San Diego Zoo with a baby

8 tips for visiting the San Diego Zoo

You might say we are a “zoo” family. It’s ridiculous the amount of times we have been to our local zoo since the kids were born. My husband has always been an animal-lover. And having a 1 year old daughter and 2 year old son, now gives us the excuse to want to check out the zoo every time we visit a new city. The San Diego Zoo, however, is the first Zoo that we literally planned an entire vacation around. And for good reason. Housing over 4,000 animals and more than 700 species, the San Diego zoo is one of the largest zoos in the world. And it is the most visited zoo in the United States.

Not always, but in many cases, when you visit a zoo, you are helping to save endangered animals. The San Diego zoo is extremely active in their conservation and preservation efforts. They especially try to teach awareness about habitat destruction, poaching, and exotic animal trade. Our visit to the zoo was tons of fun, but more importantly, it was an educational experience for all of us.

Here are a few tips to help you maximize your time in the park.

Buy your tickets online in Advance.

aRes Travel is a San Diego based, authorized ticket seller of major San Diego attractions. They offer discounts when you buy admission to more than one park, as well as day passes to individual parks. We received a discount by purchasing a 2-day pass that included both the San Diego Zoo and the Safari park. Print the ticket in advance or save the confirmation email and admission bar code on your phone and present it at the gate. This allows you to skip the “Purchase Ticket Line” and go straight to the gate entrance.

It’s important to note, however, that these are non-refundable tickets. If your plans change, or you are not able to make it to the park or attraction, you cannot get your money back. On one of the days of our vacation, we had so much fun riding bikes along the coast and playing on the beach that we ended up choosing to skip the safari park, which we had already paid for up-front. I just wrote it off as a donation to a good cause.

You should also consider that if you want to visit both the zoo and the safari park, this will take up 2 full days of your vacation. We spent one entire day at the zoo. And then spent a couple hours in Balboa Park (the zoo is in Balboa Park) at the end of the day. The Safari Park is a good 35-40 minute drive from San Diego. They do not recommend trying to fit both the zoo and the safari park into one day. That would be A LOT of walking. But also with the traffic in between, you would definitely have to cut your time short in each park.

Look over the San Diego Zoo MAP ahead of time

The park is 100 acres. It helps to print off a map and review it before you arrive. You can get one here. You don’t need to memorize it, but circle which exhibits you want to visit the most and plan your route accordingly.

Arrive at the San Diego Zoo right when it opens… and Go see the Pandas first!

I’m telling you this, as a lesson learned the hard way. We did not get to the pandas until mid-day. And by then, the line for the entrance to the panda exhibit was over an hour wait. That was a hard no for us. We did get to see them from the bridge just above their exhibit. But apparently you see much more when you go through the actual trail. The park generally opens at 9a.m. Get to the park at opening and head straight there!

Take Advantage of the Free rides included in your ticket

After the Pandas, I recommend taking the guided bus tour. Near the entrance to the park are both the Guided Bus Tour as well as the Aerial tram. Both rides are included if you purchase the 1-day pass. The double-decker guided bus tour takes about 35 minutes and covers about 65% of the park.

You can listen to the tour guide while viewing the animals from the comfort of your seat. Try to get a seat at the top. But keep in mind the line for the top deck will be longer than the lower deck. The right hand side of the bus has the best views. We arrived at the San Diego Zoo right when it opened and there was still a 20 minute wait to get on the top deck of the bus. Our 2 year old son hasn’t quite grasped the concept of waiting in line to get on a bus. This made for a pretty brutal 20 minutes. We even considered stepping out of line several times. (So keep that in mind, if you are visiting with a baby or toddler.) With that said, the tour did give us a pretty good idea of where all we wanted to go afterwards. I think I mentioned, the park is over 100 acres. So unless you literally spend 8+ hours there, you probably won’t cover all of it on foot.

Our hope is to travel as a family as often as we can (at least as often as our work schedules allow us). Click HERE to learn how we use points and miles to expand our travel budget. A step by step guide is included for you.

Be prepared for a lot of walking (and lots of hills!)

My legs got a pretty awesome workout during our visit to the San Diego Zoo. Be prepared for an active day of walking up hills. Wear comfortable tennis shoes and bring a water bottle. You can find water fountains near each of the restaurants for re-fills. Take advantage of the many rest zones the park has to offer. There is also a hop-on-hop-off bus “the Kangaroo Express.” But sometimes, it seemed, you could get to the next exhibit faster by walking. Rather than searching the map for bus stops and then waiting for the bus to show up, we often chose to walk. There is also one flat surface escalator in the center of the park. It saves you from having to hike back up one of the larger hills. Unfortunately, no strollers allowed, so we didn’t get to take advantage of the escalator.

Don’t worry about Rain

I actually scheduled our visit to the San Diego zoo on one of the days of our vacation that the weather channel showed the highest rain chance. I did this on purpose for a few reasons.

  • 1. The zoo has lots of cover. And each of these safe havens from the rain are still packed full of animals. For example, the snake exhibit, the polar bear exhibit, the penguins, and so many more. I guess the same goes for extreme heat. There are plenty of places to cool down.
  • 2. It’s hard to have a fun beach day when its pouring down rain.
  • 3. According to the official San Diego Zoo website, the animals are more active and lively when its raining. A win win!

We actually got pretty lucky and the rain didn’t come until the very late afternoon. The downpour timed perfectly for us to run into the Reptile house. Snakes are my son’s favorite!

Statues, playgrounds, and more Statues.

The San Diego zoo is unique, in that, the whole park is setup like a playground for kids. You will find animal statues everywhere that kids can climb all over and treat like little jungle gyms. Jimmie had so much fun crawling through little tunnels shaped like animals. There is also the Discovery Playground. It’s an actual playground with swings and a curvy slide, near the exit of the zoo. Regardless, don’t worry about your toddler getting bored staring at animals and learning about all the different species.

Grab a Meal, plus a Cocktail for Mommy

You don’t have to look too far for food in the San Diego zoo. There is a food vendor or restaurant on every other curve. However, if you are looking to save a dollar, the zoo does allow you to bring your own snacks. Just no coolers. And did you know the San Diego Zoo serves alcohol? After a long day of walking around with a 1 and 2 year old, it was nice to be able to sit and relax with a glass of wine, while Jimmie took his nap in the stroller.

I have to say, you would be remiss to go to San Diego and not visit the zoo. It truly was the highlight of our family vacation. The park is so much more than just a zoo. I enjoyed simply taking in the scenery and beautiful landscapes. There are over 700,000 exotic plants, as well as waterfalls, creeks, & ponds. The stunning historic buildings of Balboa Park tower in the background. It’s a fun and educational experience for the whole family!

Check out VRBO here for some awesome San Diego Vacation Rentals!

Happy and Safe Travels!

Related: 10 Things to do in San Diego with kids (other than theme parks)

You might also like: 4 day Itinerary-California Highway 1 Roadtrip

OR: What to Pack in your Carry-On bag when Flying with a baby and toddler