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San Diego Zoo with a Toddler (and the Safari Park Too!)

Our 2 year old daughter loves zoo animals – she would visit the zoo every day if she had a chance. When we were researching things to do in San Diego with a toddler and a baby, it was a no-brainer to add the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park to our itinerary. We were excited to take her to a world-famous zoo which features many exotic animals that aren’t found in our local zoo, especially the pandas, polar bears, koalas and orangutans.

We loved visiting the San Diego Zoo with our toddler so much, we also decided to visit the Safari Park too. In this post, we’ll share all the ways to make the most out of your visit to the San Diego Zoo with a toddler (and the Safari Park too!). At the bottom, we’ll compare the two parks to help you decide which park you should visit with your kids – the San Diego Zoo or Safari Park – or both!

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8. Tips for Visiting the San Diego Zoo with a Toddler

1. Plan Your Visit the San Diego Zoo with a Toddler

The San Diego Zoo and Safari Park are both huge places, so having a plan in place will help ensure your kids get to see their “must-see” animals. This is especially true if you are visiting the San Diego Zoo with a toddler in a single day. Prioritize the zoo animals you want to see most. Unless your children are older and have incredible stamina, you aren’t likely to cover the entire San Diego Zoo in one day.

To help plan your trips to the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park with kids, you can download the park maps ahead of time, or you can use the map within the San Diego Zoo app.

Large paper copies of the zoo maps are also available at the entrances. If you are traveling to San Diego with a toddler, make sure to grab several of the zoo maps as they kept our toddler entertained for the rest of the week. Not only are the zoo maps large and colorful, but she loved to have us show her the path we walked through each park. We think this helped reinforce the memories of the animals she loved seeing at the zoo.

A toddler enjoys looking at a paper copy of the San Diego zoo map, with several more scattered on the ground.
Our daughter LOVED looking at her San Diego Zoo maps in the days following our family visit.

2. Buy Your San Diego Zoo Tickets Online

With 3.2 million visitors each year, the San Diego Zoo is the most visited zoo in the United States. As you can imagine, the ticket lineups can get really long. It’s already hard enough to see everything in the zoo in one day, so do yourself a big favor, and buy your San Diego Zoo tickets online and skip the long ticket lines. 

3. Carry Your Child

The San Diego Zoo is a huge place, so you’ll need a way to give your toddler a break from walking. You can bring a lightweight travel stroller or get a San Diego Zoo stroller rental. We brought a baby carrier to the zoo for our baby; it was a great place for him to have a nap on-the-go while we let our toddler run along looking at the animals.

A mom and toddler have fun running to see new animals at the San Diego Zoo an on their family vacation to California.
Our toddler literally RAN from animal to animal at the San Diego Zoo.

4. Follow the Stroller-Friendly Routes

If you elect to bring a stroller to the San Diego Zoo for your toddler or baby, look for the “Most Accessible Routes” on the zoo map. These routes are the easiest for wheeled visitors to navigate, so visiting the San Diego Zoo with a stroller will be a breeze on these suggested routes.

5. Take the San Diego Zoo Kangaroo Bus

Do yourself a big favor and take advantage of the Kangaroo Bus within the San Diego Zoo. We tried walking everywhere in the San Diego Zoo with our kids and didn’t use the Kangaroo Bus, and to be honest, it was exhausting.

The San Diego Zoo Kangaroo Bus is a hop-on hop-off bus service with four stops around the zoo. Save time and energy by using the Kangaroo Bus to cover long distances at the zoo with your toddler.

6. Use the Nursing Station

If you are nursing your baby, you may wish to use the San Diego Zoo nursing room. The “Baby Care Center” is located at the first aid office, near the Reptile house.

7. Miniature Railroad

If you had hoped to combine your visit with the miniature railroad in Balboa Park, be aware it is only open limited hours on holidays and weekends. The train station is just outside the San Diego Zoo entrance.

8. San Diego Zoo Playgrounds

The San Diego Zoo has wonderful little play areas that will help keep your children entertained along the way. There’s the Elephant Play Yard (Located at Elephant Odyssey), the Polar Play Area (in the Northern Frontier) and the Koala Klimber (in the Australian Outback).

A baby and toddler enjoy a playground at the San Diego Zoo on a family trip to California.
Our toddler enjoys the slide at a San Diego Zoo playground.

Kid-Friendly Route through the San Diego Zoo

There are infinite routes you can follow when visiting the San Diego Zoo with a toddler. We share our route below to help you get an idea of what is possible on a single day visit to the San Diego Zoo with kids.

At the San Diego Zoo entrance we turned right on to Front Street but stopped shortly after at the Japanese Gardens, so I could breastfeed my son (and grab a coffee). Then we followed the trail up to the Australian Outback to see the koalas.

A koala bear at the San Diego Zoo.
Our daughter had never seen a real-life Koala Bear before!

