A San Diego vacation isn’t complete without a day at the world-famous San Diego Zoo. This complete guide will discuss touring tips, must-see attractions and where to find discounted tickets. Find out what to see and do when taking on the San Diego Zoo with kids!
This post was originally published Oct 17th, 2014 and has been updated and republished with a new date.
What to Expect at the San Diego Zoo with Kids
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 county.
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.
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.
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
Where is the San Diego Zoo located?
The San Diego Zoo is located in the heart of Balboa Park in downtown San Diego. The 1200 acre Balboa 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).
When is the San Diego Zoo open?
The Zoo is open daily, even on holidays. Check the schedule on the San Diego Zoo website for specific opening and closing hours. The zoo often has extended evenings hours during the summer and holiday seasons.
Where is vehicle parking at the San Diego Zoo?
There is a very large lot in front of the Zoo, however during busy seasons, it does fill up. You can also seek parking elsewhere in Balboa Park and then walk to the Zoo entrance within about 10-15 minutes.
Parking at the San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park is completely FREE! Free parking in the city is a sweet perk so it’s a great idea to maximize your itinerary with visits to both the zoo and Balboa Park museums and gardens.
Additional parking can be found in the Inspiration Point parking lot, about 5 minutes drive from the Zoo entrance (at Park Blvd. and Presidents Way). This parking area is also free, and the San Diego Zoo offers a complimentary shuttle on weekends during the peak seasons.
Discounted San Diego Zoo 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 and conservation efforts. The San Diego Zoo is one of the best zoos in the world, and with good reason!
I recommend pre-purchasing discount tickets ahead of time. You can purchase zoo tickets at the booths, but you will pay full price. Here’s how to save money on the cost of admission:
Discount Zoo Tickets – Pre-purchase San Diego Zoo and Safari Park tickets so you can eliminate the extra waiting in line at the main entrance. Reservations are not needed for entry.
Buy purchase discount San Diego Zoo vacation packages or just zoo tickets on the Get Away Today website.
Planning for a Day at the San Diego Zoo
Download the San Diego Zoo app
The San Diego Zoo is BIG. Viewing the virtual Zoo map in the app is worthwhile, especially if you don’t want to worry about getting lost! App features guide guests to favorite animals, assist with finding dining, activities, show time schedule, and more.
What Should You Bring to the San Diego Zoo?
The Zoo is located in downtown San Diego and it can be chilly during the winter and spring. The Skyfari ride can be especially windy. 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.
A hat and sunglasses are an excellent idea. Everyone should wear comfortable shoes that are ideal for walking. Bring your own water bottles to stay hydrated, especially in warm summer and fall weather.
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.
San Diego Zoo Security Checks
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.
Locker Rentals at the San Diego Zoo
There are lockers for rent at the front of the zoo. In general, carrying a backpack with your essentials for the day is the most ideal.
Creating an Itinerary for the San Diego Zoo with Kids
While visitors can certainly amble through the San Diego Zoo at their leisure. However if there’s something specific you want to see and do during a visit, it’s best to have a flexible itinerary. These are some tips for creating your zoo plan:
View Wildlife Online – The San Diego Zoo has live cameras that air animal activities online, including apes, condor, and tigers. Watch the videos ahead of your visit to get kids excited about what they’ll see.
Arrive Early – Many of the animals are most active in the morning hours. Plan to arrive just before zoo opening to park and get inside the gates.
Determine a Walking Strategy – The San Diego Zoo is big, with many walking paths. There’s no “most popular” direction to go, so it’s really up to you and your family to decide how you want to plan your day. Consider viewing the park map online to plot out a walking strategy to ensure you see the animals you want.
Work in Rides – The Guided Bus Tour and Skyfari Aerial Tram are both extremely popular. When is the best time to do rides? Early morning, just after arrival into the park, and late evening tend to be least crowded. The following section will discuss rides at the San Diego Zoo.
Plan Special Experiences – The San Diego Zoo offers families upgraded activities including early access, tours, and close-up animal encounters. Check the website for offerings and book ahead of your visit.
