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. We recommend buying a mobile entry ticket – simply download your tickets to your phone and skip the lineup. For more advance ticket options, see below.
- 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 through 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 favorite parts about the zoo!
Our next stop was the Orangutan Trail. Orangutans are my husband’s favorite 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.
Ways to Skip the Long Ticket Lines at the San Diego Zoo
- Buy tickets from the zoo (requires printer).
- Buy a mobile entry ticket – simply download your tickets to your phone.
- If you are going to be in San Diego a few days, we recommend this mobile family-friendly discount pass. You will save 20% on admission if you buy tickets to 2 or more attractions.
- If you’re going to see lots of San Diego, pick up a mobile Go San Diego Pass and save up to 55%.
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…. buy a mobile entry ticket. Simply scan the ticket on your phone for direct entry into the safari park.
- 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 Theater 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.
Ways to Skip the Ticket Lines at San Diego Zoo Safari Park
- Buy your ticket online from the Safari Park (requires a printer)
- Buy a mobile ticket. Simply download your tickets to your phone.
- If you are going to be in San Diego a few days, we recommend this mobile family friendly discount pass. You will save 20% on admission if you buy tickets to 2 or more attractions.
- If you’re going to see a lot of San Diego, pick up a mobile Go San Diego Pass and save up to 55%.
We only write about destinations we have personally visited with our family. This post contains compensated links.