In April, I took a trip to the San Diego Zoo. Since I hadn’t visited since I was around 2-3 years old, I would consider this pretty much my first time visiting. I was so excited to see the animal exhibits and learn more about all the conservation efforts going on at the zoo!
And as per my typical fashion, I analyzed the map and looked up all the tips I could find on how to make this a fun and efficient day for me and my group!
I wanted to make this blog post to share my favorite parts of the day, what tips worked for me, new tips of my own to share, and what I think could be improved about the experience. So let’s jump in!
Just wanna see the animals? Skip ahead to see the photos!
Tip #1: Plan Ahead!
If you want to have a good trip, it actually starts well before the day of! I took the time to look over the map of the zoo, pick out the exhibits I knew I had to hit, and come up with a relatively smooth path to cover as much ground as efficiently as possible.
This also helps with the budget side of things! Just a little bit of research can snag you even a $5 discount on tickets if you purchase ahead of time instead of buying them at the gate. Additionally, if you have access to any corporate discounts, that might even be your best option! Luckily a friend of mine had a pretty good corporate discount so we were able to save around $10 per ticket!
Tip #2: Arrive Early
The zoo opens at 9:00 AM every day. Coming early has lots of perks. First, not everyone comes at this time, so it’s a lot less crowded in the morning than it is later in the afternoon. Second, because of San Diego’s very sunny weather, it’s a lot cooler in the morning too, so not only will it be more comfortable for you, it’s also more comfortable for the animals. By midday most of the animals we saw were hiding in the shade (just like I was), but in the morning they were still out and about.
Tip #3: Take the Bus Tour
The bus tour is a MUST. It’s located right at the entrance of the park to the right, and hard to miss. It’s a great way to get an overview of the park all while sitting down! (You’ll be on your feet all day, trust me) I loved doing this as our very first activity so I could get a better sense of where the exhibits were and make note of the ones I for sure wanted to see up close. The tour covers about 70% of the park, so just in those 20 minutes, you really do cover a lot of ground. And if you go in the morning, the top level of the double decker gives you a great view of the animals without having to feel like you’re baking under the sun, which is the case later in the day.
It’s funny how in the morning, the line for the top floor is longer, but in the afternoon, the line for the lower floor is longer.
Tip #4: Refill Your Water Bottle at Restaurants/Food Service Stalls
You’ll be spending all day walking around seeing the animals, maybe doing some activities or watching some experiences. Don’t forget to drink water! Outside food and drink is allowed in the zoo, so I brought my own water bottle, and asked a nearby food/drink station to refill my water bottle for me, and they all kindly did so! As with all amusement parks, food and drinks are expensive, so I’d definitely avoid paying $6-$7 for bottled water. It’s also convenient to bring your own bottle because there aren’t many water fountains throughout the zoo, so they may be hard to find when you’re thirsty.
Tip #5: Use the in-park transportation!
If it wasn’t already abundantly clear, you do A LOT of walking at the zoo. So the best way to preserve your energy and really enjoy a full day is to take advantage of the different transportation options available to you! There are kangaroo buses which are double deckers that drive all throughout the park with several different stops. This is really the best way to get from one section to another with flexibility.
The other option that I highly recommend since it’s like an exhibit of its own is the Skyfari Tram. This one takes you from the very front of the zoo (located near the Discovery Outpost) to the very back (near the polar bears). Since most people might be taking on the zoo from front to back, going against the flow can help with crowds. And as an added bonus, since it’s mostly uphill when going from front to back, it’ll be a lot less effort to walk from the back to the front.
I had such an amazing time seeing all the cool animals and learning more about them! Even though the concept of a zoo where animals are fenced in can be a little jarring to think about, I think the San Diego Zoo does such an awesome job at keeping the animals happy and well taken care of. The zoo focuses on and preaches conservation and has all kinds of educational material about how to protect the animals. Their exhibits are extremely spacious, so they have plenty of room to roam around, and I think the recreation of their habitats were really well done and well thought out.
The transportation around the zoo was great, even though we did primarily walk. But when we needed it, the kangaroo bus really lent a helping hand!
Food and drink is always a little dodgy when you’re visiting a theme park, and the San Diego Zoo is no exception. In my research I did see that they do boast a fancy restaurant that requires reservation that’s supposed to have really good tacos. I didn’t get a chance to visit it, but maybe next time I’ll consider it. My group and I all ended up grabbing food at Hua Mei Cafe, located near the Asian Passage, and it looked by far like the most popular food spot. They had Americanized Asian food like orange chicken, and classic theme park food like chicken tenders and burgers, so it satisfies a pretty wide range of tastes. Even though the line was long since we got there right at the lunch rush, the food came out literally a few minutes after we ordered, so service was super quick. I’d say the food was pretty standard, but on the pricey side (to be expected), but not a bad option if you decide not to pack your own food. I’d definitely recommend bringing snacks of your own though to keep you satisfied throughout the day.
Have you ever seen a real-life bear have such a great time scratching its back? Well I most certainly have! And I have to say I think it was my favorite thing all day! The bears in general were so funny, and I love that they even have their own swings and hammocks to chill out and have fun.
I was this many years old when I discovered that these animals even existed! They are absolutely adorable and look soo furry and fuzzy! I saw them from the bus tour and knew instantly that I needed to go see them up close because they're so adorable!
The zoo has an entire elephant sanctuary dedicated to the elephants. It's a super wide and expansive part of the zoo that gives the elephants lots of room to roam around. We even got to see one of them playing with one of the many toys they have throughout their exhibit!
Giraffes are my favorite animal so of course I loved seeing them!
The hummingbirds weren't actually at the top of my list of exhibits to see, but one of my friends wanted to see them and I'm so glad she did! The hummingbird exhibit is located in a building near the Discovery Outpost. Because the path is quite small, they meter the amount of people who can be inside at a given time, so there could be a short line. Once we were inside, it was really cool to see all the different species of hummingbirds! Some had such vibrant colors and it was fun to see them flitting around!
What Can Be Improved
The one thing that doesn’t sit too well with me that I will harp on is their lack of environmentally-conscious food and drink utensils, specifically the plethora of plastic water bottles I saw for sale all over the park. For an organization that emphasizes conservation and sustainability so heavily (because it helps protect our animals and ecosystems!) I was shocked at how sparse the water fountains were and at the complete absence of water bottle filling stations. And yet plastic bottled water is everywhere. If there’s anywhere that I would think would highly encourage guests to bring their own reusable water bottles, it would be the San Diego Zoo! It just gave me the sense that the bottom line is still a priority over sustainability. And while I understand they still need to make money to run the zoo, we all know how big the plastic pollution problem is - they literally have signs around encouraging people to stop using plastics! It just felt hypocritical to say the least.
And though I have my personal issues with “compostable” plastic utensils (i.e. that’s not really a thing - you shouldn’t call it compostable if you need an energy intensive industrial processing plant to “compost” it), I was just surprised at how reliant the zoo is on plastics. Progress can be a slow process, and I’m willing to believe that they’re trying to transition to more sustainable means. But I truly hope they can and will do better. They service so many people every day, small tweaks in their systems can really make a big difference.
Overall, I had a great time hanging out and seeing all the animals! It makes for a great trip for any group, whether it’s with friends or family! Just remember to respect the animals and their habitats, and do what you can to keep them safe!
Check out the photos below if you wanna see all the cool animals that await you at the San Diego Zoo!