Rides at the San Diego Zoo
There are many ways to explore the San Diego Zoo. While many guests choose to explore on foot, the zoo has a lot of hills and access to the back of the zoo can take a toll when walking with children.
Consider using a combination of methods for exploration, including these zoo rides that will offer a different perspective. The Guided Bus Tour, Kangaroo Bus, and Skyfari Aerial Tram are included in your admission price.
San Diego Zoo Guided Bus Tour
Guests can take a 35-minute Guided Bus Tour on a double-decker bus that give a good overview of the Zoo. Strollers are not permitted on board. The guided bus tour takes a narrated loop around the park, returning to the same general area.
Many guests will start their day on the Guided Bus, so arrive early to avoid lines. On a hot day, consider sitting on the lower deck to stay out of the sun. Plastic seats sit 2 on each side; small children are permitted to lap sit.
Minimize walking by use of the “Kangaroo” Express Bus. This non-narrated transportation bus stops at 4 locations within the zoo for guests to access different areas.
Look for the Kangaroo Bus stop locations, then just wait and hop on. Strollers are allowed on board.
Skyfari Aerial Tram
One of the most iconic ways to travel across the San Diego Zoo, the Skyfari Aerial Tram offers unlimited rides with a park ticket. This ride transports guests quickly across the Zoo to the higher regions. Then take your time walking back downhill (or take the tram ride back to the front of the zoo!)
You’ll love the amazing view of the city and Balboa Park museums over the lush treetops of the zoo! Kids younger than 8 years old must be accompanied by an adult on the Skyfari.
Insider 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 Tour.
Tips for Walking the San Diego Zoo with Kids
Bring a stroller for young kids – Because the San Diego 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.
What about mobility issues? – As noted earlier, many of the trails are quite steep. Be sure to take advantage of the Skyfari Aerial Tram or Kangaroo Bus to take you to the top of the hills. In addition, the zoo offers a complimentary ADA shuttle service for guests with mobility-related disabilities.
Plan on a combination of walking and bus rides to see the animals – While the bus offers a decent overview of zoo, there’s so much that you won’t see while on the bus.
There are many pathways that guests can walk, which reach aviaries and enclosures not on the bus road. Areas, like Wildlife Explorers Basecamp, Reptile Walk, and Treetops Way are not visited on the bus – only on foot.
Must-See Exhibits at the San Diego Zoo
From the Outback to the Northern Frontier, there’s a lot to cover at the San Diego Zoo. Animal exhibits at the zoo include a combination of buildings, aviaries, glass-enclosures, and open-air natural habitat.
In all areas of the zoo, there are learning placards placed at the exhibit. Read up on basic knowledge, including proper names, species, where the animal is from, and status (endangered, vulnerable, threatened, etc.).
Often the animal’s nickname is noted and kids enjoy trying to spot their favorite in the enclosure (this chimp shares my daughter’s birthday!)
With exotic animals and endangered species throughout the park, the following sections will highlight the must-see animals at the San Diego Zoo.
The San Diego Zoo no longer has giant pandas in the panda exhibit, 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!
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!
Hippo Trail in the Lost Forest (currently closed for construction)
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.
Top San Diego Zoo Exhibits for Kids
Spot popular animals like giraffe, zebra, and flamingo in this easy-to-walk loop.
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!
The reptile house has narrow, indoor space with windows to view snakes. Consider parking the stroller outside and carrying young kids for the best mobility and views.
Komodo Kingdom is where to view these large lizards, with pathways to view crocodiles and alligators.
Can’t Miss Attractions at the San Diego Zoo with Kids
Polar bears, reindeer, and mountain lions can be viewed in this upper area of the San Diego Zoo. Step inside the underwater viewing room at Polar Bear Plunge to watch polar bear swim and play in the cool water pool. Then stand next to the life-size polar bear statues for a height comparison.
Sun Bear Forest
The sun bear is the smallest bear and fun to watch, as they like to climb trees. This Asian rainforest area has lots of waterfalls, so it’s a cool area to explore in warm weather.
A newer 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.