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 toddler 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 polar bear was playing with a ball and putting on quite a show. Adults and kids alike were very entertained. Our experience in the Northern Frontier alone was worth the price of admission.

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.

A giant panda at the zoo in San Diego.
Seeing the Giant Pandas at the San Diego Zoo was very exciting for our toddler.

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.

A San Diego Zoo Orangutan sits on a rope and eats a head of lettuce.
We all loved the Orangutans!

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 Visiting the San Diego Zoo Safari Park with a Toddler (and Baby)

We decided to visit both the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park on our family vacation to Southern California. If you also choose to visit both parks on your family San Diego vacation, here are some helpful tips for visiting the Safari Park with a toddler.

1. Prioritize Your Time

Visiting the San Diego Safari Park with a toddler and a baby, we knew we wouldn’t have enough time to see everything, so we focused on what we thought our toddler would enjoy the most. We decided to spend our time riding the Africa Tram and walking through the African Loop.

2. Buy Your San Diego Zoo Safari Park Tickets Online

Although the Safari Park isn’t quite as busy as the San Diego Zoo, it’s still a very popular kid-friendly San Diego attraction. So, we have the same advice for the Safari Park as for the zoo…. maximize your time inside the park by by purchasing skip-the-line Safari Park tickets online before you arrive.

3. Carry Small Kids

If you are visiting the Safari Park with small kids, plan to have a stroller or carrier. The Safari Park is a great place for a walk, but it’s huge and small kids will get tired. The Wild Animal Park is completely stroller friendly and you can rent a stroller there (limited quantities).

A baby in a carrier at the San Diego Wild Animal Park
I carried our baby through the Safari Park, while our toddler walked off and on.

4. Dress Appropriately for the Weather

The Safari Park is quite a ways from central San Diego and there can be a noticeable temperature difference between the two locations. It was cloudy and a little chilly when we left San Diego, but when we arrived at the Safari Park it was hot and sunny. Your best bet is to dress in layers, so you can remove clothing if it’s too hot.

5. Save Time for Play

Even though the Safari Park is a very kid-friendly San Diego attraction, kids still need time for some familiar play time. There’s nothing like a playground to reset and recenter a child that’s out of their comfort zone. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park has several good playgrounds, including the Tiger Trail play area, the Samburu Jungle Gym and the African themed Village Playground.

6. Bring Swimsuits

It was a hot day on our visit to the Safari Park with kids. We stumbled across the Savanna Cool Zone, an awesome plash park, but we didn’t have bathing suits for our kids. The SAvanna Cool Zone looked so fun, we let our kids get wet with their clothes on. It was warm enough to dry them off, but if you have room in your bags, maybe tuck away swimsuits for your kids.

A toddler plays in the Savanna Cool Zone splash park at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
Our toddler loved getting soaked at the Savanna Cool Zone.

7. Nursing Room

If you need to breastfeed your baby at the San Diego Safari Park, there is a nursing station by the Ranger Base. If you aren’t near the Ranger Base, simply use one of the many benches throughout the park.

8. Safari Park Premium Encounters

There are several premium “Animal Encounters” available for purchase at the San Diego Safari Park, but they seemed better suited to older children.

Nursing a baby at the Safari Park - San Diego.
Feeding my baby with a view at the Safari Park.

San Diego Zoo vs. Safari Park for Toddlers

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a super fun way to experience an African safari without leaving the United States. However, if you have to choose just one of these world-class parks to visit with your baby or toddler, we recommend the San Diego Zoo instead of the Safari Park. The zoo is San Diego’s most famous attraction for a reason – it’s truly an excellent zoo.

That said, we visited both San Diego Zoo parks and are happy that we did – the experiences were different enough that we felt it was worth it.

Save Money on the San Diego Zoo or Safari Park

If you are planning on visiting many family-friendly San Diego attractions (including the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park), save up to 50% with the Go San Diego Explorer Pass. This pass is good for families visiting San Diego with toddler or baby, who may not be up to unlimited San Diego attractions. The only downside of this option is that you can’t pick both the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park. You can only pick one of the two parks.

Enjoy unlimited admissions to over 50 San Diego attractions with the Go San Diego All-Inclusive Pass and save up to 50%. All of the best kid-friendly attractions in San Diego are included in this pass. You can visit the San Diego Zoo AND Safari Park, Legoland, Seaworld, The Birch Aquarium, USS Midway Aircraft Carrier, and much more.

Looking for more outdoor activity to add to your San Diego itinerary? Check out these kid-friendly hikes in San Diego.

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tips for the San Diego Zoo & Safari park

This post was written & edited by:

Celine is the owner of Baby Can Travel. Not only does she have years of experience traveling with babies & toddlers, but she's been helping new parents travel with their babies and toddlers for over a decade.

Celine also writes about family travel on the site FamilyCanTravel.com, which she co-owns with her husband. Being from the Canadian Rockies, she shares her passion about her home and travel to Banff National Park and area on their site TravelBanffCanada.com.