It looked as if someone had spilled glitter into the soft, brown sand, subtly twinkling in the Southern California sunshine. I sat on a beach towel, arms bare and jeans cuffed, catching up with my friend Wendy, a former Minnesotan and San Diego transplant.

We watched my daughter, Vera, jumping the cold, rolling waves, not chilly enough to deter a sun-starved Minnesota 7-year old. My husband and 9-year-old son played catch on an open stretch of beach nearby. Toward the horizon, dolphin after dolphin surfaced in flashes of dark, shiny blue, occasionally launching so high out of the water that I couldn’t help but imagine that they were happy.

We had escaped zero-degree temps, mountains of snow and the machine of everyday life just 24 hours before, so 70 degrees, palm trees and an afternoon enjoying La Jolla’s famed seals and beach felt like life exhaled. The moment seemed as close to perfect as any could.

At least one member of our family felt there was clear room for improvement. I learned this later, when I spied the photo Clint texted me of the message our son, Roy, had etched into the wet sand: “I want to go to Legoland.”

This wasn’t new news, but rather a reminder of the reason we’d come. Roy’s a Lego-head. He has been since about five years ago, when he first experienced the thrill as each satisfying click of interlocking plastic bricks slowly formed a Batmobile. After he learned of Legoland’s existence, thanks to the Kids Go Free coupons strategically placed on juice-pouch cartons, going became his dream.

My husband and I planned to take advantage of this clear slam-dunk “one day.” The idea of traveling halfway across the country to a theme park for kids was easier knowing we could base our visit out of San Diego, a city that adults love, too. When a Lego set topped his little sister’s Christmas wish list for the first time this year, and winter settled in with a special vengeance, we decided it was time.

Which is to say that I understood. It’s hard to surrender to any moment, no matter how sandy and sun-drenched, when the 128-acre plot of Lego-packed concrete you’ve imagined for the better part of your life waits a mere 25 miles up the coast.

Legoland at last

We went all in on the dream, including a room at Legoland Hotel, one of the two Lego-themed accommodations that straddle the park’s entrance. After a late arrival and full night’s sleep, we fueled up for the big day ahead at the included breakfast buffet, where families rounding every last table added to the air of twitchy anticipation. The kids helped themselves at the kid-height buffet — well played, Legoland Hotel — as I slid into the made-to-order egg line alongside parents and grandparents, waiting in silence only broken when one mom marveled, “This is the quietest part of my trip.”

We weren’t in La Jolla anymore.

After breakfast we headed out, under plastic palm trees that looked as if they were made from giant Legos, to join the line for early park entrance, another hotel-guest perk. It moved quickly, and we sped straight to Lego Ninjago World, one of the 20-year-old park’s newer themed areas.

There wasn’t a wait for Ninjago: The Ride, which was North America’s first controller-free theme park ride when it debuted in 2016. The four of us put on 3-D glasses, slid into the car and were promptly whisked inside a ninja-style battle, whipping around from screen to giant screen, using our hands to shoot virtual fireballs and lightning bolts at the attacking skeletons and dragons. Gentle snow fell and wind blew, adding one more immersive “D” to the experience. It was over in an exhilarating flash.

Even once the park officially opened, allowing other vacationers and field-tripping kids to flood in, we easily moved between attractions, including a trippy 4-D movie, the Deep Sea Adventure submarine ride-meets-interactive game experience, the “Lego Movie 2” set exhibits and two coasters — neither with a loop-de-loop — never once needing to take advantage of the Lego play stations designed to keep little ones busy during long waits. Chalk that up to the weekday and the season, which also meant the 10-acre water park and other seasonal attractions hadn’t yet opened. In our book, a fair trade.

We looked to close the place down at 5 p.m., even though the kids had aged out of more attractions than I’d anticipated. Browsing a gift shop, I spotted a rack of kid-sized versions of the vest Emmet wears in the Lego movies and silently worried that perhaps we’d put this trip off a little too long. No doubt, 5-year-old Roy would’ve begged for and worn it day and night to the point where I’d have to sneak it off him to wash it. Nine-year-old Roy couldn’t deign to pose for a picture with any of the costumed Lego characters milling about the park.

