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16 San Diego Zoo Tips for a Roaring Good Time

by Mommy Frog on September 12, 2022 18 San Diego

The San Diego Zoo was born when Dr. Harry M. Wegeforth heard a lion roaring from its tiny cage when it and other animals 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, over 100 years later, the zoo houses over 3,500 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 has many trails and a lot of hills. It helps to arrive with some knowledge and a plan — our touring plan will help you choose paths that are mostly downhill and easiest on you and your tadpoles without missing any important exhibits. Here are 16 San Diego Zoo tips to maximize your fun and have a roarin’ good time.

Our Top San Diego Zoo Tips

1. Arrive Early

Those of you who've been following our blog for a while 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. You can purchase San Diego Zoo tickets in advance to skip the line at the ticket booth.

San Diego Zoo Tips - Grab a Map

2. Grab a Map or Download the San Diego Zoo App

There are maps available when you first enter the park, or you can download the San Diego Zoo app. There is also a map on the zoo’s website for those who like to pre-plan. A map helps you locate your must-see animals and navigate this zoo (plus it has a lot of hopful information). There are also large maps located throughout the zoo and plenty of zoo employees willing to help you find your way.

3. 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 50s, 60s and 70s. If you can visit in late fall, winter or spring, you’ll find the most comfortable temperatures. If you do need to visit on a warmer day, bring a fan, cooling towels and a lot of water to stay hydrated. Also, try to stick to the shady areas during the middle of the day.

4. 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 $14 and shaded electric scooters for $55 on a first-come, first-served basis if walking distances or hills are challenging for guests in your party. The dotted paths on the map are wheelchair accessible.

5. 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. You can enjoy free water from the zoo restaurants.

6. Rent or Bring a Stroller or Wheelchair

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 $16 and double strollers are $20. Keep in mind that prices are subject to change. Here’s a hop tip: If you are taking the Skyfari, you can take a stroller up to 23 ¾ inches wide with you. Rental strollers do not fit, but you can leave your rental stroller at the Skyfari and pick up a fresh one at the other end!

Keep your little ones in mind. Strollers have such a low viewpoint that your tadpoles may miss some of the action if you don't pull them out to give them a look.

If you have people in your party who are not used to hiking or walking on uneven surfaces or hills, you may want to rent a wheelchair. Manual wheelchairs and ECVs (Electronic Conveyance Vehicles) are available for rent on a first-come, first-served basis near the zoo entrance. A manual wheelchair is $16 and an ECV is $60. Prices are subject to change.

7. Hop on the Kangaroo Bus

San Diego Zoo Tips - 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. Buses arrive every 15 minutes. We managed to hop about without using it because the Skyfari was so efficient. There is a free shuttle bus for guests with disabilities that accesses some parts of the zoo. The regular bus tour allows you to bring and store folding wheelchairs. Non-folding wheelchairs can be stored at the loading facility.

8. Take a Guided Bus Tour

San Diego Zoo Tips - Take a Bus Tour

Taking a 35-minute Guided Bus Tour takes you around the perimeter of the zoo and 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.

9. Follow a Touring Plan

16 San Diego Zoo Tips for a Roaring Good Time - Koala in tree

We always determine which animals are most important for us for our visit. I like to visit the koalas 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 reptile house or stopping to visit the penguins. To accomplish this and so much more, we came up with a touring plan to help us see all of these animals with the least amount of uphill climb.

On a recent visit, we covered all of the zoo with mostly downhill walking. We went to the left upon entering the zoo (after a quick guided bus tour) for a spin around the reptile house. Then, we hopped on the Skyfari to take us straight to the back of the zoo. We took the route down Park Way towards the polar bears in Northern Frontier and continued downhill to the Asian leopards and Panda Trek to see the red pandas (sadly the giant pandas were called back to China at the end of April 2019). Then, we headed up elevators to Treetop Way. We wound through trails of Monkey Trail and Treetop Way to visit the gorillas and orangutans and got up close and personal with pygmy hippos and crocodiles before finding our way back to the front of the park.

Then, after a visit to cool off with water play in the new Wildlife Explorers Basecamp, we hopped back on the Skyfari for a quick trip to the back of the park again. This time we walked the opposite way through Elephant Odyssey and took the downhill path through the Africa Rocks exhibit to finish with the penguins.

