Our 2.5 year old daughter loves animals and our visits to our local zoo in Calgary. As such, we knew the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park would be activities that she would be thrilled about on our family vacation to San Diego. We were excited to take her to see many animals that aren’t housed in the Calgary Zoo, specifically the pandas, polar bears, koalas and orangutans.
The San Diego Zoo and Safari Park are both huge places, so having a plan in place will help ensure you get to see your "must-see" animals. Large paper maps are available at the entrances, or you can get one online ahead of time (Zoo map & Safari Park map).
If you are travelling with small children, make sure to grab a few maps as they kept our daughter entertained for the rest of the week. Not only are they large and colorful, but she loved to have us show her the path we walked through each park.
Tips for the San Diego Zoo
- With 3.2 million visitors each year, the San Diego Zoo is the most visited zoo in the country. As you can imagine, the ticket lineups can get pretty crazy. Buying your tickets online in advance and skipping the line entirely is a no-brainer! You can save 20% and get tickets delivered to your phone with a San Diego Go Card, or if you'd prefer, you can just buy directly from the zoo.
- Make a plan for the animals you want to see most. Unless your children are older, have incredible stamina or you take the bus, you aren’t likely to cover the entire zoo.
- The zoo makes a great place for a family friendly walk, but it can be hours of walking so it’s best to have other options for your kids, like a stroller or baby carrier. It was a great place for our baby to have a nap on-the-go while we let our daughter run along looking at the animals.
- The map is a great resource for walking the zoo. It indicates which areas are wheelchair (and therefore, stroller) accessible and even gives estimated walking times.
- The zoo offers strollers for rent (limited availability).
- The zoo has wonderful little play areas that will help keep your children entertained along the way.
- If you need a little break, bring your kids over to the Discovery Playground where they can interact with other kids. It’s a great little playground with recycled rubber surface, so even the babies can crawl around.
- If you had hoped to combine your visit with the miniature railroad in Balboa Park, be aware it is only open on holidays and weekends.
Sample route for a trip to the San Diego Zoo:
At the entrance we turned right on to Front Street, but stopped shortly after at the Japanese gardens to breastfeed our son (and grab a coffee). Then we followed the trail up to the Outback to see the koalas.
Next, we walked through the Elephant Odyssey. There were a couple small play areas that we stopped at near the entrance. We wanted to see the elephants because we don’t have them at our local zoo, although I would say our daughter was more intrigued with the turtles and frogs!
Following the route through the jaguar and the lions, we made our way to the Northern Frontier. The polar bears were so much fun! One was playing with a ball and putting on quite a show. Adults and kids alike were so entertained. This section alone was worth the visit to the zoo.
After pulling ourselves away from the polar bears, we ventured up through the Eagle Trail on our way to see the Panda Trek. The panda exhibit is very busy, so we were ushered through there pretty quickly.
After a quick snack stop near the Hua Mei Café, we took the moving walkway up towards the Aviary Trail. This moving walkway might have been one of our daughter’s favourite parts about the zoo!
Our next stop was the Orangutan Trail. Orangutans are my husband’s favourite animal, so this was a must-see for us. They were so much fun to watch and our daughter loved to see the baby orangutan. We stayed there for some time as they were being fed when we were there.
Our final stop was at the Children’s Zoo. Both our baby and toddler played at the Discovery Playground then we stopped at the Petting Paddock, which wasn’t overly exciting, as there were only goats to pet.
Tips for the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
- Getting to the Safari Park is a long drive, be prepared by having the kids go potty before you get in the car and plan to have snacks for both ways of the drive.
- Travelling with a baby and a toddler, we knew we wouldn’t see everything, so we focused on what we thought our daughter would enjoy the most. We decided to spend our time riding the Africa Tram and walking through the African Loop.
- Same advice here as for the zoo.... at a minimum, buy your tickets ahead of time online straight from the Safari Park. However, if you are visiting more than one attraction while in San Diego, we recommend you buy a 'Build Your Own' San Diego Attraction Pass (see why this pass works for parents with a baby at the bottom of this page).
- There are several premium “Animal Encounters” available for purchase, but many seem better suited to older children.
- There can be a significant temperature difference in Escondido compared to San Diego. It was cloudy and a little chilly in San Diego when we left. When we arrived in Escondido it
was hot and sunny. Plan to dress appropriately or pack an extra outfit for everyone!
- If your kids are small, plan to have a stroller or carrier. It’s a great place for a walk but your kid(s) will get tired.
- There are several places near the entrance for kids to play. There is the Conservation Carousel to the left shortly after you enter. Along the Nairobi
Walk you’ll find a Kids Theatre and the Village Playground. Within the Safari Park are two spray parks and a play area in both the African
Woods and the Tiger Trail.
- Bring swimsuits and extra clothes. Good luck keeping your kid out of the spray parks when they see all the other kids running, screaming and laughing in the water. There is one spray park in The Grove called the Savanna Cool Zone and the other is in the African Outpost area on the Jameson Research Island.
- The Safari Park is completely stroller friendly. If available, you can rent a stroller there. There is an elevator to get to the African Tram and a designated area for stroller parking near the lineup for the tram.
- If you are travelling with a baby and need to stop to breastfeed, there are plenty of benches and places to stop. There is a nursing station at the Ranger Base, but we weren’t near it when our little guy was hungry. Instead, we chose a table overlooking the birds at the Okavango Outpost and we all had our lunch while I breastfed our son.
Build Your Own San Diego Attraction Pass
If you have read any of our travel guides, you know we don't typically recommend multi-attraction passes for families travelling with a baby - the amount you need to see & do in a given day is more than most families with a baby can actually do with naps, etc. But in this case, there is a San Diego attraction pass which actually works very well for families with a baby. It saves you time and money, but doesn't have the time pressure of a typical multi-attraction pass.
The Build Your Own San Diego Attraction Pass allows you to buy admission passes to the specific attractions you want to visit in San Diego - no more, no less. The benefits of this digital pass are:
- Instant delivery - it is delivered right to your phone with no waiting.
- You will save 20% off the regular admission prices (*Passes including Universal Tickets save 10%). If all you do is buy tickets to the Zoo and Safari Park, this will save you $20 per person vs buying your ticket at the gate.
- Choose from 41 attractions.
- Skip the ticket booth and go straight to turnstile with Digital Pass at the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Safari Park.
- You get 30 days to use the pass after your first attraction visit, so there is no rush to see everything in a single day.
- Along with your admission passes, you'll receive information with hours, maps, and instructions for getting in to each attraction.
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