Balboa Park is one of San Diego’s greatest attractions. Located right next to downtown San Diego and the airport, Balboa Park is best known for the San Diego Zoo. However, it is also home to many great museums. As our son has gotten older he has become very interested in aircraft and space travel. The San Diego Air and Space Museum has now become one of his favorite places to visit over and over. This is our guide to the San Diego Air and Space Museum.
The San Diego Air and Space Museum originally opened in 1963. After a devastating fire in 1978, it was moved to what was formerly called the Ford Building. The Ford Building was built by Ford for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition. It was designed by architect Walter Teague to look like a V8 engine.
We have watched the San Diego Air and Space Museum expand significantly in the past few decades. In 2007, the California State Legislature named it the official Air and Space Museum and Education Center in California. On the 40th anniversary of the fire in 2018, the San Diego Air and Space Museum added some special exhibits about the fire and rebuilding process.
Entry to the San Diego Air and Space Museum is $19.75 for adults 12 and over. Youth 3 to 11 are $10.75. Seniors are $16.75. On the 4th Tuesday of every month (except December), San Diego County residents get in free. The price does not include temporary special exhibits that generally cost around $5.
There are, of course, many discount offers. You can often find coupons to the museum via sites like the San Diegan or on Groupon. If you are in San Diego for 3 or more days you may want to consider a Go San Diego Card.
The Go San Diego Card allows visitors access to up to 40 attractions for either 1,2,3,5 or 7 days. This is not a cheap option and we generally recommend it for 3 days or more where it is $209 adults/$189 children age 3 to 12. A 7-day pass is a very good value at $299/$269. The 3-day or more passes include admission to the very big attractions like SeaWorld and Legoland. If you do get a Go San Diego Card it is very possible to do the San Diego Zoo and several Balboa Park museums in a single day.
The Go San Diego Card option we recommend to visitors just in town for a day or two is the build your own pass. With the build your own pass you add 2 or more attractions to the pass and save 20% off the gate price for each attraction.
If you are a resident, or frequent visitor to San Diego, you might consider a membership option. Annual membership to the San Diego Air and Space Museum is $49 for an individual, $119 for a family of 2 adults and children under 18. This gets you free admission into special exhibitions, use of the museum archive and library and entry into Seattle’s Museum of Flight. There are also discounts on food, Simulator rides and at the gift shop.
As our children have started to enter their tween and teenage years we have upgraded to the Balboa Explorer Park Pass. At $229 a year for 2 adults and 4 children this is almost twice as much as the San Diego Air and Space Museum annual pass. However, it gets you into 16 Balboa Park museums. You should note the Balboa Park Explorer Pass does not include the special exhibits or discounts of a membership just to the San Diego Air and Space Museum
Visitors to San Diego can look into getting a 7-day Balboa Park Explorer Park Pass for $57 adults, $30 children age 3 to 12. This pass allows for unlimited admission to all museums for 7-days. This is a much better deal than a one-day pass which is $46 adults/$27 children and only allows access to 5 museums.
The first decision you have to make is whether to pay extra for the special exhibit. These exhibits are located in a room on the right of the entrance and generally cost about $5 extra. The current exhibit for 2018 is Speed: Science of Motion and we have a separate post on our impressions. Usually these exhibits have many hands-on activities targeted towards a younger audience. The previous exhibit, FLY involved trying to plan a mission to the moon and Mars. Our son liked this one so much, we went three times.
You enter the museum in the large rotunda area. This is where you purchase your ticket, but there is also a lot you can see in this area, before entering the actual museum. You will see a life-size model of Charles Lindbergh and his famous plane the Spirit of St. Louis. The talking Lindbergh model provides an approximately 3-minute orientation to the museum.
One of our favorite attractions in this area is the Apollo 9 Command Module and several exhibits about the Apollo missions. I have very early memories of watching the moon trips in the early 1970s and this brings back that time. Our son Grady was so inspired by this that he requested the NASA Apollo Saturn V Lego kit for his birthday. This has become his favorite Lego kit yet and he keeps wanting to go back to learn more about the Apollo missions.
World War I and Pavilion
The museum is circular and laid out so going counterclockwise to your right from the entrance you start from early aviation, ending on the left of the entrance in the Modern Age. In the middle is the large pavilion area. This area has a fountain and several large aircraft. It is often used for parties and other special events. In 2011, we saw Buzz Aldrin (the second astronaut on the moon) here signing books.
For both the special exhibit and regular entrance you start in a portrait gallery of famous aviators that takes you to the World War I gallery. Here you will see many examples of aircraft from that time, including the Red Baron’s Fokker plane and cartoon dog Snoopy pretending to chase him in his Sopwith Camel.
Golden Age Gallery
The World War I exhibit flows into the Golden Age exhibit with a look at the barnstormer era. I always found these flying stunts fascinating. One of my favorite movies growing up was the Robert Redford film The Great Waldo Pepper, about a barnstormer. At the San Diego Air and Space Museum, they are usually showing another great movie from the era, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines.
There are also exhibits about the now defunct San Diego based Pacific Southwest Airways (PSA). This includes a small tower you can climb to get great views of the museum. A tribute to 9/11/2001 includes an actual police car that was damaged in the collapse of the Twin Towers.
4D Theater and Kids Aviation Center
Admission to the museum includes entrance to the short movies that play continually in the 4D theater. Usually they have 3 or 4 movies playing and you can watch one after the other. Based on our interests we watched the one on the Legend of Apollo. This is one of those attractions where you wear 3D glasses and the seats move.
Right next door is the Kids Aviation Center. I had to drag Grady in there because he thought it was for little kids. It actually has a lot of interactive attractions for all ages. This included building paper airplanes, a wind tunnel and flying a model plane.
World War II Gallery
The World War II area has all kinds of planes from the era. It also provides a great deal of history about the time. Grady was particularly fascinated with the exhibits about the Battle of Britain. At first he was surprised to learn that London was bombed. However, he soon connected it with the classic Dr. Who episode The Empty Child. This episode took place during the Battle of Britain and famously featured the gas masks on display here.
There were also exhibits on aircraft carriers, with a small replica of the Yorktown carrier. Once again, these are the kind of exhibits that generate interest that will lead to future visits.
Space Age and Motion Simulators
Leaving World War II you enter the Modern and Space Age era exhibits. You have almost come full circle and the last major attraction are the motion simulator rides. We have never done these but they look pretty cool. They cost $8 each with a combo of 3 rides for $16.
The final big plane in the museum is the Blue Angel. Every year we love watching the Blue Angeles perform at the Miramar Air Show near our house. From here you enter the gift shop on your way out.
There are obviously many different planes and all kinds of information to absorb at the San Diego Air and Space Museum. As our kids (well mainly our son) watch television shows and read historical books, they keep wanting to revisit places like the San Diego Air and Space Museum to learn even more.
The beauty of the Balboa Park location is that it is possible to visit several museums in one day. For the vehicle love, right next door is the San Diego Automotive Museum. A short walk away is the Model Railroad Museum, the Fleet Science Center and the Natural History Museum.