Planes, Trains and Ships: San Diego’s Transportation Museums

San Diego’s many transportation museums make this sunny Southern California city the perfect destination for an educational family vacation.


Do your children ever dream of being fighter pilots, pirates or pioneers? Then take them to one of San Diego's outstanding transportation museums where they can indulge their fantasies aboard ships, trains and planes.

Water Journeys

Nautical types will love the Maritime Museum of San Diego. Located along the waterfront in downtown San Diego, the museum is home to the oldest active ship—the Star of India—built in 1863. She floats alongside the Berkeley steam ferry and the Pilot, the oldest pilot boat on the West Coast.

Children can cruise San Diego Bay aboard the Pilot four times a year during Family Days, when the boat’s crew invites families on board for sing-alongs, coloring and sea stories. Adults can take in the sights of Point Loma, Coronado Island and other San Diego seaside communities.

Family Sleepovers are another favorite at the Maritime Museum. Two to three times a year during the summer months, guests spend the night aboard the Star of India. Although the boat doesn’t leave the shore, children’s imaginations will take them to the ends of the earth, as they learn about celestial navigation and help raise the sails. All buccaneers board the boat on Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. A hearty pirate stew dinner is served, and breakfast is doled out before debarkation at 9 a.m. on Sunday.

In August 2008, the Maritime Museum hosts the five-day Festival of Sail. The Festival kicks off with a parade of more than 20 tall ships, and admission covers holders tall ship tours, entertainment, and food and drink. Additional events let Festival goers sail a tall ship as it goes to “battle” with its cannons blazing, ride on board the Pilot and cruise on an America’s Cup boat.

Maritime Museum of San Diego, tel. 619-234-9153, Hours: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. General admission: adults, $14; children 6-17, $8; 5 and under are free. Family Sleepovers: $65 per person (adults and children). Family Day: adults, $14; for every paid adult, two children (17 and under) are admitted free. Festival of Sail: adults, $20; children 6-17, $15; 5 and under are free. Additional charges apply to certain Festival of Sail events, so check the Museum Web site for details.

Riding the Rails

The Pacific Southwest Railway Museum offers rides into the past on vintage 1930s passenger trains. The museum is located at the historic Campo Depot, 50 miles east of downtown San Diego, and is well worth the drive.

Children of all ages can enjoy the railway’s Golden State excursion to Miller Creek. The one hour, 14-mile journey traverses meadows and woodlands. My 9-year-old niece, Lizzy, was especially thrilled when we crossed over the 100-foot-high steel bridge. Children and adults on the train were fascinated by the wildlife, such as deer, bobcats and coyotes.

Lizzy and I enjoyed the short Miller Creek jaunt so much we decided to return for a daylong adventure—a rail car ride to Tecate, Mexico. We boarded the train at 10:30 a.m. and were in Mexico by noon. After arriving in the rustic town, we stopped at a small taqueria for authentic, delicious Mexican fare. We then shopped at the quaint stands with vendors selling souvenirs. Mariachi music was playing in the nearby town plaza. Our three-hour visit was the perfect introduction to Tecate.

Holidays are special at the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum. The Pumpkin Express leaves the station twice daily for a one-hour tour to Miller Creek. Upon returning to the depot, children pick a pumpkin from the pumpkin patch. The Great Pumpkin provides markers for kids to decorate their jack-o’-lantern.

Starting in November, Santa and his elves join the crew on the North Pole Limited. After the train leaves the depot, Santa’s elves serve passengers chocolate chip cookies and hot chocolate. Santa’s helpers read children’s books and sing carols as everyone heads to the North Pole. Santa boards the train at “Santa’s Workshop” for the return trip. After arriving back at the station, Santa is available for photos in his private rail car.

Pacific Southwest Railway Museum, tel. 619-465-7776, Golden State and The Pumpkin Express depart at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m; North Pole Limited at 5 p.m.; Ticket To Tecate at 10:30 a.m. Prices: Golden State and The Pumpkin Express (pumpkin included)—adults, $15; children 6-12. $5; under 5 are free. North Pole Limited—adults, $30; children 2-12, $20; under 2 are free. Ticket To Tecate—adults, $43; children 3-12, $23; under 3 are free. Reservations are required for Ticket to Tecate, the Pumpkin Express and the North Pole Limited. Book early, as they fill up quickly.

Flying Machines

A real family treat is a visit to the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum (FLAM), located on the Marine Corp Air Station Miramar base. My nephew, Diego, was excited for days when I told him we were going to explore the facility. Visitors get up close and can occasionally climb aboard the country’s top aircrafts.

FLAM is the only Marine Corps museum solely dedicated to Marine aviation and preserving the history of Marine aviation, says public affairs director Susan Hathaway. More then 20 planes and helicopters are displayed on the grounds, and many of the museum’s docents are retired Marines. Diego hung on our guide’s every word as we wandered around the site listening to his military stories and was fascinated to look inside the helicopter’s large windows and see the control panel.

A 4,200-square-foot temporary facility currently serves as the museum building. (Plans are underway to have a permanent structure ready for the 100th anniversary of Marine aviation in 2012.) Display cases are full of Marine Corps memorabilia. Model airplanes introduce guests to flying machines from years past. Seeing the replicas, Diego pledged to try his hand at building a model. Uniforms from the Blue Angles are showcased proudly behind glass. We were both impressed with the stellar flight records of these top pilots.

Photos from the beginning of Naval aviation in 1912 adorn the walls. Among them are pictures of the Corps mascot—the Bull Dog. Through the decades, the bull dog, with its reputation for toughness and tenacity, has represented the Marines due to its “Devil Dogs” moniker. Corporal Molly is the present pooch. She doesn’t reside at the museum, but will occasionally visit. Like the enlisted men and women, Molly must work her way up the ranks by participating in weekly graduation ceremonies.

During the summer months on select weekends, the Flying Leatherneck museum offers Open Cockpit Days, allowing children to board an F/A-18 Hornet, an F-5 Tiger and a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter. Kids can sit in the cockpit and pretend to fly secret missions. For the smallest visitors, the museum has built a small, wooden toy plane. Remaining dates for 2008 are July 26-27, and Aug. 9-10 and 23-24.

Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum, tel. 877-FLY-USMC (359-8762), Tues.-Sun. 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Admission is free; donations are welcome. Note: Visitors must enter from Miramar Road as there is no direct access from the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar base.

Check with all museums before you go, as admission and tour prices may change. 

Destinations: San Diego

Themes: Art and Museums, Family Travel

Activities: Museums

User Comments

Thanks! I'm a huge aviation buff and I didn't know this was available in San Diego. Thanks for the info!

Sounds lihe real fun! The idea of crossing into Mexico for some authentic food makes me want to visit San Diego soon. Great article!

Fun! The Maritime Museum offerings sound like a lot of fun!

© 2019     Terms of use and Privacy policy