Shining Bright on the Old Town Trolley San Diego City Lights Tour

Touring a city is always fun but taking a night tour is always another level.  When my daughter suggested we check out Old Town Trolley San Diego City Lights Tour, I was excited about it.  I was expecting to see the beautiful city lit up at night, but I was surprised to find out how informational, fun, and engaging the tour turned out to be.  Our tour guide gave us interesting facts, history, and a view of the city in a unique, brilliant way that let it shine as much as the city does by day. 

After having my son successfully plan several fun activities for our Hawaii trip, I wanted to expand on the experiment.  For our San Diego trip, I asked each kid to research one activity they really wanted to do.  They had to not only tell me the activity but why they wanted to do that one over all the others and tell me the cost and COVID precautions.  Regular readers of the blog know that my son chose the USS Midway, which was a fantastic experience.  My daughter chose something unique that I would have never chosen, the Old Town Trolley City Light Tour.  She did not choose the daytime, hop-on/hop-off style.  No, she wanted the nighttime tour.  Her reasoning:  You got to ride the whole time in a cool trolley, it was a night and therefore the lights made it beautiful, and you got to learn some history.  She knew to the penny how much it would cost and gave me a list of the precautions.  She did her assignment; I made the reservation. 

Tour Pick-Up

Welcome sign to the Seaport Village in San Diego

The tour starts and ends at the Seaport Village, a small waterfront shopping plaza with some great outdoor dining and small boutiques and shops. The tour timing starts around dusk when there is still light, but darkness is not far off.  About 30 minutes before the tour starts, the driver is available and starts to check people in for the tour.  About 15 minutes prior to the start of the tour, the driver allows people to load onto the tour.  We managed to get to the back and get seats near the open window.  Once everyone is on board and checked in, our driver/tour guide gave us a run down of how the tour would run.  He told us about the route we would take, the approximate timing (subject to change due to on traffic), and the rules (no standing or moving when the trolley was moving, no sticking your head out the window, the usual).  Then, he sat down at the driver’s seat, and we were off.

The Tour

The tour takes you around the top sites in San Diego and provides you a history along the way.  A few highlights included:

Image of the Marriot in downtown San Diego at dusk

Seeing the buildings lit up at the downtown and learning about the strange zoning laws around the waterfront. 

The historic Gaslamp Quarter sign in San Diego

The Gaslamp Quarter and the history of the lamps.  (Note, due to street closures, we were not able to drive by the famous Gaslamp sign, but normally the tour does pass by it)

A town from Balboa Park in the evening in San Diego

Learning about Balboa Park and how originally the zoo was created to house the exotic animals that were abandoned lost in the park after the Panama-California Exposition of 1915.  😳

A restaurant with outdoor dining in San Diego's Little Italy

Little Italy and the vibrancy at night with all the restaurants open

The highlight of the trip was the drive over the Coronado Bridge to the Ferry Landing.  From there we are given 20 minutes to get down and see the skyline of San Diego at night from the island.  As you descend, you are given a blinking, bright necklace.  It helps the tour guide find wayward families, and helps you know when it is time to head back (you start to see the necklaces wander back toward the trolley).  You could walk around the little beach there and the ferry landing.  You are supposed to be able to see Mexico from here, but honestly, I could not see it. 

A view of the San Diego skyline at night from Coronado Island
The view of San Diego from Coronado Island
A sign to the Coronado Ferry Landing thank you for visiting Coronado Island
The Ferry Landing

What the Kids Liked Most

This was my daughter’s pick and she was enthralled.  She loved to look at the lights, but she enjoyed listening to the tour guide give us interesting facts about San Diego.  Our tour guide was also fabulous.  He did a great job of throwing in funny jokes and keeping us engaged throughout the entire ride.  Also, the glowing, blinking necklaces were a huge hit.  They (unfortunately) HAD to come back with us. 

A father and his two children, each wearing glowing necklaces at night
They loved the flashing necklaces

My son tends to wake up extremely early (even on vacation) and usually goes to bed early as well.  That is an issue with a 7 PM tour, especially when movement still lulls him to sleep.  He fell asleep the beginning part of the tour and was not happy to be woken up when we got to Coronado Island.  He did not enjoy the tour as much, but that was because he slept through it.  He did, however, insist on also having his own glowing, blinking necklace that came home with us. 

Tips

  • Book the tour earlier in the trip – due to the timing of our trip and the days the tour was available, we ended up booking it for the last night of our stay in San Diego.  I wish we had done it earlier.  We had seen many of these locations, and there were some locations we may have tried to see if we knew about them earlier.  It was still amazing, but I would have liked some of the historical knowledge before we left (especially after we discovered we walked past an extremely important fountain several times without ever photographing it)
  • Go to the bathroom before the tour starts – There is only one stop, and it is short, you do not want to waste it in the bathroom.  Due to traffic, you never know how long the tour might be.  There are clean, public restrooms right near the Tolley pick up point, so make sure to use them before the tour. 
  • Get to the check in point early and try and get at the back.  The sides are open and so you can get clear photos as you drive by.  Also, if COVID is a concern, there is more air circulation in the open back. 
  • Think about this if you have kids who fall asleep easily – My son enjoyed a nice nap during the tour.  He, however, did not get much out of it.  He was not the only child who fell asleep, lulled by the rocking of the trolley and the cool breeze.  To be fair, we had spent the day at the beach, which tends to wear him out, but it was a rookie parent mistake we made.  Either factor in some quiet, down time prior to the tour, our skip this if your kiddos are ones who cannot stay up past their bedtime.  (Yes, there are kids who are like that.  My son is one.  Do not envy me, he regularly wakes up between 5 and 6 AM)

Conclusion

A mother, father, and their two children in front of the Coronado Ferry Landing sign.

The Old Town Trolley Tour is a unique and fun way to get that layout of the city, learn some history and fun facts, and see the sights in a new light (pun intended).  I do feel this tour is more oriented towards adults, not due to the content, but due to the timing.  However, the tour guide was excellent and did a great job of engaging my kids (well, the awake ones).  Especially if you have older tweens and teens, this is a fun way to engage them on the trip and encourage a little learning in along the way.  I would do this again, and I would do it in another city.  But I am glad my daughter found it.  It was her research that added this lovely nugget to cap our San Diego vacation. 

Shining Bright on the Old Town Trolley San Diego City Lights Tour

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