The Best of the San Diego Zoo with Kids


As a fifth-year San Diego Zoo member and a mama of two children, I have spent a lot of time at this world-renowned zoo.  I know the best places to eat, which animals kids love to see, and the special extras that make a visit memorable.  This zoo is huge so if you have little ones who need to nap or you just don’t want to spend an entire day gazing at animals, you should focus on the best the zoo has to offer instead of trying to see every single animal in one day. I provide the location of each recommended attraction in parentheses.  View a San Diego zoo map. Here’s the best of the best at the San Diego Zoo with kids.

The flamingos and ducks are favorites for the zoo's youngest visitors

The flamingos and ducks are favorites for the zoo’s youngest visitors (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

An Unexpected Favorite – Flamingo and Duck Pond (Lost Forest)

Imitate the flamingos standing on one leg and “quack” at the ducks at this pond. This is an easy exhibit to work into your schedule since it is located near the zoo’s entrance.  Even though you will see many more exotic animals at this zoo, these birds are always a favorite, especially for toddlers and preschoolers.

Mama panda Bai Yun is one of the zoo's most beloved residents

Mama panda Bai Yun is one of the zoo’s most beloved residents (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Best Path to San Diego Zoo’s Most Famous Residents – Pandas (Panda Canyon)

The zoo’s most popular residents are its pandas, Bai Yun and her newest baby, Zhen-Zhen. On busy summer weekends you may have to wait in a long line to see the Oreo-colored bears. There are several paths to reach this exhibit in the zoo’s center, but I recommend taking the Monkey Trails through the Lost Forest. View monkeys and apes of all sorts as well as pygmy hippos and more along this route. If you have a stroller or a wheelchair, you will need to walk through Owens Aviary (past colorful birds and flowing water) and along the Sun Bear Trail (past bears and more monkeys) to reach Panda Canyon. Other visitors can take a more direct route via stairs at the end of the Monkey Trails.  View the live Panda Cam.

Most Beautiful Exhibit – Gorilla Exhibit (Lost Forest)

This lush exhibit is overflowing with waterfalls and greenery.  Get a sense of just how big these apes are by placing your hands in gorilla-cast imprints.  Kids love climbing on the life-size sculptures of the gorillas.

Most Elaborate Exhibit – Elephant Exhibit (Elephant Odyssey)

This newly updated area of the zoo is definitely worth seeing. Learn about the world’s largest land animals and their prehistoric relatives, the mastodons, while wandering past live Indian and African elephants. You will also see camels, jaguars, and lions, among other animals.  View the live Elephant Cam.

That's me with my daughter, Karissa, aboard the SkyFari Aerial Tram in 2006

That’s me with my daughter, Karissa, aboard the SkyFari Aerial Tram in 2006 (Photo credit: Heather Melton)

Most Uplifting Experience – SkyFari Aerial Tram (Discovery Outpost and Polar Rim)

You can board the SkyFari Aerial Tram near the Children’s Zoo in Discovery Outpost or near the lovely water-filled polar bear exhibit in the Polar Rim. The ride sends you soaring above the treetops and gives a birds-eye view of the animals below. It’s also a handy way to get from one side of the zoo to the other. View the live Polar Bear Cam.

Best Hands-On Experience – Feeding the Giraffes (Urban Jungle)

If you’re visiting during the summer or on a weekend, check the schedule for giraffe-feeding times. Your kids won’t soon forget handing branches of leaves to these sweet, towering animals.

San Diego Zoo koala

This koala surprised me by climbing the branches of this eucalyptus tree rather than engaging in its usual koala activities – eating leaves or sleeping (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Cuddliest Creature – Koalas (Outback)

A visit to the cuddly koalas is probably a necessity, especially if you are traveling with an elementary-school-aged girl. Take a peek at nearby adorable creatures like wallabies and tree kangaroos while you’re at it.

Discovery Playground in the Children's Zoo at the San Diego Zoo

Discovery Playground in the Children’s Zoo (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Best Place for Kids to Play – Children’s Zoo (Discovery Outpost)

This is a great place to let the kids get their wiggles out. The Discovery Playground has a twisty slide and climbing equipment but beware that toddler feet will likely get caught in the rubber climbing netting. There is a petting zoo with goats, sheep, pigs and the like. The playful otters who take up residence in the Children’s Zoo tend to be a big hit with children and adults alike. Also, kids love to watch mice crawling through the Mouse House, which is fashioned from a giant loaf of real bread.

