while I ate quite a few of the potato chips that came with his kid’s meal chicken strips. Our son has pretty exotic tastes and probably would have liked the pork sandwich as well, but they didn’t offer a kid’s portion of it and he still seemed satisfied with his chicken. He dipped the chicken in BBQ sauce and likely thought it was largely the same as well.

With lunch, my wife and I both ordered fruit smoothies (strawberry for her and strawberry/banana for me), which were so good that we each ordered a second one. As you would probably expect at a hotel bar, they weren’t cheap, but this was a case during the trip where the gift credit from work let us pretty much ignore that. Looking at the bill, the four drinks actually cost nearly as much as the food, though.

During the whole time sitting at the pool-side restaurant, our son became increasingly interested in visiting the swimming pool. At one point, he even got down off his chair and started to take off his shoes and socks, until we reminded him that none of us had our swim clothes on. After we finished eating, we went back up to the room, changed into our swimsuits, and headed down to the pool for an afternoon swim.

While my wife has taken him swimming at friends’ houses a few times recently, this was the first time that I’d had a chance to play with him in a swimming pool since he has been old enough to really do anything. At age 3 (getting close to 4), he obviously can’t swim and still isn’t tall enough to stand up even in the shallow part of the pool, but he had a lot of fun splashing around while I held onto him. He also really enjoyed riding on my back while I swam around a bit, always staying in the shallow area, of course. The only slight downside to our swim was that the pool wasn’t heated and the combination of the ocean-front location and a somewhat overcast day left the water pretty cold. That shortened a bit the amount of time we might have otherwise spent at the pool.

After a short rest break up in the room, we decided to drive over to Balboa Park. While we didn’t have time for a visit to the San Diego Zoo during this trip, we had heard before that the park had a carousel and miniature train that were located outside of the zoo gates. Our son really likes both kinds of rides (and so does his Dad…), so this seemed like a great afternoon activity. Unfortunately, I forgot to grab the camera before we headed over to the park, so I didn’t end up getting any pictures from this part of the trip.

Both rides are located close together just inside the entrance to the zoo parking lot and were easy to find. Our first visit was to the carousel, which is a classic Herschell-Spillman unit originally built in 1910. While it looked like it could use some restoration work, it generally wasn’t in bad condition for an actively-used, non-museum machine. The ride mechanism was quite fast (one ride was really all I could handle) and very smooth. The ticket price was $2/person (with no discounts for children), but you got a rather long, approximately 5-minute ride for that cost.

One very surprising feature of this carousel was that it still included the old-fashioned “grab the brass ring” feature, where riders on the outside row would pull little metal rings from a mechanism and whomever got the brass ring rather than an iron one would win a free ride. These used to be commonplace on old carousels, but have largely been removed from most today as it isn’t considered exceptionally safe to be leaning from the horse to grab the rings while the ride is in motion. I didn’t notice this feature until the ride had already started, so I had opted for an inside, jumping horse and couldn’t take part. A man right in front of me did play and ended up winning the free ride, which meant I did get a good look at how it worked. It was very interesting seeing this mostly-lost piece of history still in action.

While my wife isn’t fond of spinning rides and opted out of the carousel, we all were able to enjoy a ride on the train. The 1/5 scale antique train runs along a 1/2 mile track through a grassy area located between the carousel and the zoo entrance. The train route even includes a tunnel, which all the kids on the ride (including mine) really thought was a lot of fun. We did have a little bit of a struggle getting our son to settle down and enjoy the ride, as he had decided that since we were in a park we really should be heading to a playground soon. After I made a promise that we would try to find one after the ride, he did settle in and have a lot of fun with the ride. As with the carousel, the tickets for the train were also $2/person.

Just a short distance down the rode from the zoo entrance was a good-sized playground, so we were fortunately able to satisfy our son’s desire to run around and play for a while. With the extremely hot weather that we have had lately in the San Fernando Valley, he hadn’t had much of an opportunity to play at outdoor playgrounds recently. The much more comfortable early-evening weather near the San Diego harbor made for a very pleasant environment for some outdoor play time. The playground was very close to the landing route for the airport, so my wife and I got a bit of a kick out of watching the planes coming in while our son was playing. At one point, we even got to see Southwest Airline’s Shamu plane, which was a nice precursor for the next day’s planned Sea World trip. We finally knew that we had given our son a very busy day, when he kind of reached his limit and just found a nice flat surface on one of the pieces of play equipment to sprawl out. At that point, he gave us no argument when we suggested heading back to the hotel for dinner.

For dinner, we went to Harbor’s Edge, which is the hotel’s main restaurant. This restaurant is located off the main lobby area and most-prominently features a glass back wall that looks out onto the marina. The restaurant was fairly uncrowded when we arrived and we were seated at a table right next to the window. The view provided a very pleasant atmosphere for our meal.

My wife and I are both very much “meat & potatoes” types, so we both ordered the bone-in ribeye steak as our entrees. For an appetizer, I had grilled prawns served over a bed of pineapple while she had a Caesar salad. We both enjoyed our appetizers. The salad was particularly large, so I ended up helping her finish some of it as well. The steaks were very large, but very tender cuts with a very tasty glaze. They were so filling that we ended up forgoing dessert as we were simply too full. At one point, we considered the possibility of ordering some dessert via room service later that night, but we never were really hungry enough for anything overly large and instead just ended up getting a couple Hershey bars from the gift shop.

Similar to the case with the restaurant where we had lunch, the kid’s menu for dinner stuck strictly to pretty traditional “kid friendly” foods. Our son generally has pretty sophisticated tastes for a 3-year-old, so we always prefer it when restaurants of this type offer a kid’s steak or something similar. We ended up ordering him a cheeseburger, since that seemed to be the closest match to what we were having. Since the steaks were so large, we each also shared a bit with him. He still seemed pretty happy with the burger and the bits of steak, fortunately.

It was a very good dinner, but I did think the restaurant fell somewhat into the “captive audience” trap that isn’t uncommon with hotel restaurants. The prices on the entrees were generally all in the $30+ range and the food wasn’t really quite at the level that I would tend to expect for that cost. Our steak dinners were pretty comparable in price to what you would get at a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse or somewhere similar, but the food struck me as being closer to what I’d expect at a Black Angus or Outback, although certainly in a much nicer setting. With our gift credit, this mattered a lot less than it might have if we had been paying for this meal more directly.

After dinner, we headed back up to the room and started the process of getting our son ready for bed and ourselves off to sleep to get rested for the full day at Sea World that we had planned for Saturday. The next part of this report will share our experiences there.

Click here for Part 2. 

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