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Best San Diego Zoo with Kids Tips & Itinerary

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As a multi-year San Diego Zoo member and mom of two animal-loving children, I have spent A LOT of time at this world-renowned zoo. I know which animals children love to see, the best places to eat, and the special extras that make San Diego Zoo with kids memorable. This zoo is huge so you probably won't be able to see all of it in one day. Use my tips and suggested San Diego Zoo itinerary to help you make the most of your visit.

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San Diego Zoo with Kids Tips and Itinerary from a San Diego Expert

Best Way to See Most of San Diego Zoo in One Day

Bus Tour near Zoo Entrance

If you want to see most of the zoo (about 75 percent) during a short timeframe, cough up a few extra bucks for the bus tour.  You will view 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. If you have a child age 3 or younger, though, I suggest skipping it. The tour takes 35+ minutes and you’ll spend most of your time placating your little one rather than enjoying the ride.

Most kids get a kick out of riding the double decker bus tour at San Diego Zoo

Most kids get a kick out of riding the double decker bus tour at San Diego Zoo (Photo credit: San Diego Zoo)

Kid Favorites at the San Diego Zoo

Flamingo and Duck Pond in 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.

Kids love the flamingo exhibit near San Diego Zoo's entrance

Kids love the flamingo exhibit near San Diego Zoo's entrance (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Otters in Lost Forest and along Center Street

The otters at the San Diego Zoo are typically some of the most active and playful zoo residents. Children just love to watch otters climb, dive, slide and swim. You can view a Cape clawless otter along Center Street as well as spotted-neck otters in Lost Forest.

Otters at San Diego Zoo with kids

Otters entertain all ages with their antics at San Diego Zoo (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Penguins at Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks

Children giggle with delight when watching San Diego Zoo's flock of flightless African penguins waddle and play. Plan to spend a lot of time at this exhibit.

Penguins playing at the San Diego Zoo

Penguins playing at the San Diego Zoo (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Best Path to See Pandas

Center Street a.k.a. Bear Canyon

San Diego Zoo's most popular residents are its pandas. On busy summer weekends you may have to wait in a long line to see the Oreo-colored bears. The pandas have moved from Panda Canyon to Bear Canyon, closer to the entrance. Upon entering the zoo, take a right along Front Street and then take a left before Sydney's Cafe, onto Center Street to access Bear Canyon.  View the live Panda Cam.

The giant pandas are among the most popular residents of the San Diego Zoo ~ San Diego Zoo with Kids

Giant pandas are among the most popular residents of the San Diego Zoo (Photo credit: San Diego Zoo)

Most Beautiful Exhibit

Gorillas in 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-sized sculptures of the gorillas. Be careful, though, the bronze statues can get hot in summer.

A mama gorilla and her baby at San Diego Zoo with kids

A mama gorilla and her baby (Photo credit: San Diego Zoo)

Most Elaborate Exhibits

Elephant Odyssey

Elephant Odyssey is definitely worth seeing at the San Diego Zoo with kids. 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 in this area of the zoo.

Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo with kids

Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Polar Bear Plunge in Northern Frontier

If you're lucky, you might see a polar bear going for a swim and splashing about at Polar Bear Plunge during your visit to the San Diego Zoo with kids. You can view this massive mammal from an underwater viewing area or from above. The educational displays here show children how much polar bears need to eat each day (a lot!). There's also a crawl-through polar bear cave made of faux plastic ice. Watch the Polar Bear Cam now.

A polar bear taking a swim to cool off during a visit to San Diego Zoo with kids

A polar bear taking a swim to cool off at San Diego Zoo (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Best View of San Diego Zoo

SkyFari at Discovery Outpost and Northern Frontier

Board SkyFari near the Children’s Zoo in Discovery Outpost or near Polar Bear Plunge in Northern Frontier. The ride will send your family soaring above the treetops for 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. There is an additional fee to ride this attraction but San Diego Zoo members ride for free.

The Skyfari ride provides great views of San Diego Zoo with kids

The Skyfari ride provides great views of the zoo (Photo credit: San Diego Zoo)

Best Hands-On Experience

Feeding Giraffes at 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 treats to these sweet, towering animals.

A baby and mama giraffe cuddling at San Diego Zoo with kids

A baby and mama giraffe snuggling (Photo credit: San Diego Zoo)

Cuddliest Creatures

Koalas in Outback

A visit to the cuddly koalas is probably a necessity, especially if you're visiting with an elementary-school-aged girl. Don't expect a lot of action, though. Koalas are sleepy creatures so most likely you will find them taking a nap during your visit. Take a peek at nearby adorable creatures like wallabies and tree kangaroos in Outback while you’re there.

