Balboa Parks offers lots of fun for families in San Diego


Planes mark the entrance to the San Diego Air and Space Museum in Balboa Park (Photo courtesy of Air and Space Museum)

By Richard Irwin, Travel Editor

Bridal parties were scattered around Spreckels Organ Pavilion
posing silently like the little grooms and brides you find atop fancy
wedding cakes.
The newlyweds were enjoying the sunny skies and beautiful gardens at
Balboa Park for their wedding pictures. They picked the beautiful
pavilion in San Diego for its classic architecture.
No one seemed to mind when the giant outdoor organ began to play. Many
probably didn’t even know they were standing next to the largest
outdoor pipe organ in the world. In fact, it has 73 ranks with more
than 4,518 pipes.
But then everything about Balboa Park is big. Really big. This 1,200
acre urban park may be the cultural heart of San Diego, home to many
wonderful gardens and interesting museums.
There’s the Museum of Man, Museum of Art, Museum of Photographic Arts, Natural History Museum — well, you get the idea.
Most are located along El Prado, a long promenade running through the
center of the park. The museums are housed in Spanish Revival style
buildings. Be sure to take some time to enjoy the detailed
ornamentation on the beautiful facades.
But this time, I was visiting with my two younger brothers and a
sister-in-law, so we each picked a museum that we really wanted to see.
With so much to see, we started at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center and worked our way down El Prado.
Our first stop was the San Diego Model Railroad Museum. Located in the
basement of the Casa De Balboa, this is billed as the largest indoor
model railroad exhibit in the world.
Having built many model railroads in our home in Pittsburgh, we wanted to see this world-famous layout.
They didn’t have just one model railroad, this museum featured huge model layouts in different scales.
One 2,700-square-foot layout represented the rail route from San Diego
to Sacramento in the large O scale. My favorite was the
4,500-square-foot HO layout based on the rail line from San Diego Union
Station east through spectacular Carriso Gorge to the desert floor at
El Centro.
The detail on the moving trains and scenery was amazing. Just watching
the freight trains wend their way through the miniature world brought
back childhood memories.
Children seemed to enjoy the toy train gallery, where a camera car
gives the little visitors an engineer’s view of the layout. There’s
also a coal mine at the kid’s level, where children can push buttons to
run the trains.
As we walked down the main boulevard, we stopped to visit some of the
extensive gardens maintained by the park. These include Alcazar Garden,
Cactus Garden, Casa del Rey Moro Garden, Inez Grant Parker Memorial
Rose Garden, Japanese Friendship Garden — well, you get the idea.
My brother wanted to stop at the San Diego Automotive Museum next. He’s a car and motorcycle buff.
The car museum had a very nice collection of antique cars and motorcycles. It also some hot rods and one-off vehicles.
We’d never seen a 1924 Ford Model T Speedster before. It was a racing
version of the 15 million Model T’s that put the world on the road.
Exhibit placards provided many fascinating facts. We learned that Model
T’s didn’t have fuel pumps; gas flowed to the engine by gravity. This
worked well unless drivers encountered long, steep hills. Resourceful
motorists turned their Fords around and drove up the hills backwards to
avoid stalling.
We also enjoyed the 1948 Tucker Torpedo, a car of the future built by
Preston Tucker. Tucker cars featured advanced safety elements like a
padded dash, pop-out windshields and a “safety chamber” for passengers
in case of a crash.
Tucker was immortalized in the 1988 movie “Tucker — The Man and His Dream.”
I wanted to visit the Aviation and Space Museum next door. This museum has a nice range of vintage aircraft.
The different galleries highlight not only the planes, but also the
spirit of the time. The brooding World War I exhibit has Sopwith Camels
battling German biplanes over sandbagged trenches.
Another exhibit traces Pacific Southwest Airlines, the world’s first low-fare airline. PSA was founded in San Diego in 1949.
The World War II section has a German Messerschmitt looping over a colorful American Mustang and British Spitfire.
An interesting carrier exhibit honors San Diego’s long history as a
naval town. Climb up into the control tower to see how the war was
fought in the Pacific.
Jet aircraft in the collection include the Skyhawk, Hornet, Phantom and Mig 15.
Unfortunately, time had run out before we had run out of museums. But
everyone had enjoyed their day in the cultural center of San Diego.
Admissions range from $6 for an adult at the Railroad Museum to $8 at
the Auto Museum and $15 at the Air and Space Museum. Children are free
with an adult admission at the railroad, $4 at the car and $6 at the
plane museums.
Or try the Passport to Balboa, a one-day pass good for adult
admission to your choice of any 4 of the 13 museums on the same day.
The $29 passports may be purchased online at or at
the Visitors Center.

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