San Diego Zoo is one of the most popular zoos in the country, and for good reason. This post offers a review of the zoo, photos from the animal exhibits, and various tips & tricks for making the most of your visit to the San Diego Zoo.
The San Diego Zoo had been on my radar for a long time; as a Disney fan, people from Southern California almost invariably compare the San Diego Zoo to Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park, claiming the San Diego Zoo is on par with Animal Kingdom.
Perhaps these comments set unreasonable expectations for me, because while I found the zoo to be the best I’ve visited, I didn’t feel it even remotely compared to Animal Kingdom’s animal exhibits in terms of quality.
Still, for a zoo, it’s pretty awesome. Let’s take a look at what makes it impressive…
When visiting the San Diego Zoo, the first thing to consider is whether you want to do the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Safari Park, both, or neither. In our San Diego Safari Park Review & Tips post, we spend a good amount of time comparing the zoo and safari park, so check that out if you want to determine which is best for you.
Next, you need tickets. If you’re visiting Southern California, there are a variety of ticket packages that include other destinations so you can avoid buying the pricey 1-day tickets to the zoo. The caveat here is that you actually have to want to visit those other locations. Typically, if you buy a package like the SoCal CityPASS and don’t visit even one destination included with the pass, you’re paying more money. That’s how they get ya!
Here’s a list of the different ticket package options at the San Diego Zoo. The SoCal CityPASS with San Diego Zoo option is available here.
The next thing you’ll need to figure out is when you want to visit. If you’re a tourist from out of town, your options are probably fairly limited. One thing to note is that, just like a theme park, the San Diego Zoo has times that are more crowded and with that comes lines for exhibits.
Not as bad of lines as you’ll find in the theme parks, but lines nonetheless. Weekdays during the school season are going to be the best days to visit.
The Giant Panda exhibit is by far the most popular exhibit at the zoo, and during peak season, there is a line to get in that can supposedly take an hour or more. We visited the zoo the day after the peak holiday season had ended, and the lengthy queue was still set up, but there was no wait at all any time of the day (at least when we tried).
It seemed like the Giant Pandas were most active in early morning and late afternoon, and were sleeping in the middle of the day. This is pretty consistent with animal behavior we’ve seen elsewhere, so we’d recommend going first thing or last thing to this exhibit. That’s probably when waits are shortest during busier times of year, anyway.
The food at the San Diego Zoo is almost universally “meh.” If you read the reviews on Yelp, it pretty much all sounds like crimes against humanity, but we found the food to generally be passable, but nothing to write home about. Sort of like bad theme park food, it gets the job done, but is nothing special. It’s also not particularly offensive.
One thing to know going in is that the San Diego Zoo is huge and sprawling. It’s 100 acres in size and has more than 800 species from all over the world.
At first, the San Diego Zoo can be overwhelming because it’s so large. For this reason, we highly recommend picking up a map on your way in (or looking at one online before visiting) and mapping out your path through the zoo before starting to wander through the exhibits. This will ultimately save you time and make for a more efficient visit.
Coming soon to Netflix: the endearing story of the rhino who fell in love with a stump of wood.
Jokes aside, one thing I really liked about both the rhino and giraffe exhibits were how close you were to the animals; it seemed in both cases these offered a more up close and personal glimpse at them than other exhibits.
The koalas, by contrast, seemed distant and aloof, and it took my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens and some cropping just to get a decent photo of one.
The Bactrian Camels at the San Diego Zoo don’t look like the “sexy” ones in the movies. Get your hair cut and take a bath, camel! 😉
One thing that’s possible at the San Diego Zoo that I haven’t really experienced elsewhere is “animal fatigue.” Most zoos can be knocked out in 2-3 hours, and you leave wanting more, if anything. A visit to the San Diego Zoo can be an all-day affair, and most people are still unlikely to see it all in a single day. I
found that by about hour 4 at the zoo, I was feeling a bit tired of the experience. Don’t get me wrong, the exhibits are varied and each are interesting, but it’s still a lot of animals. Perhaps you won’t experience this type of fatigue, but it’s something to consider.
When we observed them, the elephants seemed fairly playful, but their large habitat means that you might not have the best view of them depending upon where they’ve wandered.
The jaguar exhibit is another “up close and personal” one, and while we were they, this jaguar repeatedly lunged at the glass separately it from visitors.
At the same time, this was the exhibit that had the most distinct feeling of being a “zoo” and brought to mind the ethical quandaries thereof. This jaguar paced back and forth in his small area, and it begged the question whether the animal had an adequate amount of space.
As a general matter, it seemed like animal welfare is important to the San Diego Zoo, and I know it has been lauded for its treatment of animals and conservation efforts.
The Jaguar exhibit was literally the only one where I felt sorry for the animal, whereas at most zoos, I leave with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth because so many animals seem confined. The San Diego Zoo largely seems like an exemplary zoo when it comes to animal habitats.
Many of the exhibits feel like organic environments that seamlessly blend into their surroundings, rather than confined areas. This is a plus, and I assume part of the reason the zoo draws comparisons to Animal Kingdom.
I think Animal Kingdom takes this same approach but on steroids. Still, not too shabby for a zoo.
Most of the walkways that wind past the animal exhibits offer up-close looks at the animals, but this does vary from exhibit to exhibit, and also depends upon the activity of the various animals.
For example, you’ll always have a great view of the flamingos, but you may not even see a polar bear at their exhibit, depending upon where they’ve decided to fall asleep.
There are a number of upcharge and guided tours in the San Diego Zoo, and these might be worth it if you have the money and aren’t keen on walking the entirety of the zoo.
Although it’s a large zoo, we managed to cover the entire thing on foot with ease. Personally, I wouldn’t waste my money on the other guided tours–I’d rather walk and enjoy the zoo at my own pace.
The double-decker bus tour is one tour that is included with standard 1-day admission, and it can be a nice way to learn more about the animals, while getting off your feet for a while. Skyfari is another cool way to get a different look at the zoo.
Not only is the San Diego Zoo large, but the terrain is also quite varied, and the elevation changes dramatically throughout the zoo. Fortunately, there are moving walkways to get you from the lower elevations to the higher ones.
The front of the park contains gift shops and other cool information exhibits. I’d recommend stopping at all of these on the way out, rather than the way in.
Overall, the San Diego Zoo is a really impressive, well-designed complex that will captivate and entertain guests of all ages. It’s by far the best zoo I’ve ever visited. However, at the end of the day, it is still a zoo…and an expensive one, at that. Whether it’s “worth it” for you to visit the San Diego Zoo is largely a question of time, location, and priorities. If you’re a tourist visiting Southern California and are going to be staying in Los Angeles or Anaheim, the San Diego Zoo is a 2-hour (each way) drive from you. It’s going to be a day trip all by itself.
Unless you’re really serious about zoos, your time is probably better spent enjoying the multitude of entertainment offered in Los Angeles and Orange County. If you’re specially visiting San Diego, the zoo is a good option, so long as the price doesn’t dissuade you. If you’re a SoCal local who loves animals, a visit to the San Diego Zoo at some point is a no-brainer. For tourists, I think it’s definitely an option to consider, just not at the expense of many other offerings in Southern California.
If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do. If you enjoyed this post, please use the sharing buttons above to help spread the word via social media. I greatly appreciate it!
Have you ever visited the San Diego Zoo? Which animal exhibit was your favorite? Was it worth the time and money just to see the pandas? If you’ve visited both the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park, which did you prefer? Would you recommend the San Diego Zoo to SoCal visitors? Any other tips or recommendations? If you haven’t done the Safari Park, is it something that interests you? Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!