This koala at San Diego Zoo looks like he's waving hello, doesn't he?

This koala looks like he's waving hello, doesn't he? (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Best Place for Kids to Play

Discovery Playground in Discovery Outpost

The Discovery Playground provides a great place to let kids run around and get their wiggles out. It features a twisty slide and climbing equipment. Beware that toddler feet will likely get caught in the rubber climbing netting. While in Discovery Outpost, stop by the Petting Paddock to get up-close to goats, sheep, pigs and other farm animals. Check the daily schedule for animal encounters in this children's zoo area.

Discovery Playground at San Diego Zoo with kids

The Discovery Playground is a hit with children at San Diego Zoo (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Best Food at San Diego Zoo with Kids

For surprisingly good lattes and other coffee drinks plus baked goods, check out Jungle Java in Lost Forest near the zoo's entrance.

Meanwhile, 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. Plus, their soups are especially delicious.

If you'd like to indulge in a sit-down meal with table service at San Diego Zoo, you can! Make reservations in advance or pop into Albert's along the Monkey Trail. The food is good, the setting is lovely and there are some decent wines on the menu. But, I personally would rather spend my time exploring the zoo than eating a lengthy meal.

Does this look like zoo food to you? Albert's serves the fanciest cuisine I've ever seen at a zoo!

Does this look like zoo food to you? Albert's serves the fanciest cuisine I've ever seen at a zoo! (Photo from zoo.sandiegozoo.org)

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 drinks besides baby food are not allowed, but the San Diego Zoo is pretty lenient when it comes to packing children’s snacks. Since the zoo is located within the beautiful Balboa Park, you could easily bring a cooler filled with food to keep in your (rental) car. Get your hand stamped to enjoy a meal at a picnic table in the park and reenter once bellies are full.

Top of your visit to the San Diego Zoo with kids with a ride on the Balboa Park Railroad

Top of your visit to San Diego Zoo with a ride on the Balboa Park Railroad (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Best Way to End a Visit to San Diego Zoo with Kids

Balboa Park Railroad Miniature Train and Balboa Park Carousel

A miniature train located just outside the zoo’s entrance typically runs every day during the summer and spring break but only on weekends 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.

Balboa Park Carousel, built in 1910, is one of the few carousels in the world that still offers the brass ring game. Big kids and adults who want to play should choose an outside horse. Then 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.

Kids of all ages love San Diego Zoo

Kids of all ages love San Diego Zoo (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Best San Diego Zoo with Kids Itinerary

This itinerary does not cover every single animal at the San Diego Zoo. It's a big zoo, after all. But it includes the highlights with options for shortening or lengthening your visit to suit your family's needs. If you're feeling very ambitious, you could try to squeeze in additional Africa Rocks exhibits, the Lost Forest with its Tiger Trail and Hippo Trail, as well as the giant tortoises and Reptile House located outside the children's zoo area of Discovery Outpost. To watch any of the zoo's animal shows and demonstrations, you may need to modify your itinerary somewhat. View a San Diego zoo map here to find locations and plan your day.

When arriving early in the day, stop by Jungle Java near the entrance to get your caffeine jolt to help you tackle the zoo. Then head to Center Street (a.k.a. Bear Canyon) where you can spy on bears of all sorts, including San Diego Zoo's famous pandas. It's smart to head here early in the day before lines for panda viewing get too long. An optional add-on is to make your rounds through Outback to view koalas and other adorable animals from Down Under before hitting up Center Street.

If you're hungry, stop for some Asian lunch at Hua Mei Cafe, named for the zoo's matriarch resident panda. Otherwise, wait to eat at Sabertooth Grill near Elephant Odyssey, my pick for the best food at San Diego Zoo. To get there, walk through a portion of Africa Rocks, and spy on playful African penguins along the way.

After lunch, head up through Elephant Odyssey to view the pachyderms and learn about their ancestors. You'll see big cats like lions before reaching Northern Frontier, where polar bears are the star.

Next, board Skyfari West for an uplifting way to view the zoo and to reach Discovery Outpost. If you'd rather walk, take the bridge across the former Panda Canyon. Then wind your way through the Monkey Trails. If taking this route, make sure to stop by the gorgeous gorilla exhibit.

