San Diego Zoo Visitor Guide

  • 01 of 07

    San Diego Zoo Visitor Guide

    Welcome to the San Diego Zoo
    ©2015 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    The San Diego Zoo is a big place - 100 acres in size and caring for thousands of animals. It's visited by more than 5 million people per year.

    San Diego Zoo Review

    The San Diego Zoo continually improves its facilities. If it's been more than a couple of years since your last visit, you'll find significant changes.

    In the past, I rated the zoo 4 stars out of 5 because I always had a good time, even if I got worn out doing it. On my most recent visit in 2015, it seemed less fun. It could be that my perspective had changed, after an African safari and a few days on Australia's Kangaroo Island. My current rating would be 3 out of 5, partly because of construction that has nearly a third of the zoo closed.

    Good and Bad at the San Diego Zoo

    To give you a balanced overall view, this is a summary of its good and bad characteristics, based on my visits and reading lots of online reviews.

    Good:

    • 90% of zoo visitors rate the San Diego Zoo either Very Good or Excellent
    • Frequent comments include "one of the best zoos," "for the entire family," "pandas are unforgettable."
    • They have an outstanding conservation program
    • Many animals are rescued and might be dead if they weren't here
    • Lots of animals to see and some rare species
    • Friendly staff

    Bad:

    • If you object to animals in captivity, this is not the place for you
    • If you like animals, but would rather see them in a more open setting, try the Safari Park instead.
    • People who give the San Diego Zoo low ratings say it's "very expensive," "overcrowded," "a bit of a letdown."
    • The zoo can be exhausting if you spend the whole day there
    • It can be very crowded in summer. If you want to see the pandas, the wait can be very long
    • A zoo is an expensive place to run. We get that, but many things feel like they're designed to make money more than anything else

    A common but unfair complaint from zoo visitors is that the animals were asleep. Think about it: what does your pet cat or dog do all day? Sleep. So do most wild animals. It isn't the zoo's fault if you find them snoozing.

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  • 02 of 07

    How to Get San Diego Zoo Tickets

    Orangutan at the San Diego Zoo
    Adapted from Michael Turk/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    The simple, obvious way to get tickets is to go to the zoo, walk up to the ticket booth, buy tickets and go in. There's nothing wrong with that. It's easy, and the lines usually aren't too long.

    You'll pay full price (of course), but you can feel virtuous: Your admission fee is a vital part of how the zoo funds its wildlife conservation activities.

    If you get a little more organized ahead of time - and especially if you're planning on visiting other San Diego attractions - you can save some money.

    All the various (and sometimes confusing) ticket options, passes, discounts and coupons are outlined in the San Diego Zoo Tickets Guide.

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  • 03 of 07

    Things You Can Do at San Diego Zoo

    Young Panda at the San Diego Zoo
    Adapted from Herbert Yu/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

    The San Diego Zoo is organized into animal areas. Trails connect them, each with a theme. Some trails are wheelchair accessible, and all are marked with their distance, time and level of difficulty.

    There's more to do than just walking around looking at the animals. They include:

    • Guided bus tour: This tour takes about half an hour and is good to get an overview of the zoo layout. Drivers are knowledgeable and provide excellent commentary. There are no stops.
    • Animal shows: Informative and entertaining, hosted by zookeepers
    • Animal encounters: These intimate activities usually come with an extra price tag. You'll find their current offerings here.
    • 4-D Shows: The zoo has two shows based on the animated films Ice Age and Rio.
    • Botanical Garden: The zoo is also a botanical garden with more than 6,500 plant species. In fact, some of its plants are more exotic than the animals

    Must-See Stops

    • Scripps Aviary
    • Polar Bear Plunge
    • Panda Trek
    • Tiger River
    • Underwater view of the hippo pond
    • Elephant Odyssey
    • Australian Outback

    How to "Do" the Zoo

    Unfortunately, the Plan Your Day feature on the zoo website is less than helpful. How do you know whether to include a Lion-tailed Macaque if you don’t know what it is? But never fear, we've got a plan that will work for most visitors:

    • Turn left just inside the entrance area and take the 'Skyfari' aerial tram across the zoo.
    • Turn right when you get off. Walk past the polar bears and around the Eagle Trail to reach the Panda Trek entrance.
    • Backtrack to take the Hippo Trail.
    • Stop at the Scripps Aviary
    • Take any trail downhill to the entrance area
    • If you want to see the elephants, take the Skyfari tram back to the top of the hill. Turn left and walk through Elephant Odyssey
    • If you're short on time or aren't very interested in the elephant exhibit, go left when you return to entry area to see the tree kangaroos and koalas.

    If you want to plan your own day, get a map. Mark the things you want to see on it. Find the one-way escalators that go uphill only. Draw your route, keeping in mind that it's an uphill walk from the entry area toward the back of the zoo. Note where the Kangaroo Express stops are and use them to help you get around, too.

    Unique Experiences and Events

    The zoo sponsors some exciting special programs, which change seasonally. Their sleepovers are particularly fun and include a tent to sleep in, dinner, evening snack, and hot breakfast. Check their website to see what's happening when you are visiting.

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  • 04 of 07

    Be a Smart San Diego Zoo Visitor

    San Diego Zoo Parking Lot Sign
    ©2015 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    Things to Know Before You Go

    • It is not feasible to visit the Safari Park on the same day you go to the zoo. It's too far away, and each park offers too much to do.
    • The zoo is always updating its facilities. Unfortunately, it's not easy to find information about that on their website. If you want to see a particular animal or area, call them at 619-231-1515 to find out whether they will be on view or not.
    • ATMs inside the zoo charge fees no matter where you bank. Get cash somewhere else before you go.
    • For the safety of the animals, pets are not allowed, and the zoo doesn't have kennels. If you're traveling with a pet, try searching Yelp to find a well-rated place to leave them, or ask at your hotel.
    • The entrance gate closes two hours before the day's stated closing time. Don't dash up at the last minute, hoping to get in.
    • If you're going early, get there a few minutes before opening time, so you can be at the gate as soon as the zoo opens. You'll beat some of the crowds and might get a chance to see the zookeepers finishing up their daily animal feedings.
    • If you're going to the zoo on the last day of your trip and need a place to stow your luggage, you can do that in the lockers across from Poppy's Patio.