Wildlife Explorers Basecamp
A complete overhaul of “The Children’s Zoo” recently happened at the San Diego Zoo and it’s a can’t miss with kids! The new Wildlife Explorers Basecamp incorporates both learning and play opportunities in a very kid-friendly atmosphere.
Wildlife Explorers Basecamp is divided into four sections – Desert Dunes, Wild Woods, Marsh Meadows, and Rainforest. There are outdoor play structures, including rope bridges. Indoors, families will enjoy the Cool Critters Reptile House and Spineless Marvels Invertebrate House.
Expect to spend a lot of your zoo day at Wildlife Explorers Basecamp, especially with active children who want to play.
Early admission to Wildlife Explorers Basecamp – Perfect for families that want extra time to explore, the Wildlife Explorers Basecamp area offers early admission on select dates. Guests can enter this area one-hour before official zoo opening, with fun activities offered by Dr. Zoolittle. Check the “special experiences” tab on the zoo website to purchase early admission.
Places to Escape the Heat at the San Diego Zoo
There’s a water play area within Wildlife Explorers Basecamp, that’s ideal for hot weather fun. Keep reading for more locations and exhibits to visit when you want to stay cool at the San Diego Zoo.
Accessed only by the walking paths, make your way through the cool confines to one of several zoo aviaries. The wildlife in the Scripps Aviary, Parker Aviary, and Owens Aviary are 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.
The path slopes downward, through the shade, so it’s a pleasant walk. There’s also a misting system for the plants, which keep this rainforest area extremely cool and comfortable on hot days.
Fern Canyon Trail
This rainforest path features giant plants and ferns with a beautiful water feature.
Monkey Trails and Gorilla Tropics
Monkeys, gorillas & orangutans are housed in these open air enclosures under deep shade. Save the Monkey Trails for the afternoon. Most of the pathways are under shade, making this area a lovely walk in the heat of the day.
San Diego Zoo Kids Play Areas
In addition to play structures, there are also a variety of photo opportunities and statues to pose with throughout the park. Here’s where kids can play at the zoo:
- Wildlife Explorers Basecamp “Tree of Dreams” and splash pad
- Northern Frontier polar bear den
- Elephant Odyssey play yard
- Australian Outback “koala klimber”
San Diego Zoo with Kids, Toddlers and Babies
Toddlers and babies will greatly enjoy the outdoors at the San Diego Zoo. Little ones like seeing the larger-than-life animals they’ve only seen so far in picture books!
Viewing for Toddlers – 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.
Walking Paths – With its wide open pathways, there are plenty of areas at the Zoo for toddlers to get out of the stroller and wander safely. Consider visiting the play areas. Just know that older children will be running, so keep toddlers close.
Diaper Changing Stations – Most restrooms at the San Diego Zoo have changing areas for parents to change diapers. Bring a diaper changing pad for the table.
Baby Nursing Areas – Guests may breastfeed a baby any place there wish at the San Diego Zoo. There are also semi-private nursing locations inside First Aid.
Travel Safety for Kids – I’ve mentioned several times how large the San Diego Zoo is! Keep travel safety for kids at the forefront and read up on techniques to keep children close and prevent them from getting lost on vacation.
Other Fun Things to Do at the San Diego Zoo with Kids
Terrace Lagoon – Every kids loves to cross a bridge and watch the koi fish swim underneath. This is a must-do each visit with my children.
4-D Theater – Guests can watch a show in an air conditioned theater, for an additional fee.
Botanical Garden Tours – Young kids may not show much interest in the plant life at the zoo. However, if you approach it more like a scavenger hunt, many children will enjoy spotting orchids and bromeliads! Download complimentary PDF self-guided tours of the San Diego Zoo gardens on their website.
Balboa Park Miniature Train – Just outside of the Zoo gates is a miniature train and carousel. It’s a fun way to end your Zoo day by taking a ride on this classic half-mile loop (extra cost).
Animal Interactions at the San Diego Zoo
The San Diego 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 likely be in the sun. Be prepared with sunscreen and a hat. Some presentation areas may be standing room only.