At this point, there is an option: If you can handle some uphill walking, you can wind past the sun bears and other bears and animals up Center Street, which will take you up in the general direction of the Urban Jungle (giraffes) and the Outback, home of the koalas. If that uphill trek is more than you are interested in, you can always take the elevator back up to Treetop Way to the front of the park and walk to the koalas down Front Street without the hill. This way, you can cover the entire zoo with the least amount of climbing, saving your energy to see it all.

The Skyfari may only be available on certain days of the week. When Skyfari is unavailable, we suggest starting out by heading to the Koalas and then Africa Rocks. At the bottom, use the elevators to bring you back up and take the bridge to the back of the park. Then follow the park plan from there.

Be sure to stop for lunch to rest and refuel. Hua Mei café offers tasty Asian food and there are some options up on Treetop Way, such as Albert’s, a table-service restaurant. Or, you can grab a quick bite at the Treetops Bistro. You can also find sandwiches and kid-friendly favorites at the sandwich shop near the park entrance. Our post on San Diego Zoo dining will help you plan your meals.

10. Take a Break While You Learn About Animals

San Diego Zoo Tips - Orangutan at San Diego Zoo

Sometimes we all need to take a break to cool off and get off our feet. Over at the back end of the park near the Skyfari, they have a 4D theatre currently showing Mowgli’s 4D Jungle Adventure. The cost is $7.00 and tickets can be purchased inside the theater.

Look in the app for wildlife presentations and specialist talks to learn more about the animals, their care and conservation efforts. Wildlife Wonders, located in the Wegeforth Bowl amphitheater near the Hummingbird Aviary, is at 2 p.m. daily. Guests may enter 10 minutes prior to the show beginning. Here’s a hop tip: passholders can enter up to 20 minutes before show time to secure a great seat.

11. Utilize Volunteers

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. Those trails in the Lost Forest can get confusing, so don't get lost. Ask for help!

12. Take the Skyfari Aerial Tram

San Diego Zoo Tips - Take the 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. We found it the easiest way to avoid climbing high hills. Sometimes the Skyfari undergoes maintenance during the off-season in the cooler months. If that's the case, hop on a Kangaroo Bus when you need a break.

As an alternative — or when Skyfari is closed —  use the centrally located elevators at the bottom near Hua Mei Café to get back to upper levels. They will save your legs and help you skip some hills. The Skyfari may only operate select days, such as Thursday through Sunday. It can undergo refurbishments in some of the cooler months.

13. Make Dining Reservations

If you would like to eat at Albert's, you don’t need a reservation, but it helps, especially on busy days and for weekend brunch. 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 (Easter, Mother’s Day and more) that require a reservation. Check the zoo’s dining programs to see what’s available.

14. Reserve Special Experiences

If your budget allows, you can purchase upgraded special experiences in addition to admission.  These include seeing animal ambassadors and trainers in action, going behind the scenes, touring the zoo in a VIP cart, taking a tour with cats or being a zookeeper for a day. The zoo also offers a VIP experience.

15. Let Your Kids Play

16 San Diego Zoo Tips for a Roaring Good Time - Kids and seal with heads popping up through ice.

The San Diego Zoo has many animal statues, interactive art or things to touch. Let your 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.

16. Check out the Wildlife Explorers Basecamp

Hop on over to the new Wildlife Explorers Basecamp where there’s four acres of wildlife for the tadpoles to learn about nature, play, meet different species, and gain a better understanding of wildlife. It’s located to the left when you first enter the park just past the Skyfari. Interact, climb, scramble, and jump in the innovative nature play areas. The habitats include: desert dunes, wild woods, marsh meadows and the rainforest. There are indoor and outdoor learning and play spaces.

This was one of our favorite places to play and learn and we spent a good amount of time here. The exhibit “Spineless Marvels” is where they house bees, butterflies, and a variety of different bugs. “Cool Critters” is where they hatch reptiles and host a variety of reptiles including caimans and a giant salamander.

Bring your swimsuits and towels. The tadpoles (and the whole family) will enjoy cooling off in the sprinklers and waterfall. You can use the outdoor showers and walk-in dryers (there’s a fee for the dryers) for drying off. Being able to dry off makes this Mommy Frog very hoppy! The tadpoles love climbing and getting the wiggles out in this interactive area.

