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Kids Free San Diego turns October into a marathon of affordable family fun

A boy plays on one of the trains at the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum in Campo.
The Pacific Southwest Railway Museum in Campo is part of Kids Free San Diego, which offers admission deals and other bargains for kids and families at museums, parks and other attractions throughout the county in the month of October.
(Courtesy of Pacific Southwest Railway Museum)

During Kids Free San Diego, local museums and other attractions offer discounts and freebies for kids age 12 and younger

In the spirit of this spooky season, Kids Free San Diego is turning October into a trick-or-treat marathon of monstrous proportions.

Now through Oct. 31, the treats include free-admission offers for kids age 12 and under at more than 50 local museums and other attractions, including the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum, the San Diego Natural History Museum and the USS Midway Museum.

The selections run the gamut from art museums and wildlife centers to venues dedicated to science, music and all things maritime. Your destinations are as far south as the Tijuana Estuary in Imperial Beach and as far north as the California Surf Museum in Oceanside, with many stops in between.

The trick is figuring out how to take advantage of as many cultural goodies possible in the days you have left. And like a pillowcase stuffed with nothing but full-sized candy bars, it’s a good problem to have.

“My advice is to go to our website and start looking through all of the different choices and plan it out by the days the museums are open,” said Bob Lehman, executive director of the San Diego Museum Council.

“I drove to 40 museums on Saturday to drop off materials, so you can do a lot of museums in one month.”

Presented by the Museum Council in partnership with the San Diego Tourism Authority, Kids Free San Diego offers free admission for up to two kids age 12 and under for every adult ticket purchased at the council’s participating venues. Go to the website (sandiegomuseumcouncil.org), find the spot you’d like to visit, and download your Kids Free coupons. Present them at the participating museum’s admissions desk when you arrive.

There are also Kids Free offerings at such big-ticket attractions as SeaWorld San Diego, the San Diego Zoo and Legoland California, along with whale-watching and harbor-tour opportunities, hotel- and restaurant offers, and even a chance to explore the Lions, Tigers & Bears big-cat and animal sanctuary. The deals vary according to the venue. Go to the San Diego Tourism Authority website (sandiego.org) for details.

After presenting a scaled-down version in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, last year’s full-strength Kids Free San Diego brought in 30,000 children and 17,000 adults to its various programs. This year, there are some fresh adventures on the itinerary, as the Museum Council welcomes some new members to the lineup.

First-timers include the San Diego Police Museum in the College Area, the Chicano Park Museum & Cultural Center in Logan Heights (which has its grand opening on Saturday), the Comic-Con Museum in Balboa Park, and the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum in Campo, where transportation history is there for your 360-degree exploring pleasure.

The Campo museum’s collection of full-sized trains includes vintage steam and diesel locomotives, cabooses, freight cars and passenger cars. There are also rail cranes and a Santa Fe turntable from 1903.

“Kids can learn about the history of the museum and each of the trains and railroad cars. As you go, you can listen to a tour narrated by (KPBS-TV show host) Ken Kramer because he just loves it up there,” said Donna Spevack, administrator of fund development for the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum Association Inc., which also includes the historic La Mesa Depot.

“They can learn about rail safety, and we have one of the original goldmine trains. It’s fun, but there is a lot of history there to be learned. We have so many wonderful volunteers, and they are always ready to help out.”

(Kids also get free admission to the Campo museum with the purchase of a ticket for a ride on the popular Pumpkin Express. Advance reservations are recommended.)

Also new to the Kids Free family is the Comic-Con Museum in Balboa Park, where kids and kids-at-heart can hang with Spider-Man at the recently opened “Spider-Man: Beyond Amazing” exhibition; absorb some colorful culture at the “Hemingway in Comics” exhibition; get their time-warp kicks at the PAC-MAN Arcade; or admire the dazzling display of costumes from the famed Comic-Con Masquerade.

And when inspiration strikes, visitors can check out the Cox Innovation Lab, a drop-in makers space where creative types can craft their own cardboard Batman frisbee, Spider-Man emblem or scribble bot, a robot that can color all by itself. Or just curl up with a good (comic) book, and see where it takes you.

Thanks to the mind-expanding joys of Kids Free San Diego, that could be anywhere.

“We have a little comics reading nook, and we have comics available to take home. Comics are a great gateway to literacy, and we want to encourage literacy and reading in every way we can,” said Courtney Gant, senior director of advancement for the Comic-Con Museum.

“We really want people to come and enjoy the exhibits, but we also want to inspire the future generation of storytellers and creators.”

Kids Free San Diego runs through Oct. 31 at participating venues. Go to sandiegomuseumcouncil.org or sandiego.org for information.


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