Look for daily animal interactions at Wegeforth Bowl, Africa Rocks Stage, and Rady Ambassador Presentation Area (within Wildlife Explorers Basecamp area). Check out the animal encounter section online and in the zoo app to see what shows are planned during your visit.
For additional special animal experiences, the San Diego Zoo offers add-on activities for an extra cost. Visit the website to pre-purchase for the date of your visit. Examples include up-close views of wild cats, giraffes, and zoo babies.
VIP Tour Guide – An exclusive VIP experience offers a personal guided tour of the zoo as an ultimate splurge.
Dining at the San Diego Zoo
Pack Your Own Food for the Zoo – Dining prices are steep, so consider packing your own bottled water and snacks. A nice place to have a picnic lunch is within the Treetops Café 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.
Restaurant Dining at the Zoo – Dining at the Zoo is mostly walk-up with outdoor patio dining. Offerings are wide and include sandwiches, grilled burgers & chicken, salads, pizza, wraps, Mexican and Chinese food.
The only full-service dining restaurant, Albert’s, offers a more elegant selection and happy hour. Reservations are recommended and can be made at 619-685-3200.
San Diego Zoo Snacks – Throughout the zoo, there are many snack carts and kiosks. Guests can find popcorn, nachos, churros, soft pretzels, draft beer, and specialty coffee drinks. There’s also soft serve ice cream at many locations in the park (which makes my kids very happy on a hot day!)
San Diego Zoo Special Events
Throughout the year, the San Diego Zoo offers special events and evening hours. 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 food offerings. Be sure to check the calendar during the dates of your visit.
- Nighttime Zoo
- Jungle Bells
San Diego Zoo Souvenir Shopping
Naturally, the San Diego Zoo offers plenty of souvenir shopping around the park, including full stores and pop-up stands. Some shops offer themed gifts, while others have general souvenir ideas. Visitors can also purchase essentials, like sunglasses, hats, and sunscreen.
One of the best when shopping at the San Diego Zoo with kids is the appropriately named “Kid’s Store”. This catch-all shop on Front Street (near the zoo exit) offers souvenir t-shirts, books, toys, and plush animals that kids will love.
Best Hotels to Stay at Near the San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo doesn’t not have any accommodations within walking distance. If you are looking for a hotel near the San Diego Zoo, there are several locations that are ideal.
Hotel Circle – This Mission Valley area has plenty of hotels, restaurants, and dining that are nearby other popular San Diego vacation attractions. The Best Western San Diego has family suites with bunk beds and a complimentary continental breakfast each morning.
Downtown – Stay close to the action when you book a hotel in the downtown area of San Diego. The Hampton Inn and Suites is near the San Diego Airport as well as Liberty Station, a kid-friendly area with shopping and dining.
Mission Bay – For families that plan to visit the beach, an overnight in Mission Bay is perfect. The Catamaran Resort Hotel & Spa is within walking distance of the water and a short drive to the San Diego Zoo.
Ways to Save Money at the San Diego Zoo with Kids
Visit San Diego During the Month of October
During the entire month of October, kids visit free at the San Diego Zoo! Many of the theme parks and destinations around San Diego offer free admission to children in October, including LEGOLAND California and SeaWorld. Kids also dine free at participating restaurants.
Read more about the kids free in San Diego for October promotion for details on how to save.
Save Money on a San Diego Zoo Vacation
Purchase discount tickets and vacation packages from my partners at Get Away Today. BONUS: Use the Promo Code REWRITTEN and receive an extra $10 off any 2-night or longer Southern California package. (2+ night hotel and 2 ticket minimum purchase to qualify for the discount).
More Things to Do in San Diego with Kids
If you have time in the San Diego area, be sure to read these additional travel guides.
- San Diego Zoo Safari Park – Located in north county, the San Diego Safari Park offers a completely different zoo experience.
- SeaWorld San Diego – Explore ocean life at this popular theme park with rides and sea life attractions.
- LEGOLAND California – This LEGO themed amusement park is perfect when traveling to San Diego with younger kids.
- Looking for SoCal fun beyond Disneyland? – Check out these great things to do in Southern California with kids for a complete San Diego family vacation!