    Food, Drink, Comfort

    • If you have food allergies, plan to bring your own food. The zoo says their kitchens are not equipped to prepare food separately or keep allergy-inducing ingredients away from things they cook.
    • Refreshments are plentiful at the zoo but expensive. Water is - as one reviewer put it: "eye-wateringly expensive." Bring your own bottles and fill them from a fountain instead.
    • You can bring food items in, but large coolers are not permitted. You'll find a picnic area just outside the main entrance, or you can just snack as you go.
    • It's hot and sunny at the zoo much of the year, but shady paths help. Nevertheless, bring hats and sunscreen.
    • The zoo is hilly and big. If you walk every trail, it will take about 3.5 hours, but expect to be there longer than that. Choose your footwear carefully to stay comfortable.
    • If your schedule is flexible, check the weather forecast to pick the best day. In summer, look for a day with a slight overcast. In winter, try for a sunny day.
    • During hot weather, get there early or go in the late afternoon, taking advantage of a later closing time in summer. Check their hours here.
    • School groups usually arrive about an hour after the zoo opens. If you'd prefer a quieter experience during the school year, go in the late morning or early afternoon.

    Tips for a Good San Diego Zoo Visit

    • If you're having trouble finding a parking spot, there's valet parking near the gate on busy days.
    • After a long day, it's easy to forget whether you parked near the ostrich or the elephant or some other creature you don't recognize. Write down the location where you parked or take a picture of the nearest sign with your mobile phone.
    • Hold onto your entry ticket. It’s also good for the bus tour and skyride - and you may need to show it several times during the day.
    • When you arrive, take a minute to look at the big billboard near the entry area. It will tell you what exhibits are closed for the day, and it gives the schedules for other activities.
    • The zoo layout is complicated. The map is helpful, but some people find it confusing, too. The location numbers on the maps and at many corners can help you figure out where you are. Don't be afraid to ask questions when you feel lost.
    • The Skyfari Tram and guided bus tours start half an hour or more after the zoo opens. A good way to spend your time until then is a walk right from the gate toward the Australian Outback area.
    • The Kangaroo Express bus can help you get from place to place while you rest your feet.
    • The aviaries and indoor exhibits are good spots to cool off on a hot day.
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  • 05 of 07

    San Diego Zoo With Kids

    Watching the Hippos at the San Diego Zoo
    ©2010 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    For the most part, everyone does the same thing at the zoo, but visiting it with children presents some extra challenges. These tips and ideas may help you have a more fun visit.

    Set priorities. Before you go, make a list of all the animals you and your kids want to visit.

    Walk as much as you can to start your day. After you start getting tired, use the Skyfari tram and the Kangaroo Express bus to get around and rest a bit on the way.

    The Children’s Zoo has lots of animals that you can’t see anywhere else in the zoo. There's even a Fossa (like the ones in the movie Madagascar). It’s also flat and very close to the main entrance.

    A few things you need to know:

    • All the walkways at the zoo are easily navigated with a double-wide stroller - but you can't take a double stroller on the Skyfari tram
    • Diaper changing stations are available in most restrooms.
    • For nursing mothers, the First Aid office next to the Reptile House has a private area and a microwave for warming up bottles and baby food.
    • Even if your child generally walks, the zoo can be exhausting. Bring your stroller even if you think you'll be pushing it around empty all day - or rent one at the park.
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  • 06 of 07

    Getting Around the San Diego Zoo

    San Diego Zoo Tour Bus
    ©2015 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.


    The zoo is big and hilly and can be a challenge to get around in, even for the fittest visitors. The best way to see the animals is by foot, but you'll walk about 3 to 4 miles if you see everything, and some of the paths are steep.

    Avoid the steepest climbs by using the moving sidewalks, Skyfari sky ride or Kangaroo Express bus which has four stops.

    If you or anyone in your group have trouble getting around, guided bus tours are an excellent way to get around.

    Some of the zoo trails are too steep and unsafe for ECVs and wheelchairs. They are well marked. If you have any doubts, you can ask. The zoo also provides van transportation for anyone who needs it.

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  • 07 of 07

    Frequent Questions About the San Diego Zoo - And Their Answers

    Baby Gorilla at the San Diego Zoo
    ©2008 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    San Diego Zoo by the Numbers

    • 100: Acres is the San Diego Zoo  (40 ha)
    • October 2, 1916: When the San Diego Zoo was founded
    • More than 3,700:  Rare and endangered animals
    • 700,000: Exotic plants

    Where Is San Diego Zoo Located?

    The San Diego Zoo is in Balboa Park.

    2920 Zoo Drive
    San Diego, CA
    San Diego Zoo Website

    How to Get to the San Diego Zoo

    The easiest way to get to the zoo is by automobile.

    If you can't drive or don't want to, you can take a bus. The #7 city bus stops at the Zoo. So does the Old Town Trolley Tours bus service. The San Diego Trolley (the one that runs on tracks) goes through downtown and Old Town but doesn't go to the zoo.

    Avoid local tour companies who offer ticket/transportation packages. They can cost significantly more than the full ticket price with no chance for discounts, and your time is limited. In fact, you may find a car rental less expensive.

    As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary tickets for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.