After living in San Diego for 4 months and visiting the San Diego Zoo more than a dozen times with my three young kids, here are my Top Tips for Visiting the San Diego Zoo with Kids. I've also included a few notes on visiting the Safari Park with kids further below including which side of the tram to sit on for the best views.
The San Diego Zoo is absolutely incredible and often jaw-dropping. It is without a doubt one of the top three things you should see and do in San Diego. The San Diego Zoo is the most visited zoo in the United States and one of the best in the world. The park is very thoughtfully laid out with so many over-the-top family friendly details.
My family and I lived in San Diego for 4 months while on an extended trip around the country. When we arrived in San Diego, the first thing that we did (other than go to the beach three blocks away), was to visit the San Diego Zoo. We bought annual passes for two adults and one child (for our 4 year old). Children 2 and under are free, so our two younger ones did not need a pass. I went to the San Diego Zoo every week that we lived in San Diego, sometimes more than once a week. It is THAT good.
Here are my top Tips for Visiting the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park with Kids:
The tour bus is definitely worth a ride, especially with little kids that are thrilled to ride a bus, particularly an open air one. It can get very crowded at lunch time and the line to get on the bus can get long. Keep in mind that many of the animals are sleeping in the middle of the day as well, particularly if it's hot. If the bus is on your list of things to do, I’d recommend going first thing when you arrive in the morning when the line is shorter. We always went earlier in the day and never had to wait more than 10 minutes.
Sit on the bottom right-hand side to have the best views of the animals. Sitting on the top is extra thrilling for the kids, but the views are actually better on the bottom, and on a hot day its cooler too. Though, if the kids are aching to sit on the top level (mine totally were), the top is great too. Still, choose the right-hand side to see more.
We learned a lot on the bus. Each driver/tour guide puts their own spin on it and includes their own personal experiences. Many of them work throughout the Zoo and Safari Park with different animals and have a lot to contribute. It’s a great, relatively short (30 min) ride, great for kids’ attention spans.
Stroller Parking for the Tour Bus:
Stroller Parking for the tour bus is right as you walk in, straight ahead to the right. Do NOT leave any snacks in your stroller, unless it is tightly sealed in something solid, like a thick Tupperware or metal lunch box. The squirrels are ravenous and may just eat through your lunch, bags and all included. It happened to us, yikes!
Prioritize Your Favorite Animals
Make sure to prioritize your favorite animals towards the beginning of the day when everyone has a lot of energy.
Our favorites, the ones that were the most awe inspiring, were the gorillas and the lions. The similarity between the gorillas and humans feels overwhelming to me. It is pretty jaw dropping to see them up close. There is a heat lamp right in front of the viewing window that they like to sit under. So you can really see them up close, within several feet.
The lions are magnificent. They are in another space where you can see them right up close, or perched up on a platform not too far away. You may even get to hear them roar which seems so intense that it shakes the surroundings.
Flamingos: We got to see the bright pink and elegant flamingos up close. The staff had a hose spraying in the sunlight for the flamingos to enjoy, and the flamingos were LITERALLY DANCING – like you would expect to see young children dancing at a wedding. It was so incredibly JOYFUL and overwhelmingly beautiful. I never expected to see so visually and concretely an animal getting so much joy from dancing in the sprinkling water.
Other highlights included seeing two porcupines tussling over what may have been some sort of knapsack with food inside. I had never before to my recollection seen a porcupine in person, which surprised even me because they are so common in children's’ books and shows. But seeing them at the zoo playfully and fiercely fighting took me off guard and I was in awe. The cheetah is also super impressive, as well as the tigers. Though the tigers are easier to see at the Safari Park.
Bring a picnic lunch:
Another top tip for visiting the San Diego Zoo with kids it to save some money and time and bring a picnic lunch. There are lots and lots of beautiful seating areas throughout the whole park. I was always tempted to come just to eat a picnic lunch here in the beautiful surroundings with the three kids. Sometimes we would come for an hour to see the animals and have a relaxing lunch in the shade surrounded by the most incredible plants, flowers, and trees.
Explorers Base Camp:
On a hot day bring bathing suits and water shoes and visit the Explorers Base Camp. It is an absolutely incredible kid play area and splash pad. The splash pad even has a mini stream running through it and super creative water features for little kids. They will shriek with joy. There is plenty of space for changing, and even a human sized dryer if you’re interested in paying for it (we never did, but cool to see!)
There’s plenty to do here too other than the splash pad and water features. The water is running even on cooler days, but you can absolutely climb and explore and not get wet.
Find a time to go that your kids will have a blast, but that it won’t take up the whole day. Perhaps for 30 minutes before lunch so that there’s a natural break and a good reason to head out of the play area. That leaves you freer to see more animals in the afternoon.
Or save it for the afternoon slump when everyone needs a break from seeing animals and the kids just need to let loose, then break it up with a snack afterwards to refuel and explore more.