Have any San Diego Zoo tips to share from your visits? Let us know in the comments below! 

Related: When to Visit San Diego

Related: Not-to-Miss San Diego Zoo Exhibits and Attractions

Hoppy planning!

Keep hopping, Mommy Frog!
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Mar 2, 2024 at 11:07 a.m. Pam Says...

Do you have touring plans for the San Diego Zoo?

Mar 4, 2024 at 10:04 a.m. FrogBlog Says...

Hi Pam!

While we do not have an official park plan featured on our Park Plans page, we do outline a general plan based on a recent visit in this post (see Tip #9).

Hoppy planning!

Mommy Frog

Mar 28, 2021 at 10:58 p.m. Brenda Says...

Where can a print a map of the zoo to use before I arrive to visit?

Mar 29, 2021 at 4:07 p.m. FrogBlog Says...

Hi Brenda!

You can find a PDF version of the map here. The zoo also has its own app with an interactive map if you'd prefer. You can learn more about that here.

Hoppy planning!

Mommy Frog

Mar 3, 2021 at 2:43 p.m. Page Says...

If I am bringing my 85 year mother for a two day experience, should we do one day at the zoo and the next at the safari - or should we do the zoo half day then safari adventure in the afternoon then the 2nd day totally at the zoo?

Mar 3, 2021 at 4:21 p.m. FrogBlog Says...

Hi Page!

We would reserve a whole day for each park since there's so much to cover. Have a great time!

Hoppy planning!

Mommy Frog

Oct 16, 2019 at 3:09 p.m. Mary R Says...

I have to say thank you for your AMAZING tips on how to see everything at the zoo. My husband and I followed your proposed schedule to avoid any uphill walking, and it was amazing. We only had one small incline on our way out of the park. We saw everything and our feet thank you. You saved us from arguing on where to go, or getting lost and frustrated with each other. Best way to see the zoo, and virtually no one was there since we went on a school day. Thank you again!!!

Oct 16, 2019 at 10:12 a.m. FrogBlog Says...

Thank you so much for sharing with us, Mary - we're so hoppy we could help and that you had a wonderful visit!

Hoppy planning!

Mommy Frog

Aug 21, 2019 at 9:38 p.m. John Bob Says...

I came out to San Diego in 1935 from Tennessee and went to the San Diego Zoo, I think that I only had to pay a dime to get in JB

May 29, 2019 at 3:50 a.m. Perla Says...

Hello...I’m a little mystified about what happed at the zoo today. My husband and I parked our child’s stroller and left a chocolate chip cookie in a paper bag inside the stroller. When we came back to pick up the stroller I found the paper bag with a huge hole and no cookie. Do you happen to know what creature might be guilty of savoring the missing cookie???

Apr 11, 2019 at 5:15 a.m. Lorraine Says...

Excellent advice for me. Even though I went many times in past, I have not been there for a few years now & appreciated reminders of best way to see it when knees can be a problem

Apr 11, 2019 at 8:17 a.m. FrogBlog Says...

Thanks for the kind words, Lorraine! So hoppy you found this useful!

Mommy Frog

Apr 3, 2019 at 5:37 a.m. Kristin Says...

Thank you so much for this tour plan. It was fantastic! We took a detour for an animal encounter and a show but picked back up with your suggestions and we saw the whole zoo. Greatly appreciate the fact that the majority of our walk was downhill. Thanks again!

Apr 3, 2019 at 8:45 a.m. FrogBlog Says...

So glad to hear it, Kristin! Thanks for the kind words :)

Hoppy planning!

Mommy Frog

May 15, 2018 at 4:18 p.m. S P Town Says...

This overview was helpful. The plan is to take the sky lift to the back then wander and wonder our way the front ????

Feb 12, 2019 at 2:46 a.m. Erica Says...

We are planning our trip and had the same mindset! How did it work out for you? Any other do’s and dont’s that you would recommend?

Feb 9, 2018 at 11:54 p.m. Dianne Says...

Thank you SO MUCH for taking the time to put this together! I hope someday you will get to visit the Columbus Zoo. Can’t wait for 2nd trip to San Diego Zoo!

Dec 20, 2017 at 4:28 a.m. Dustin Says...

Thanks for all your great tips! We went to the zoo today and they made our trip a lot smoother than if we had winged it!

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