Best Way to Squeeze it All in – Bus Tour (Near Zoo Entrance)

If you want to see most of the zoo (75%) during a short time-frame, you can cough up a few extra bucks for the bus tour.  You see a multitude of animals with the added benefit of the driver’s educational commentary. Plus, most kids love sitting on the top level of the double-decker bus.  However, if you have a child age three or younger, skip it.  The tour takes 35 minutes+ and you’ll spend most of your time placating your little one rather than enjoying the ride.

Best Food – Sabertooth Grill (Elephant Odyssey) and Canyon Café (Asian Passage, near Panda Canyon)

The Sabertooth Grill is one of the best eateries in the park.  Most zoo food comes deep-fried and tastes like, well, zoo food. You can, however, find healthy, tasty options like wraps and salads at this restaurant. Their soups are surprisingly delicious.

At my other favorite zoo restaurant, Canyon Café, I recommend the chicken taco platter. It’s not the best taco you’ll eat in San Diego, but it may be the best food you’ll find at the zoo.

Kids meals are available at restaurants throughout the zoo. Expect standards like chicken strips, hot dogs, or quesadillas depending on the restaurant. Outside food and drink besides baby food are not allowed but the San Diego Zoo is pretty lenient when it comes to packing children’s snacks.

A ride aboard the Balboa Park Railroad Miniature Train is a fun way to top off a day at the San Diego Zoo

A ride aboard the Balboa Park Railroad Miniature Train is a fun way to top off a day at the San Diego Zoo (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Best Finale for Good Behavior – Balboa Park Railroad Miniature Train and Balboa Park Carousel (Outside the Zoo’s Entrance)

A miniature train located just outside the zoo’s entrance typically runs every day during the summer and spring break but only on weekends during off-season.  If sharing a train with a gaggle of school-age children, beware that field-tripping kids scream in unison through the tunnel. It’s best to wait for the next train.

The Balboa Park Carousel, built in 1910, is one of the few carousels left in the world that still offers the brass ring game. Big kids and adults who want to play choose an outside horse and reach out to grasp the small rings on each spin.  Iron rings don’t count; only the rider who nabs the brass ring wins a free ride.

Do you have a favorite exhibit or zoo activity not listed above?  Or do you have any questions about how to make the most of your visit to the San Diego Zoo?  Let us know in the comments!

A Note from The Travel Mama: I did not receive any media discounts or compensation related to this post. All opinions are mine, as always.

About Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama

Colleen Lanin is a mom of two and the founder/editor-in-chief of TravelMamas.com. As the author of THE TRAVEL MAMAS' GUIDE, she teaches parents not only how to survive a trip with children, but also how to love exploring the world with their offspring. Her stories have appeared online and in print for such outlets as the "Today" show, NBCNews.com, Parenting Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Expedia, San Diego Family Magazine, and more. Colleen teaches blogging classes and has given travel tips on television, radio, and as a paid video blogger. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing.

Comments

  1. What a great post for any visitor to San Diego Zoo. I will need to bookmark, print and save it for my future trip. :)

  2. Great article! I will bookmark it as well for future trip planning ideas!

  3. This is a great blog!

  4. Great post Colleen. We have not taken all four of our kiddos to the zoo. Now seems like the perfect time while they are free in October. Thanks for all of the great ideas. I will be sure to print and take with me so as not to forget a single thing. Will you have a post on the wild animal park too???

  5. Melissa Keith says:

    Great post! Also, if people are from the LA area or somewhere within a couple hours drive SD Zoo’s membership is STILL worth it to get. If you are going more than once and also vositin the Wild Animal Park, its a great bargain. And you get zoonooz which is my 2 yr olds favorite. :). Elephant odessey is my FAVORITE restaurant now. Ever since it opened– great seating area too. I like how its kinda coralled too so your kiddos can have a lil bit of freedom.

  6. Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

    Thank you everyone for your great comments and tips! Kelly – I do plan to do a post on the San Diego Wild Animal Park’s Roar N’ Snore Sleepovers soon!