Visit on a Weekday
Try to visit on a weekday. It tends to be less crowded than weekends. So many families in the area have annual passes. Because it’s such an incredible place, people use their passes often. Weekends are more crowded than during the week (though plenty of local families who have the flexibility go during the week too).
Aerial Tram: Alaska Airways Skyfari
The aerial tram is fun and sometimes a little scary (like fun scary) for little kids, and a really nice view of not just the zoo, but all of Balboa Park in San Diego. The downside is that you cannot bring large strollers. So if you’re using a stroller, keep in mind that you’ll probably want to make it a round trip. We had fun on the aerial tram, but it wasn’t a high priority for us and we only went once.
You Can’t See It All In One Day:
The park is huge and it’s impossible to see it all in one day. No matter what you do or see, you will have a great time. Keep in mind what things are a priority for you and manage your activities around kids’ energy levels. I could tell walking around the park that around 1pm all the kids and families were a bit cranky, but by 2-3pm, those that decided to push through had perked up a bit and moods were turned around.
Other Tips for Visiting the San Diego Zoo with Kids:
Wear comfortable sneakers. You'll be walking a lot. The more foot support you have the better. I usually wore the baby in a baby carrier. Though I love to wear flip flops, I needed the extra foot support while walking and carrying the baby all day.
Bring water bottles and refill at vendor stands.
The Urban Jungle Loop is a nice small loop towards the entrance of the park. Its a great beginning loop that you can take to see some really impressive animals really quickly: like giraffes, zebra, flamingos, porcupines, hippos (not always easy to see) and a cheetah.
Kangaroo Bus: This is another bus that offers hop on/hop off options at four stops around the park. We never took this bus since we had our big stroller and didn't want the hassle of needing to figure out how to get it on and off the bus. But it is a good option for families without larger strollers to cover more ground quickly and to give your feet a rest.
The Spanish Village is right outside the entrance to the San Diego Zoo. It is literally a 3-minute walk from the main entrance. Stop at Daniel’s coffee stand for a fun and sweet coffee drink while taking a “cool down” stroll around the Spanish Village (or save it for another time when everyone isn’t so tuckered out). My favorite shop here is the pottery shop, but there are tons of artists and so much to see including bottle blowing!
Outside the Zoo there is also a really nice carousel and train for kids to ride, each with tickets for purchase.
There is a huge crew of Park Volunteers that really know their stuff and are passionate about the work being done at the zoo. They are incredibly helpful, especially if you get turned around or are not sure what route to take.
You can download the app for help navigating, but I prefer to chat with volunteers and read the map with the kids. It’s a really great opportunity for kids to learn how to read a map. They feel extra important holding a copy of the map and making decisions about which way to go next.
Overall: Top Tips for Visiting the San Diego Zoo with Kids
The park is so thoughtfully laid out. There are little tucked away places for breastfeeding, or spaces to step away for a quick kids snack and to let kids re-center themselves after all the stimulation. Either we just lucked out or the people who designed the park really REALLY knew their stuff. We always found these little quiet spots at the right place and the right time.
Mini play spaces with sculptures for young kids to climb and entertain themselves are located throughout the park. It’s always nice to give the kids a chance to play after lots of walking and animal viewing.
The San Diego Zoo is also a botanical garden, and the plants everywhere are absolutely stunning. All in all, it is an incredible place to be and well worth the visit (or multiple visits).
Tips for Visiting the San Diego Safari Park with Kids
Get on line early to do the safari tram. The Tram ride is about 30 minutes long. It’s really fun for the kids to ride in the tram, and there are some really beautiful views. It’s neat to see safari animals roaming large swaths of land. The lines can be long though, especially in the middle of the day. So, if you’re interested in doing it (which I definitely recommend), try to get there on the earlier side.
I think the views are better on the lefthand side of the tram. If you can swing it, try to be on the left.
Aside from the Tram, we loved Walkabout Australia where visitors walk inside the kangaroo enclosure and Condor Ridge with the incredible views. The Bonsai exhibit was also really neat and not something you can find at the main Zoo.
The Safari Park is a lot like the San Diego Zoo, just more: more to see and take in. It is incredibly well done, and definitely worth a stop here too. Though if you are only visiting for a week or a few days, I would prioritize the Zoo.
Summary of Top Tips for Visiting the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park with Kids:
- Take the 30 minute Tour Bus, sit on the lower right, long lines at lunch
- Prioritize your favorite animals
- Bring a picnic lunch
- Wear comfortable sneakers, bring refillable water bottles
- Urban Jungle Loop is a great place to start
- Visit explorers basecamp (play area for kids), use lunch or a snack as a reason to wrap it up.
- Visit on a Weekday
- Check out the Aerial Tram - Skyfari (no large strollers)
- Stop at the nearby Spanish Village
- Chat with the volunteers, or ask for directions
- Visit the Safari Park and take the safari tram to see the animals.