The world-famous San Diego Zoo is one of the top attractions for families in the San Diego area. It is conveniently located near downtown San Diego and offers visitors the chance to see exotic animals that are not commonly found in other zoos.
Our family recently made a return visit to the San Diego Zoo. Here are our top tips for planning a visit.
1. Avoid paying full price
Look for San Diego Zoo discounts before you leave home. Ways you may be able to save on admission include:
- Online – www.mousesavers.com keeps a list of San Diego Zoo discounts.
- Bundle – If you are planning to visit multiple San Diego attractions, you can save a few dollars by bundling admission fees. The San Diego Zoo website lists several bundle deals. You may also be able to find good package deals for a hotel and attractions at www.zoodeals.com, www.getawaytoday.com or your preferred travel agent.
- Check with your hotel – If you’ve already booked a hotel in San Diego, chances are that you can purchase discounted tickets from the front desk.
- Visit in October – for the past couple of years, the San Diego Zoo and many other San Diego attractions have offered kids (ages 3-11) free admission with a paying adult during the month of October. This deal may not include the aerial tram and bus tour, so you may need to pay extra to if you want to add those on. Visit www.sandiego.org for details.
2. Pack a picnic
This isn’t absolutely essential, since the San Diego Zoo has a variety of restaurants to choose from. However, it drives me crazy when I buy a pricey kids meal and then my child eats less than half of it. The San Diego Zoo allows you to bring in your own food, so save yourself some cash and fill a backpack with cheese slices, crackers, baby carrots, grapes, bottled water, cookies and trail mix, or something equally easy that your family will actually eat.
3. Arrive early
This is a good rule of thumb for nearly all attractions. When you arrive early at the San Diego Zoo, you get to enjoy popular exhibits without the crowds. Morning is a good time to visit favorite animals such as pandas, koalas, bears, lions and tigers because they are often more active in the morning.
4. Don’t put off the pandas
Beat the crowds by visiting the pandas soon after the zoo opens. The panda exhibit is not as large as other popular exhibits, because there are only a few pandas. It is the only habitat at the San Diego Zoo that is built for lines. A member of the zoo staff is on hand at all times to talk about the pandas, and presumably, to keep the line moving. Panda crowds were not a problem on the October weekday we were there, but they could be a problem during weekends and school breaks.
The San Diego Zoo is large and few families will have the time or energy to see every animal exhibit, plus take the guided bus tour and see the shows. Early on, do a quick review of the zoo map and show schedule to make sure you see all of your priority exhibits.
Our top exhibits included koalas, pandas, elephants, polar bears, monkeys, gorillas, hippos, giraffes, lions and tigers. We were able to see all of these, and many interesting exhibits in between. We rode the aerial tram one way and took the guided bus tour. We spent little time in the Children’s Zoo and did not see any shows.
6. Pay attention to the plants
The San Diego Zoo is not just a home for exotic animals, but for exotic plants as well. It is a botanical garden with many beautiful flowers and unique varieties. The zoo grows its own bamboo for the pandas, as well as food for other animals throughout the zoo.
7. Save the bus tour for the afternoon
The guided bus tour is included with regular admission, so be sure to save time for it during your visit. It is a 35-minute narrated tour on a brightly painted open air, double-decker bus. There are a couple of strategies for the bus tour:
- Take the tour early in the day. Beat the crowds and get an overview of the zoo, so you know what to go back and see up close.
- Take the tour in the afternoon. The best time to ride the bus is when your feet are tired.
I vote for #2. Early in the day when the family is fresh and crowds are lighter is the best time to walk around the zoo and see priority exhibits up close. The downside of this plan is that many other visitors will have the same idea, so you’ll spend longer in line. Buses load continuously all day, so you probably won’t have to wait long. This is a good time to spend some of the money you saved by packing a lunch on a refreshing soda or icy treat.
The San Diego Zoo is one of our favorite attractions in San Diego. We also enjoyed the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which is located about 30 miles away. The Safari Park has some of the same animals as the San Diego Zoo, but offers some unusual zoo experiences as well. If your family loves zoos, you may want to enjoy both on the same trip.
Good to Know
Where: 2920 Zoo Drive in Balboa Park, just north of downtown San Diego
How much: $44 per adult (ages 12+), $34 per child (ages 3-11)
How long: One full day
Amenities: free parking, restaurants, stroller/wheelchair rental, lockers, backstage tours and special experiences are also available for an additional cost