  7. We love the San Diego Zoo too! Isn’t is great? You’re spot-on, too, with these must-see exhibits. How lucky that you got to see the panda AWAKE, by the way; whenever we go, and stand on line for a peek, it’s naptime for the pandas.
    :)

  8. Great idea to include a map of the Zoo since it is so large. The additional links to the pandas and elephants makes the article really dynamic.

  9. Jennifer D. says:

    Thanks for the information. We are planning a trip to San Diego from Seattle with our daughter, 10, and looking for ideas on how to make the most of one day at the San Diego Zoo. Do you have a “best suggested route” through the zoo to see the best exhibits?

  10. Jennifer – If you are planning to be there all day long, this is what I’d suggest:
    -Go past flamingos & then through the Monkey Trails in the Lost Forest
    -Go to Panda Canyon to view pandas while still early & lines aren’t too long
    -Eat lunch at Canyon Cafe or if you aren’t hungry yet, wait until you go through Elephant Odyssey to eat at Sabertooth Grill
    -Take escalators up through Asian Passage to see Elephant Odyssey
    -After that, you could walk down through Africa Rocks to see giraffes, etc. & then over to Outback to see koalas & kangaroos – or – you could backtrack a bit to see polar bears & then take the Skyfari over to the Children’s Zoo for otters & petting zoo before heading out for the day (with a stop at the train just outside the entrance if your daughter isn’t too cool for that yet!)
    -If you don’t mind walking a lot & you have time, you can do the former & then walk over to Children’s Zoo & take the Skyfari to polar bears before walking back to entrance through the other side of Lost Forest to see hippos & tigers.

    Of course, if you don’t want to walk that much, you could always take the Bus Tour & then just select which animals you’d like to see up close afterwards.

    I hope that helps! Please write after your visit & let me know how you liked visiting “my” zoo!

  11. Thank you for the valuable website. We will be taking our two grandchildren to the zoo this summer. They do get fidgety (ages 4 and 6) I noticed a face painter in the entry.. and they would probably like that and the play structure as much as anything. Do you know if the face painter is there every day? I loved hearing what you thought was the best.. We have season passes so will check it out before the grandchildren arrive in July.

    Thank you for any info

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Hi Maxine – Truthfully, we have never done the face-painting at the zoo but I do believe this is something that is always offered. Enjoy your time at the zoo with your grandchildren & thanks for your comment!

      • Thank you Colleen,

        What do you think of the Express Bus to see certain animals.. Is it easy to get off and on or is there a lot of waiting.. We waited quite a while to go on the guided Bus tour and wondered if the Express Bus would be easier.. Also, We loved the commentary on the double decker bus but did not see as many animals as we thought we would … not sure if it would appeal to very young children.

        • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

          Hi Maxine – We rode the guided bus tour when my kids were aged 2 and 5 (or so) but they were to young to enjoy it and got very fidgety – especially the little one. Now that they are older (5 & 8), they have been saying they’d like to go on the bus tour so I think we’ll give it another go. I agree with you that you don’t see the animals very up-close on the bus tour. The African Tram Safari ride at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park might be a better option for younger kids (but, again, the tour lasts longer than my kids’ limited attention spans). With your zoo bus tour ticket you get the added bonus of using the Express Bus, which can be helpful if you want to cut down on walking, walking, walking all day!

  12. Thanks for such a great post! We are planning a trip in October with our 5 children. The youngest will be a year and a half so a stroller is a must. Do you know if they allow strollers on the skyfari?

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Amy – As long as you can fold up your stroller, you are welcome to bring it on the Skyfari with you. Enjoy your San Diego Zoo visit!

  13. Hi Colleen, I am going to bring my granddaughters (6 and 4) to the zoo in July 2014 and enjoyed your itinerary, however, I was wondering if you have a better map than the one on the zoo site. It’s too small and I’m having a hard time mapping out your directions. I would love if you could guide me to a better map so I can follow your itinerary…we’re coming from Hawaii so this is all new to us :)
    Thanks,
    Mary

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Mary – You and your granddaughters will love the San Diego Zoo! I updated the map link above to show the most recent zoo map. Printing out the map might help. Click “Download” next to the word “Map” at the top. Then print the page by clicking the printer image at the bottom right of the page. Hope that helps!

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