In Discovery Outpost, pet the farm animals in the Petting Paddock. Then rest your feet while children explore the Discovery Playground. Lastly, hit up the Flamingo and Duck Pond before you head out, if you did not already see this exhibit at the end of your Monkey Trails tour.

After exiting San Diego Zoo, round out your day with a ride on the Balboa Park Railroad and a spin on the Balboa Park Carousel.

More to Do in San Diego with Kids

San Diego Zoo is just one of many incredible things to do in San Diego. Read our picks for the top 15 San Diego attractions for kids. (Can you guess where the zoo ranks?) Save up to 55% on over 40 of San Diego's best attractions, like the San Diego Zoo, with a Go San Diego Card. Find additional San Diego Zoo sales and deals including ticket discounts and hotel package discounts from Travel Mamas' partner, Get Away Today.

Do you have a favorite exhibit or activity at San Diego Zoo? Or do you have any questions about visiting San Diego Zoo with kids? Let us know in the comments below!

A Note from The Travel Mama: I did not receive any compensation related to this story. All opinions are mine, as always. This story originally went live in 2009 and was updated in 2017 to reflect changes in the zoo's offerings and exhibits.

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About Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of TravelMamas.com. As the author of her book, "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 gives tips on television, radio, and as a public speaker. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.

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!

  14. Thanks to giving a very nice information about a san diego zoo,that helps to when going with kids..If you are giving a map of this zoo,so its better for me..

  15. just got back from San Diego zoo and it’s amazing and you can’t see the whiole park so we prioritize what we wanted to see. We saw all major attractions and let the kids enjoy the park. We didn’t push them to go see all since for little toddlers they like to see several but they got to enjoy petting zoo the playground etc. great post and pictures thanks

  16. I am planning on going there with my 3 year old son. Do you recommend to stay at a nearby hotel? Please advice of great hotels nearby.

  17. Wondering if you think toddlers have the attention span to do the Early Morning with the Pandas tour? We will have three-18 month year olds and a 4 year old in our group. We love the idea of the tour because it begins at 8:30am, which lets us maximize our morning at the zoo until nap time.
    Any thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Hi Katie – I haven’t personally done that tour. I see that it is 2 hours long, which might be a bit much with so many littles. It does sound interesting with the upclose animal encounters, though! If you are visiting in summer, especially on weekends, the line to see the pandas can be quite long. However, if you arrive right as the zoo opens and go straight for the pandas (going down Bear Canyon is the most direct route), you should not have to wait. I was just at the San Diego Zoo last week and was surprised to find there was zero line to see the pandas around 11 am, but February is off-season. Also, the pandas typically just lay there sleeping, so they’re not the most interactive animals at the zoo. Since they will be eating during the Early Morning with the Pandas tour, that might be more exciting. It’s really up to you to decide if you’re group will be able to handle a 2-hour tour! Either way, enjoy your San Diego Zoo visit!

  18. The San Diego Zoo is an amazing place. We visited when we were in the area a couple of years ago, and it was one of the best zoos we’ve ever been to.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      My family is so lucky to have visited the San Diego Zoo so many times. We enjoy every visit!

  19. I’m from California and never went to the San Diego Zoo! I wish I had when I lived there, though, because these pictures make me wanna go now!

  20. I have not been to the San Diego zoo since I was a kid. Back then it was gorgeous I am sure it is even more gorgeous now. I would love to be able take my kiddos there and explore that zoo again. I like everything that you had mentioned here. These tips definitely are helpful.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Glad you find the tips helpful, Jeanette! I love how San Diego Zoo gives their animals such expansive and nature-filled homes.

  21. Now that we live in Arizona, we are planning on taking a trip to San Diego with our twins. The zoo is definitely on our itinerary! I’m bookmarking this because I know it will be a great resource when we go! Thanks!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      I live in Arizona now, too, Lisa! San Diego is such an easy and fun destination for us Zonies. Enjoy your SoCal vacay!

  22. What a beautiful zoo! Our local zoo is small and does not have too many animals. I would love to visit this zoo, I have heard great things about it in the past.

  23. This is one of our favorite zoo’s too! My kids had a blast here last time we were there!

  24. What a great day! I still remember visiting the San Diego Zoo as a kid. I’d love to take my kids someday!

  25. I would love to visit the San Diego Zoo! It looks like there are so many fun activities to do there as well as view and learn about the animals. Those flamingos are SO vibrant!

  26. This is so much beautiful. I can feel that you had awesome adventure!

  27. I haven’t been to a zoo in ages. The San Diego Zoo will be awesome to see. My favorite animals are the tigers.

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