San Diego Zoo: 10 Tips for Families

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San Diego Zoo

We recently did a trip to San Diego Zoo and wanted to share a few tips with our readers who may be planning a trip to southern California. (If you are, check out Ruby’s on the Pier, SeaWorld, and The Mormon Battalion).

Map courtesy of San Diego Zoo.
Map courtesy of San Diego Zoo. Click the map to see the full picture.

Here are some things we found helpful as we visited the San Diego Zoo.

1. Go early! The animals are up and moving first thing in the morning, so the best time to visit is right when the zoo opens at 9 am. Then you also have enough time to see everything before it closes at night. Luckily, it is open longer in the summer!

2. Visit the pandas early. The panda exhibit is quite busy because there are few zoos that have pandas. My sisters headed straight toward the pandas, while we went over toward the Koalas and then down to the pandas. Neither of us had to wait at all, but the line can get up to 45 minutes long. So our advice is try to squeeze panda viewing into the first hour you are at the zoo.

The pandas weren’t doing much when we were there.
We went to the Koalas first and they were out moving around. It was fun to see them eating.
We walked past the Tasmanian Devils on the way to the Koalas and they were running all over. Our boys loved it!. Mornings are really the best to see animals moving.

3. Use the Express bus at the end of the day. The San Diego Zoo has this awesome Kangaroo Bus (different than the guided bus tour) that has five stops around one of the loops of the zoo. This was very useful when our children (and adults) were tuckered out. We rode from stop to stop and were able to see all the animals on the loop with minimal whining.

4. Ride the tram, too! The saddest thing I found out when we were planning our trip to San Diego was that the tram has one week a year where it’s closed for scheduled maintenance, and it was the week we were there. Boo hoo! But for those of you who go other times of the year, ride the tram back to the exit. It is a fun ride and then you don’t have to walk back from the other side of the park. Or you can ride from the exit over to the Polar Bears and work your way down that side of the loop…either way it’s a win-win situation. Each one day pass covers a one-way ride on the tram, so you’ve got to use it.

5. Bring your own lunch. The San Diego Zoo lets you bring in whatever food you want! So don’t buy expensive zoo food, but bring in lots of snacks and water. Then at lunch time, run to your car, and get your cooler. Most hotels have small fridges so you can go to a local grocery store the night before or morning of your trip to the zoo, and buy a healthy, cheap lunch! There are tables near the entrance where you can sit and eat your homemade lunch.

6.  Take the guided bus tour after lunch. After a full morning of running around the zoo and with full bellies, our kids were in need of some calm time. The bus tour station is near the picnic tables and entrance, so hop on for a 35 minute bus tour. The tour is awesome…they take you to the part of the zoo where the Kangaroo Bus stops as well, so you get a little sneak preview. Also, little ones often fall asleep on this ride so you can squeeze in a little nap for them. This is part of your entrance fee to the zoo.

We loved riding the buses and were grateful for the break from walking.

7. Save Discovery Outpost for the end. This part of the zoo has a playground and a petting zoo, and a few small animal exhibits, but most of those things you can see at your local zoo or neighborhood. So if you still have energy and want to visit this section of the park at the end of your day, you definitely should, but we hustled through here so we wouldn’t miss anything else in the zoo and afterward decided it was a little unnecessary.

8. Get excited! The San Diego Zoo has an awesome website. A few days before we left for California, we spent the day watching the different animal cams and reading about all the animals they have at their zoo. My boys couldn’t wait after we saw the animals moving around on the website, plus we had a good idea of what animals we wanted to see that we had never seen before.

Our boys wanted to see everything at the zoo so they checked the map to make sure mom and dad weren’t skipping any side places.

9. Use this route to see the zoo in one day (It’s the one we used and we saw everything). Don’t forget to take all the side routes so you don’t miss anything: 1) Take Front Street to the Koalas, 2) Go up Center Street to Parkway to see the Pandas, 3) Turn left on Hippo Trail and head back around to the Scripps Aviary, 4) Go up Monkey Trail to the top and come back down Tree Tops Way, 5) Eat lunch and then use the buses and tram to see the rest of the zoo, including using the stops at Northern Frontier and Elephant Odyssey.

10. Don’t hurry your little ones. This may seem obvious, but it is hard to remember. Pandas are so rare and amazing that we hurry right by the flamingos to get to them. But pandas are also, truthfully, boring. A 2 or 3 year-old is just as impressed, if not more impressed by an animal that may seem commonplace to you if that animal is actually doing something. We had to remind ourselves to slow down several times and notice the “normal” things.

Our boys loved the zoo! They were excited to see anything!


This was one of our favorites at the Reptile house.. the Basilisk lizard that can run on water!
We took a ton of pictures! But I’m just including one last one…


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