San Diego Zoo with Kids – SoCal Guide Overview
At a vast 100 acres, the San Diego Zoo is a sprawling paradise in the middle of the city. Plenty has evolved at the zoo over the years including a move away from isolated cages towards lush, natural exhibits that mimic that animal’s habitat. The Zoo is one of the must-see outdoor places to explore in San Diego.
The San Diego Zoo is a pleasurable outdoor experience that takes all day to properly explore. It is home to around 3500 rare and endangered animals of more than 650 species (the largest collection of species in the world). It also boasts a gorgeous botanical collection with 700,000+ plants.
As a San Diego native, my family and I have been going to the San Diego Zoo since I was a baby! The park has changed immensely over the years but some things have remained constant throughout. The San Diego Zoo has always been a place for learning, fun and unique experiences. It’s always safe, clean and well-kept – the ideal place to spend a sunny afternoon in San Diego. These are my tips for visiting the San Diego Zoo with kids.
NEW San Diego Zoo and Safari Park Protocols and Guidelines
Upon reopening the following guidelines and protocols are in place for visitors:
- Facial coverings encouraged for non-vaccinated guests in indoor locations
- Pre-purchase San Diego Zoo and Safari Park tickets so you can eliminate the extra waiting in line. Reservations are not needed for entry.
- Some shows, tours and experiences may also be temporarily unavailable.
- Certain features in this article may not be available during the time of your visit. Be sure to check the website ahead of time.
San Diego Zoo Guide
My San Diego Zoo with kids guide will help you properly plan your day. The park can be a challenge to navigate, with so much ground to cover. There are also varied elevations so unless you’re up for a long hike, you’ll want to know how to properly see everything. Note that because of the reopening protocols, some of the attractions mentioned in this article may not be available during your visit.
Start your planning by looking at the park map on the zoo website and plot out your day. It is possible to see all of the exhibits in one day. This will require a stay from morning to night and no lingering too long in any one place. You’ll also probably walk 4 miles to cover the entire Zoo!
Because the zoo is so vastly spread out, count on not being able to cover the entire park. Read the guide and figure out the top things you’ll want to see and do during your visit.
Details About the San Diego Zoo
Zoo Location: The San Diego Zoo is located in the heart of Balboa Park. This 1200 acre park features museums, walking trails and gardens. Plan to visit the Zoo on one day and visit Balboa Park on another day (these are each full-day experiences).
Tickets: San Diego Zoo tickets might be a higher cost than you’re used to for local zoos. However this zoo is a non-profit and all proceeds go towards the animals. I recommend pre-purchasing discount tickets ahead of time.
Planning for a Day at the San Diego Zoo
What Should You Bring to the Zoo?
The Zoo is located in downtown San Diego and it can be chilly and windy during the winter and spring. The Skyfari ride can be especially cold. Bring a lightweight jacket or sweatshirt. A considerable amount of the park offers large tree shade protection but you should still pack your sunscreen. While it might be overcast early in the day, the sun often peeks out after noon and it may get very hot.
Parking at the San Diego Zoo is totally FREE! There is a very large lot in front of the park, however during busy seasons, it does fill up. You can also seek parking elsewhere in Balboa Park and then walk to the Zoo.
Is Outside Food Allowed at the San Diego Zoo?
The San Diego Zoo allows outside food. Feel free to bring a picnic lunch, bottled water and whatever snacks you need for the day. You may not bring straws.
Most San Diego area theme parks will check your packages, backpacks and purses before park entry. There are no such security inspections at the San Diego Zoo.
Rides at the San Diego Zoo
There are many ways to explore the San Diego Zoo. Guests can take a 35-minute Guided Bus Tour on double-decker buses that give a good overview of the Zoo. There is also the option of the “Kangaroo” Express Bus that stops at several locations for guests to access different areas. Both the Guided Bus Tour & Kangaroo Bus is included in your admission price.
Also included in the Zoo admission is unlimited rides on the Skyfari Aeriel Tram. This ride will transport you quickly across the Zoo to the higher regions and you can work your way back downhill. I love this amazing view of the city and Balboa Park museums over the lush treetops of the zoo!
Tips for San Diego Zoo Rides & Tours:
- Jump on the Guided Bus Tour first thing in the morning. From there, plan your own walking tour to deeply explore other areas.
- You’ll be able to see the animals better from the first deck of the guided bus (rather than sitting on the top of the bus). I recommend sitting on the right side of the bus towards the middle for the best views.
- The line for the Skyfari is always longer at the front of the park. Most people take it to the top elevations and then walk back downhill. Visit early in the day (try right after the Guided Bus).
Must-See Exhibits at the San Diego Zoo
There are many pathways that guests can walk, which reach aviaries and enclosures that you won’t see on the bus. Please note that many of the trails are quite steep. Be sure to take advantage of the Skyfari Aeriel Tram or Kangaroo Bus to take you to the top of the hills.
The San Diego Zoo no longer has giant pandas, since they were returned to China. However there are still red pandas to see in this area. These adorable pandas are so fun and playful to watch as they climb trees and strip bamboo. But mostly, they sleep!
Accessed only by the walking paths, making your way through the cool confines of one of the aviaries is one of the most fascinating parts of a San Diego Zoo visit. If you walk too fast you’ll miss a lot so make sure to find a bench to bird-watch. Many of these birds are camouflaged in the lush trees and bushes and you won’t see them until you pause to look. Keepers set up trays of fruit and the birds stop over to nibble.
