The San Diego Zoo is the 6th largest in the world, comprising 4,000 animals and 700 species on 100 acres of parkland in famous Balboa Park. The Zoo is also celebrating its centennial anniversary this year, as a result of the vision of Dr. Harry Milton whose affection for a lion cub and determination to save endangered species one at a time.
The admission ticket isn’t cheap, but it’s totally justified. It’s an entertaining place like no other zoo, especially if you have excited kids waiting to see their favorite animals. The short movie prior to taking the guided bus tour is interesting. It shows a brief historical background, the goals of the Zoo and its global involvement to help protect and save endangered species in the most life threatening and precarious conditions around the world. For example, despite rough weather and gusty winds, a group of animal lovers and researchers trying to protect a nearly extinct, small honey bird in its native Hawaii is heartwarming. Their quest to find their nests, collect their eggs, hatch them and release them back into nature is indeed noble.
The guided tour takes visitors around most of the park and offers a wonderful overview, stopping along the way so that visitors can view animals, such as elephants, polar bears, hippos, lions, camels, meerkats, giraffes, kangaroos, leopards and more. It’s a great way to see the Zoo in case you can’t make it through its entirety in one day. The path is mostly lined with soaring trees and bamboo plants that exude a tropical forest. Some areas along the path are reserved for banana plantations, which provide food for some animals, and bamboo for, of course, the panda bears. One area in particular is under construction for another two years in preparation for an African Safari.
It’s obviously difficult to cover the whole Zoo with two toddlers and their love for animals in one day. Our little ones stopped at every cage just to talk to the animals without any inhibition, and taking them away was always a tough task (sometimes we weren’t above bribery).
The Skyfari – A Bird’s Eye View of the Zoo
Skyfari is a great feature in the park that allows you to ride above ground in a small cart from one end to the other, easily connecting the entrance to the back of the park without having to walk too much. Either way, walking isn’t optional if you want to see all the animals.
An interesting fact about the giraffes in the park is that there are plenty. There’s also a small baby giraffe, which was a mere 5 ft. 5, the smallest baby giraffe the park has ever had. It was wonderful to see and admire such a baby shorter than us. Also, it was wonderful to see a dog interact with a puma and leopard. We were wondering if the dog was the bait, but it was there simply to calm the leopard and puma. What a way to control animal behavior by another one, right?
Giant Pandas at Panda Trek
Giant Pandas are a must-see attraction at the Zoo. Since 2011, it’s only one of four in the United States to have pandas. Originally borrowed from China in an exchange program, the two pandas at the exhibit were born in the USA. Contrary to general belief, a panda isn’t sweet and cuddly but aggressive. After all, pandas are bears. Although they’re mainly solitary creatures, they also like being in groups but respect another’s space. They aren’t white, either, but dirty. “You can photoshop them in white when you get home,” one zookeeper said to a visitor, who expressed her surprise by commenting on the dingy hair color.
A panda always belongs to the Chinese government, even if it’s born overseas. Moreover, they are only on loan and are constantly exchanged between the countries. When it’s breeding time for these two at the Zoo, they’ll actually end up in China.
Owens and Scripps Aviary
This huge aviary contains hundreds of birds that roam free. It’s a great place to visit and relax on one of the benches to admire them. There are some beautiful species, such as woodpeckers, lorries, pheasants, jacanas and kingfishers. The large waterfall inside also makes the place a wonderland for fowl and visitors alike.
Welcome to Koalafornia – The Australian Outback
Koalafornia houses many species, such as koala bears, wallabies, wombats and Tasmanian devils. The San Diego Zoo is one of two which house them in the United States. The other is the Rio Grande Zoo in Albuquerque, New Mexico. By the way, the Tasmanian devil is the world’s largest nocturnal carnivorous marsupial that travels miles and miles at night looking for food.
Play at the Petting Zoo
The petting zoo is always a great place for kids to be with animals. My daughter had so much fun petting the goats and showing them some love. At one point, she was brushing the goat’s hair, explaining that “it’s a dirty goat”—I could only laugh. After 45 minutes of petting, she still wasn’t ready to leave and practically threw a fit for not letting her stay longer. Luckily, the Zoo’s playground calmed the kids down and was a place for them to have a lot of fun.
Visiting a zoo can be totally unpredictable. The animals may not be available all the time for every eager visitor to see, but I admit that it’s part of the program. I’ve been to so many zoos, and they have become nearly one in the same to me over time. However, the San Diego Zoo is absolutely different. I will certainly return one day to enjoy the areas I loved the most and visit the areas I missed.
There are several tips to consider if you want to save time and money
1. Don’t pay the full ticket price
Zoo brochures in any hotel offer $5 off the ticket price. Unfortunately, there isn’t a senior discount. Alternatively, a San Diego Citypass offers packages that can save you some money. You get either a 10% discount or $5 off, which actually comes to the same deal but still offers a savings. Kids from 3-11 are not free (except in October) and cost $35 (minus the discount). Kids 2 and younger are free.
2. Bring plenty of snacks and water
If you have a day at the Zoo with children and/or babies, it’s absolutely necessary to bring some snacks. Even though there are snack places and restaurants available everywhere, they’re pricey and you can end up spending $30 to $40 per meal. Bring apples, oranges, grapes, crackers, water bottles, cheese sticks and some chips—it’s a great way to save money.
3. Be the early bird
The Zoo opens at 9:30 am, so be there early to avoid the crowds at the ticket windows. You can also use your smartphone to book tickets in advance and sometimes skip long lines. Most animals are also active in the morning and late evening. Therefore, the earlier you arrive, the better your chances are to enjoy watching some of the animals, such as tigers, polar bears and pandas. As the day progresses, you tend to see only animals sleeping and doing nothing at all.
4. Take the guided tour bus in the morning
The tour helps you to figure out what your priorities are. The Zoo is massive, and you’ll most likely not see the whole park in one day. Take the bus, located where you want to visit and come back after the tour. The guides are very knowledgeable, and there’s time for questions afterwards.
5. Get information from volunteer staffs
Don’t write them off. They’re very resourceful, friendly and experienced.
6. The Giant Pandas are popular
Keep in mind that it may take up to one hour to see them.
7. Stop and smell the exotic plants & flowers
The Zoo is also a botanical garden and filled with tropical fruits, exotic plants and flowers, banana plantations and bamboo.
8. In case you miss something
There are live cameras on the Zoo’s website—check it out!
Have a good time at the San Diego Zoo!