Chances are if you’re planning a vacation to San Diego with kids, you’re probably planning a stop at the San Diego Zoo. Which, of course, you should! This Zoo is amazing. With more than 3,ooo different animal species–including pandas, bears, gorillas and hippos (my favorite!), all nestled on 100 acres of gorgeous, rolling hills, there is something for everyone! Be sure to wear good shoes, bring sunscreen, and a water bottle. And yes–in one day you will have more than enough time to see everything! The trick is to take advantage of the awesome–and free– transportation options they have for getting around the zoo.
Tickets: We bought the San Diego 3-for-1 Pass from Costco. The pass gives you unlimited admission to San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Sea World for 7 days. They are about $105 per child (ages 3-9) and $130 per adult (ages 10+). The passes can take up to 7 business days to ship, so plan accordingly. If you are not a Costco member, you can still purchase the passes for an additional fee.
There are many other places to buy discount tickets as well. We love Getaway Today and you do not need to be a member to purchase discount tickets from them. You can find tickets here.
Parking is free! Be sure to pay attention to where you park, because if you’re anything like me you really won’t remember. I usually snap a picture of my parking section with my phone.
We started off our day with a ride on the Guided Bus Tour. This is the perfect first stop on your visit because it takes you on a 35-minute tour of the entire zoo allowing you to see nearly all the animals. Plus, starting first thing in the morning when it is still cool outside is a huge bonus if you plan to ride on the upper deck. Plan to grab a map for each child so they can follow the driver’s audio tour as you go.
The tour starts with a short informational film about the history of the San Diego Zoo. After the film, you will exit the doors on the right side of the room. If you want to ride the upper deck of the bus, you will go up the stairs after the film. Otherwise, remain on the bottom level.
We went for the upper level of the double-decker bus,which gave us a great view throughout the entire tour. I don’t think there is a bad seat on the top, however we happened to get the seats near the handicap access ramp and they were perfect! We could see everything and had extra leg/wiggle room to boot. Don’t worry about people in front of you blocking your view- the bus drives right next to the animals so you will be looking out the side of your window and not the front. Again, it gets very hot during the day, so if you want to ride on top of the bus, plan to go first thing in the morning or late in the evening.
A sample of the great views we had! We saw the elephants, giraffes, lions, rhinos, and tigers–just to name a few of the animals! The tour runs from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. It is included with all admission tickets.
The panda exhibit is a great stop after finishing the guided bus tour. Be prepared for a wait–ours was about 30 minutes, although it can be much longer. The panda is one popular animal! As the bulk of the wait is in the sun, this would be a good animal to visit either in the morning or late evening when it’s a bit cooler. When we saw this guy, he was so alert. We could have watched him for hours!
As you plan your day, take note that the entire Lost Forest (left side) of the zoo is almost entirely engulfed in large shady trees. This section is huge and home to the gorillas, orangutans, tigers, hippos, birds, and many more animals. During the heat of the afternoon, take a break from the sun and keep cool in the Lost Forest. The right side of the zoo, which includes the Elephant Odyssey, Urban Jungle, Northern Frontier and Outback, are almost all in direct sun and are best seen late in the evening or first thing in the morning. The animals tend to be more active when it’s cooler. We explored the right side late in the late evening, when it was cooler, and the animals were all awake and playful, plus we had more energy and covered a whole lot more ground than earlier in the day when it was so hot. In fact, we actually went back to our hotel during the heat of the afternoon and took naps! Then we went back in the evening. We still had plenty of time to see all the animals.
Not far from the Panda Exhibit, these escalators are nestled between the trees and can get you across the park to the Lost Forest rather quickly. Plus the kids thought they were fun to ride! Double strollers (including rentals from the zoo) won’t fit on them and you’ll have to fold them up. After seeing the pandas, we jumped on these and headed over to the Lost Forest.
The Skyfari Tram will give you a bird’s eye view of the zoo. Unlimited rides are included with your ticket and can fit up to four passengers. This is a great way to get from one side of the park to other (boarding takes place just on the south side near the Children’s Zoo and the west side near the Northern Frontier). Small strollers can be folded and brought on board, otherwise you’ll need to leave your stroller in the stroller parking section. Our kids LOVED this and we may have gone back and fourth just a few times. Sunset was an especially pretty time to ride on it.
Another great way to get around this large zoo is the Kangaroo Bus. You can hop on and off every 15 minutes at four different stops on the north side (Elephant Odyssey, Outback, etc.) of the zoo. Look for the hopping Kangaroo icon on your park map to see the exact locations of the stops. Strollers can be folded and brought on the bus. Definitely take advantage of the many different transportation options the zoo offers. It’s such a large zoo, tiny (and big) legs alike will welcome the short breaks from walking.
Food! The Zoo has so many food options–from nachos, rice plates to pizza, sandwiches and wraps, to kid friendly hamburgers, hot dogs and nuggets–there really is a meal option for all diets. With every member of our family wanting something different (pizza, chicken nuggets + fries, wraps, mac ‘n cheese and salad) we settled on the Sabertooth Grill near the Elephant Odyssey with its wide variety of fresh and kid friendly options. It was a bit out of the way, but the cafeteria-style eatery got us in and out quickly–a definite win for starving kids. There is a large patio for dining with tables and shade umbrellas. While the zoo does allow you to bring food stored in small containers (lunch boxes/backpacks) into the park, large coolers are not allowed. With such a large territory, we decided we didn’t want to a) carry around a heavy backpack all day and b) didn’t want to rent a locker because we weren’t sure exactly where we’d be come meal time. We didn’t want to have to go from one part of the zoo to the other come dinner. If you’re interested in locker locations, you can find that information here.
For a complete list of dining options, visit their website.
The Children’s Zoo is a great place to let children, well, be children! This isn’t a stop we’d necessarily go out of our way for, but at the end of the day, after we’d seen all the animals, it was a nice stop. Kids can climb and slide on the playground, see porcupines, mice, sheep, and other small farm animals. There’s a decent amount of shade as well. There are several other kid-friendly climbing structures throughout the zoo.
Well, that’s how we did San Diego Zoo! How do you?