More San Diego Zoo Exhibits
Hippo Trail in the Lost Forest
The hippos have a cool upper and lower exhibit so you can watch them swim (so graceful under water!) Sit on a bench and watch the hippo bounce up and down as they breath and bubble on the surface of the pool.
The San Diego Zoo has the most koala as well as the most successful koala breeding program outside of Australia. While it’s rare to see a koala awake, we’ve been lucky enough to even spot them walking!
Know the difference between Asian and African elephants? We learned on the bus tour that African elephants have very large ears and Asian elephant ears are smaller. Take a stroll through Elephant Odyssey for a close look at both African and Asian elephants. Last time we were there the elephants were loping around to grab branches from each other!
Monkeys, gorillas & orangutans are housed in these open air enclosures under deep shade. Save the Monkey Trails for the afternoon. Most is under shade making it a lovely walk in the heat of the day.
More Can’t Miss Attractions at the San Diego Zoo with Kids
The newest area at the San Diego Zoo, Africa Rocks is the new home for leopards and African penguins. Be sure to walk behind the big waterfall for an unforgettable photo experience. My kid’s favorite area was seeing the penguins and leopard sharks in the same enclosure.
Coming Soon – The Children’s Zoo
A complete overhaul of The Children’s Zoo is forthcoming. Four new sections – Desert Dunes, Wild Woods, Rain Forest, and Marsh Meadows – will incorporate both learning and play opportunities.
Animal Interactions at the San Diego Zoo
*editor’s note – Some animal interactions and all shows are currently on hold. The zoo offers a few shows and animal presentations. The shows are a nice place to get off your feet for a bit though you will be in the sun. Check out the animal encounter section on your daily map to see what Keeper Talks are planned during your visit. We usually catch these on Front Street coming in and out of the park.
Other Fun Things to Do at the San Diego Zoo with Kids
- Visit the 4-D theater located at the Zoo and you can watch a show inside for an additional fee.
- Looking for a major splurge for adults? Try the San Diego Zoo Keeper for a Day! Shadow either a giraffe or koala keeper, which includes preparing food, stepping inside the enclosure and even cleaning the exhibit.
- Before coming to the Zoo, show your kids the live internet cams on the San Diego Zoo website. This definitely builds up excitement for the visit!
- Just outside of the Zoo gates is a children’s mini train and carousel. It’s a fun way to end your Zoo day with a ride on these (extra cost).
San Diego Zoo with Kids, Toddlers and Babies
Toddlers and babies will greatly enjoy the outdoors at the San Diego Zoo. Because the Zoo is so large, I highly recommend bringing your own stroller or renting a stroller inside. Rental strollers are hard plastic and not as comfortable as the one you’d bring from home.
There are some exhibits with high bushes so you may have to lift your little one out of their seat for them to see the animals. In other exhibits, the windows reach the floor and your baby will have a great view from the stroller.
With its wide open pathways, there are plenty of areas at the Zoo for toddlers to get out of the stroller and wander safely. At this time there aren’t any play areas open for children.
Dining at the San Diego Zoo
Dining at the Zoo is mostly walk-up with outdoor patio dining. Offerings are wide and include sandwiches, grilled burgers & chicken, salads, wraps and Chinese. The only full-service dining restaurant, Albert’s, offers a more elegant selection and happy hour. There’s also soft serve ice cream at many locations in the park (which makes my kids very happy on a hot day!)
Prices are steep so I recommend packing your own bottled water and snacks. You can also bring in any of your own food from home (which we frequently do). Have a picnic lunch in the Treetops Cafe seating area. There’s plenty of covered seating and an amazing view of the city. Please note that straws are not permitted as they are a choking hazard to the animals.
San Diego Zoo Special Events
Throughout the entire summer, the San Diego Zoo stays open late for Nighttime Zoo. Included in your daily park admission, the Zoo is open as late at 9 pm for special evening shows, live music and animal encounters. There are also special summertime food offerings. Be sure to check the calendar during the dates of your visit.
Extra Zoo Experiences
The San Diego Zoo offers special experiences at an additional fee, including an early-morning tour to visit the pandas, overnight sleepovers in the park or even children’s birthday parties. Educational classes and camps can also be booked.
Kids Play FREE at the San Diego Zoo in October!
Yes, in addition to free admission at the San Diego Zoo, kids also get in free at LEGOLAND California and SeaWorld! They’ll also dine free at participating restaurants. Read more about the kids free in San Diego for October promotion.
Read this post for more tips if you only have one day to explore the San Diego Zoo.
Save Money on Your San Diego Zoo Vacation!
Purchase discount tickets and vacation packages from my affiliate Get Away Today. Use the Promo Code REWRITTEN and receive an extra $10 off any 2-night or longer Southern California package. (Hotel and 2 ticket minimum purchase to qualify for the discount).
If you’re also planning to visit SeaWorld San Diego and the San Diego Zoo with kids consider purchasing a discounted ticket bundle that includes both locations.
If you have time in the San Diego area, be sure to read these additional travel guides (click the teal text).
- For a completely different zoo experience, the San Diego Safari Park is ideal for an extra day of outside adventure (best for those who are comfortable with lots of walking).
- Explore ocean sea life at SeaWorld San Diego with this complete family guide.
- Looking for SoCal things beyond Disneyland? Check out these Great Things to Do in Southern California with Kids.
- LEGOLAND California is just a quick 30 minute drive from downtown San Diego and perfect for younger kids.