But in Miniland USA, he analyzed the extensive city re-creations — the U.S. Capitol building, the Golden Gate Bridge, so many 6-foot-tall Manhattan skyscrapers — with a seasoned builder’s appreciation. “This is just amazing, Mom!” he said, hugging my arm.

Back at the hotel, the lobby was a party in full swing, with kids exploring the castle stage/playhouse and battling with foam swords, the unmistakable crunch of little hands dragging through Lego pits and a continuous stream of squeals and cries rising into the two-story atrium’s painted-on sky. Clint and I were plenty happy with the kids’ decision to skip the comedy show and DJ dance party in favor of an evening swim and Lego-building in our Ninjago-themed room.

Not too late, I think. Just milking every last bit of magic.

SeaWorld and science

That vacation high out of the way, the pressure was off. Mostly. We still had more options than days to fill.

SeaWorld made our short list to balance the scales a bit. Vera loves dolphins more than plastic bricks, and the park offers close-up experiences with them and lots of other sea creatures, some as add-on experiences and others with regular admission. In one explorer pool, the bamboo sharks reminded me of cats in the way they arched their bodies toward my touch; in another, cleaner fish mobbed any submerged hand. Roy was the only one of us brave enough to embrace a thorough cuticle trim.

If you haven’t been to SeaWorld recently, know that it has tweaked its focus following “Blackfish,” the 2013 documentary that ignited controversy over captive killer whales at the park. Now it’s all about up-close experiences, educational animal shows and theme-park rides. But each of us lacked either the height or the stomach to tackle the Electric Eel coaster, with its 60-mile-per-hour speeds and 150-foot drop.

The Dolphin Encounter we paid extra for was more our speed, involving 15 minutes of hands-on training and feeding time shared with a Utah dad and his twin 6-year-old girls. Patting Crunch’s rubbery body, cradling his wee chin and feeding him chunks of ice was thrilling, but getting soaked during one of those happy-looking jumps is what prompted Vera’s wide-eyed, “This! Is awesome!”

On the one day it rained, we made our way to Balboa Park, 1,200 green trail- and garden-filled acres. The park is also home to more than 16 museums, some housed in historic buildings. Holing up in one sounded better than breaking out the plastic ponchos.

We ended up at Fleet Science Center based solely on a website description that promised “tinkering.” The kids were cranky and having trouble getting into the business of it until we stumbled upon the “Pause Play” exhibit.

It was a stark, raw-feeling space holding the playthings of a bygone youth, translated through a scientist’s brain and begging to be messed with. There was a tricycle with square wheels, a maze made from tarps and pipes, a light-up hopscotch board and a small pool filled with thousands of white balls — the old Chuck E. Cheese staple re-imagined.

Kids of all ages plunged and waded. One gray-haired adult even executed a truly impressive belly flop. Museum employee Yoki Jackson sat on her orange lifeguard perch with a whistle around her neck, ready to relay scientific ball-pit concepts like displacement and natural organization. I was more interested in cleanliness (Jackson says they have two sets of balls, so there’s always a fresh bunch waiting) and the extent of adult participation (“Do you know how hard it is to find a set of keys in there?”).

I do not. Ball pits haven’t ever really been my jam. But I do recognize and appreciate that feeling of temporarily sliding back into youth, before there were sanitary concerns, keys to lose, reservations to make and kids’ dreams to tend. The place Roy and Vera are slowly moving toward. I trust there will be the kind of peaceful, sunny moments, dear friends and pleasures big and small that equal happiness there, too.

For now, they got to sleep as Clint and I rushed around throwing things into suitcases at 4 a.m. before our early flight home. He paused as we quietly crossed paths in the patch of light spilling out of the hotel room bathroom and looked at me with droopy, red-rimmed eyes. “We did it,” he whispered, raising one weary hand. We shared a pathetic high five, then kept on packing.


Berit Thorkelson is a St. Paul-based freelance writer.