Koalas and Komodos. Camels and condors. Rhinos and reindeer. The list of animals at the San Diego Zoo is long, and for most people, it takes more than a day to see them all. From elephants to invertebrates, the zoo is home to more than 12,000 creatures spread across a 100-acre park. Miles of paved paths and roads criss-cross the zoo, wandering through areas representing habitats from tropical rainforests to the Arctic.
That’s actually part of the fun. “If you go see the tigers, you feel like you’re walking through a trail in Africa,” said Zoo Ambassador Rick Schwartz. “If you go see the polar bears, you feel like you’re in the Arctic.”
With so much to see and ground to cover, how do you make the most of your visit? We talked with Schwartz to find out the answers. Here is his advice, plus other tips and tricks to make your trip to the San Diego Zoo a roaring success.
Note: The San Diego Zoo generously hosted my visit. All opinions are my own.
1. Download The App
Before you visit the zoo, the first thing to do is download the San Diego Zoo app (found on the App Store and Google Play) to your smartphone, Schwartz advised. That’s where you’ll find the most up-to-date information on hours, admission prices, and special events, such as wildlife care specialist talks. You can also go to the zoo website.
The app has a bonus: You can find your favorite animals (just tap on the map in the background) and save them (tap the plus sign in the upper right) to your planner (the clipboard icon at the bottom of the screen). Each animal page will also alert you to wildlife care specialist talks, if there is one. Paper maps are available just inside the admission gate.
2. Plan To See Your Favorite Animals
With so many exotic animals to see, it’s helpful to set priorities. Make a plan for visiting your favorite animals and new areas of the zoo, such as the immersive Wildlife Explorers Basecamp. The planner in the app can record your must-see animals and offer information about them. The app and the zoo map (found in printable PDF form) can show you where they are located.
Check to see if there are any wildlife care specialist talks. Look out for for special talks and up-close experiences, which are available for an additional fee.
“If you don’t have a favorite, take the bus tour and see what strikes your fancy,” Schwartz recommends.
3. Strategize Your Route
Now that you know what animals you don’t want to miss, it’s time to strategize your route to make the most of your time and minimize tiring uphill hikes. With the animals’ locations marked on the zoo map, you can plan your day to reduce the distances and uphills you’ll walk as you go from one section of the park to another.
You can also use the map to spot stairs, the aerial tram route, the Kangaroo Bus stops, and the elevators that will be key to navigating the park. Unlimited use of these is included in the admission price.
You’ll find the elevators at the Treetops complex, the end of the Bashor Bridge, and where the Monkey Trail and Tiger Trail meet. The double-decker Kangaroo bus stops are also marked on the map. It’s not easy to spot the hills on the map, but the tram, bus, and elevators allow you to avoid most uphill treks. For more help planning a route, stop by the information booth on Front Street.
4. Wear Good Walking Shoes
Even with the aerial tram and the in-park shuttle bus, seeing the animals is still going to take some walking. “My number one tip is to wear comfortable shoes,” Schwartz said. “The biggest mistake is wearing beach sandals because you’re planning on going to the beach later.”
5. Use Sun Protection
“The other [big mistake] is not putting on sunscreen,” Schwartz said. San Diego’s mild weather doesn’t feel too hot, but a day in the sun will nonetheless leave you red as a lobster. Shops along Front Street, just inside the gate, sell a variety of sunhats, sunglasses, and sunscreen if you don’t bring your own.
6. Rent Some Wheels
Wheelchairs, strollers, and motorized scooters are all available on Front Street, to the left of the entrance gate. They are available on a first come, first served basis. An ADA shuttle is also available for guests with mobility challenges. More information about San Diego Zoo services can be found at the website or the information booth (to the right of the entrance, near the bus tours sign). Guided cart tours are also available for a fee.
7. Lighten Your Load
You don’t have to haul your lunch, coats, luggage, and other items around with you all day. Lockers are on Front Street to the left of the entrance; if they are out of order, the stroller rental counter can store your items for a fee. Be aware that there aren’t any dog kennels, and the zoo has a strict no-dog policy. Only trained guide dogs are allowed in the park.
8. Buy Tickets In Advance
The great advantage of buying tickets in advance is that you get to skip the line and go straight into the zoo. You can buy tickets online for a single day at the zoo, multiple days, or both the zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The zoo also offers the San Diego 3-for-1 Pass, which includes the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and SeaWorld San Diego.
9. Save On Admission
The zoo’s San Diego 3-for-1 Pass isn’t the only pass that offers savings on admission by combining the zoo with other attractions. A few to check out: San Diego CityPASS, Go San Diego Pass, and the Go City All-Inclusive Pass. You must buy tickets at the gate and show appropriate identification to receive the veterans’ or AAA membership discount on admission. The San Diego Zoo does not offer reciprocity for members of other zoos.
10. Get There Early
Getting to the zoo as soon as it opens has several advantages: easier parking, shorter lines, and cooler temperatures. It also makes it easier to rent a wheelchair or motorized scooter. But the main reason to go early is that the animals are most active in the mornings and evenings.
11. Remember Where You Parked Your Car
It’s a big parking lot. Take note (or a photo) of the row you parked in so when you’re tired after a long day exploring, you don’t have to work too hard to remember where you left the car — especially a rental car that you’re unlikely to recognize anyway.
12. Take The Free Bus Tour
The free 30-minute bus tour (to the right of the entrance) is a great way to get an overall view of the park, to see what areas you might want to explore later. It’s not a hop-on-and-off bus; that’s the Kangaroo Bus, which is also free. Try to sit on the right side of the bus; the polar bears are on the left, but most other animals are on the right.
13. Read The Menus
The zoo has 20 venues with food and drinks — including wine and beer — though they may not all be open when you visit. Read through the menus online before you go and decide on a few lunch options, so when hunger strikes you know where to go. If you want to enjoy fine dining at Albert’s, it never hurts to make reservations.
14. Bring Your Own Lunch And Snacks
You can bring your own lunches, snacks, and drinks to the zoo. This can be especially helpful if you have allergies or special dietary needs. Lunch bags can be stored in lockers or checked at the stroller rental counter (for a fee) if you don’t want to carry them all day. Leave the large coolers at home.
15. Reserve A Special Experience
For a truly memorable day, reserve one of the up-close or behind-the-scenes experiences at the zoo. Spend the morning with cheetahs, learn more about other cats, or get a unique view of the animals at the zoo with 90-minute Inside Look tours. Reserve these special experiences in advance. The cost of tours and experiences varies.
16. Make A Day Of It
Schwartz’s final piece of advice? Bring the whole family, and take your time exploring the zoo. “It’s one of the things we can all do it together. That’s one of the great things about it,” he said. “Plan to spend a whole day to really enjoy it.”
Can’t get enough San Diego? Here’s more to make your visit to America’s Finest City a success: