Today we're leaping down to sunny Southern California for a quick look into one of our favorite spots for cavorting with our animal friends—The San Diego Zoo! If you haven't seen yet, we're now offering discounts on San Diego hotel rooms. See our favorites and book!
The San Diego Zoo celebrated its 100th birthday in 2016. The zoo was born when Dr. Harry M. Wegeforth heard a lion roaring from its tiny cage when it and other animal were abandoned after a 1915 expedition. Wedgeforth founded the Zoological Society of San Diego in 1916 and was a pioneer in building "cageless" exhibits.
Today, the zoo houses over 3,700 animals in natural enclosures. The San Diego Zoo’s work extends beyond the zoo itself (and San Diego Zoo Safari Park). The San Diego Zoo also has over 300 conservation scientists working in 35 countries around the world.
You’ll want to hop to it and visit this incredible zoo, but it is not the easiest zoo to get around. It helps to arrive with some knowledge and a plan. Here are 15 San Diego Zoo tips to maximize your fun and have a roarin’ good time.
Our Top San Diego Zoo Tips
Those of you who've been following our blog for awhile know that this is one of the very best ways to make sure you beat the crowds. So it goes without saying that our first San Diego Zoo tip is to arrive in the morning and ride the bus tour with the shortest line. The earlier you arrive, the more you can see and experience.
Avoid Visiting on a Hot Day
We know this is not always in your control, but many animals are a lot more active when the temperatures are in the 60s and 70s.
Wear Walking Shoes
The San Diego Zoo has a lot of walking and hills. Be prepared for climbing or plan to use some of the park transportation options. The zoo rents wheelchairs for $12 and electric scooters for $45 on a first come, first served basis if walking distances or hills is challenging for guests in your party.
Bring Hats, Sunscreen and Water
The Southern California sun is strong, and the climate is dry. Be sure to stay hydrated and protect your skin from the sun.
Rent or Bring a Stroller
Those hills and distances can be very tiring for little legs, so using a stroller for babies, toddlers, and even preschoolers is highly recommended and one of our top San Diego zoo tips if you have tadpoles. Single strollers rent for $12 and double strollers are $16.
Hop on the Kangaroo Bus
All admission tickets, donor level memberships and purchased Guided Bus Tour tickets include the use of the Kangaroo bus, which offers four stops marked with a yellow kangaroo. Busses arrive every 15 minutes.
Take a Guided Bus Tour
Taking a 35-minute Guided Bus Tour can help you get your bearings for the zoo and share some interesting information about animals and the zoo itself. It is no substitute for actually seeing the animals up close, but you will see a lot of animals from the bus and maybe get an idea of areas you want to revisit later. We recommend riding it first thing in the morning before the line gets long. We sat on the top deck in the morning and enjoyed a great view, but if you do ride in the afternoon on a sunny day, choose the bottom deck for shade. The bus tour is included in zoo admission.
Follow a Touring Plan
We always determine which animals are most important to us for our visit. I like to visit the koalas and pandas because those are rare animals that you don’t get to see at many other zoos. And giraffes are a favorite too. Leap likes the elephants and polar bears. Lily can watch the gorillas and orangutans all day, and Tad cannot leave without hopping into the insect house. To accomplish this and so much more, we suggest heading to the right upon entering the zoo (or after exiting the bus tour) in the direction of the Outback and Urban Jungle. You’ll see the giraffes and rhinos as well as the famous koalas. The path promises more downhill than uphill walking as it winds through Elephant Odyssey, past the Skyfari Sky tram, to the Polar Bears in the Northern Frontier. Keep following the road to Asian Passage and the Pandas. After viewing the Pandas and other animals in Panda Trek, it’s time for lunch. Hua Mei café offers tasty Asian food. Another option is to take the moving sidewalk up the hill to Treetops Way and stop for lunch at Albert’s, a table-service restaurant, or grab a quick bite at the Treetops Café.
After lunch, we wander through the shaded foliage (which offers some protection from the afternoon sun) to see the gorillas, hippos, and orangutans. There are many paths to explore in that area to see chimps, monkeys, many birds, and other animals. Once we get back near the entrance we head towards the Children’s Zoo to the Insect house. We see many more animals along this journey and can take variations of paths to see more, depending on our time and energy. Coming in summer 2017 is the Zoo’s largest ever expansion: Africa Rocks. This project is currently under construction and will give us new areas to explore. We are hopping with excitement to see it.
Interact with the Animals
You can feed the giraffes at noon on Saturdays and Sundays. A limited number of tickets go on sale at 11:00 am, so we suggest getting in line at that time. For $10 you can offer the giraffes three biscuits. This is one of our top San Diego Zoo tips! We watched the giraffes literally drooling as they watched the keepers setting up for this treat. Check your map and guide for Keeper Talks and chances to meet animals at Animal Encounters around the zoo and at the Front Plaza Stage.
There are many volunteers wearing red shirts located throughout the park. They are a wealth of information and can help point you in the right direction or tell you more about the animals.
Take Skyfari Aerial Tram
Skyfari (included in your admission ticket) offers you a ride and a shortcut between the entrance and back of the park, flying you above the forest and hills. It's a way to get to the back of the park early, and closer to the Northern Frontier and then Panda Trek, which sees longer line later in the day.
Make Dining Reservations
If you would like to eat at Alberts, you don’t need a reservation, but it helps, especially on busy days. If you dine on the porch, you’ll feel like you are in a mountaintop forest with waterfalls and cool shady trees surrounding you. The zoo does offer holiday special dining experiences that require a reservation.
Reserve Special Experiences
If your budget allows, you can purchase special experiences in addition to admission such as seeing animal ambassadors and trainers in action, seeing the pandas before they open along with a zoo tour in a VIP cart, a morning tour with cats, a cart tour that covers 70 percent of the zoo, a sunrise stroll with keeper talk. The zoo also offers a VIP experience.
Let Your Kids Play
The San Diego Zoo has many animal statues, interactive art or things to touch. Let you tadpoles climb, touch and crawl. Take a picture of them poking their head through the “ice” with the seals in the Northern Frontier and let them play in the cave. Stop at the playground. Resist the urge to move on because this play is an important part of their day.
Make Leaving a Special Experience
Just outside the zoo, to the right is a carousel and mini train that are open on weekends and holidays. Nobody wants to leave the zoo, but almost every kid wants to ride the train or carousel. One of our favorite San Diego Zoo tips is to end your day with that fun treat.
Have any San Diego Zoo tips to share from your visits? Let us know in the comments below!
Related: When To Visit San Diego