I’m walking on Sesame Street, where I see the famed stoop leading to the two-story brownstone apartment building with an address of “123.” All the details I know and love from my favorite childhood show are there — the green lamp post, the shady trees, the colorful fabric curtains peeking out from Elmo’s bedroom window.
Only now, Oscar the Grouch is telling my 3-year-old son Max to “scram!” as he giggles and prods at his dingy metal trash can. Nearby, my 9-year-old daughter Maggie takes a selfie inside Big Bird’s nest. Young kids and their parents are ringing Bert and Ernie’s doorbell, shopping at Hooper’s Store and giving high-fives to a supersize Grover.
This is Sesame Place San Diego, a 17-acre theme park that opens Saturday in Chula Vista. It’s the second Sesame Place — the first opened in Philadelphia in 1980 — and the first theme park from Orlando-based SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment in nine years.
“It’s amazing to watch the park come alive,” says Ed Wells, executive vice president of Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind the popular television show that has managed to remain relevant — revolutionary, even — for more than 50 years. At a media preview day, Wells tells me that he sees the new park as an “extension of the show, a live embodiment of the Sesame Street program.”
It’s certainly a bold endeavor as theme parks have been hit hard by the pandemic. Are sunny days ahead for the new project? Here’s what it’s like to be there.
The rides are a mix of waterslides and mellow coasters
One thing to know about Sesame Place is that there are waterslides and traditional rides, and they’re all mixed together — no separate ticket is needed. On hot days, you’ll likely find kids prancing around the park in swimsuits and water shoes, moving from the lazy river to the parade to rides that dip, bounce and spin.
The water attractions have varying levels of “scariness” — toddlers can splash around in a mellow area called Elmo’s Silly Sand Slides, while older, thrill-seeking guests can get their scream-fix on slides like Cookie’s Monster Mixer, a six-story raft ride that sends you swirling around in a blue tube before dropping you through a sideways funnel for the stomach-dropping finale.
The rides on dry land, however, definitely skew toward the under-8 set. There’s Rub-A-Dub Sub, which boards riders onto Ernie’s toy submarine (the S.S. Duckie), a spinning hot air balloon ride called Sesame Street Soar & Spin, and Super Grover’s Box Car Derby, a mini roller coaster for those looking for a bit more action. Maggie’s favorite was Abby’s Fairy Flight, a carnival-style swing ride that would be the perfect way to dry off after splashing around in the wave pool.
With 18 rides in all, it’s an intimate, manageable space, surrounded by the green hills of Chula Vista. To me, that’s quite nice. I’d have no qualms about letting my 9-year-old roam around with a friend while parking myself on a poolside lounge chair.
The food is meh, but there are vegetarian options
It’s your standard amusement park fare — I had a $15.99 chicken sandwich and waffle fries at Grover’s Grill. There’s an Impossible Burger combo that costs $16.99, and a cheese pizza for $13.99. Other options around the park include salads, wraps and PB&J sandwiches for kids.
The big show is an absolute delight
There’s only one show, “Welcome to Our Street,” an energetic outdoor production with Elmo, Abby, Grover, Rosita, Cookie Monster and their human pal DJ Dani. I never knew I needed to see furry characters doing a kick line to “C is for Cookie,” but I guess I did. It was awesome. When Cookie Monster asked the audience “What other words start with ‘C’?” my 3-year-old yelled out “Cookie!” which was pretty great too.
There’s also only one parade: the Sesame Street Party Parade. It’s bright and lively, with colorful floats and plenty of characters to wave at.
The Autism Center is a world’s first
Sesame Place is the first theme park in the world to be designated as a Certified Autism Center. For kids who might be overstimulated, or just need some downtime, there are “quiet rooms” and low sensory areas. (Sitting in a low sensory area on the parade route means the characters will never greet you with direct interaction, like with a hug or high-five.) Team members receive special training to cater to children with special needs, and an informational sign at every ride includes a sensory guide so parents can decide if it’s right for their child.
Sesame Place is for kids, not nostalgic grown-ups
As someone who grew up with the show, it would have been wonderful to see some nods to Sesame Street’s roots, the way that Disneyland shows vintage Mickey films and Legoland Florida is opening a walk-through attraction on the origin story of Lego. I could imagine something similar here appealing to all of us grown-ups, who in this tumultuous world wouldn’t mind being taken back to the days when our life’s biggest question was whether Grover was near or far.
But this place is mainly for the kids. And that’s OK. I was delighted to watch my children hang out with Elmo, Big Bird, Grover, Oscar and the whole gang. (I looked for Ji-Young, Sesame Street’s first Asian American Muppet, but couldn’t find her, sadly.) They had a blast.
At a time when my kids have a dizzying number of shows and streaming channels to choose from, I don’t know if the characters will stay with them as they grow up, the same way they stayed with me. (At one point Max asked, “Is Elmo the red one?”) But as the brand continues to find ways to reach new audiences, with the show and now with the park, we always seem to know how to get to Sesame Street when we need it the most.