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San Diego Zoo and Safari Park

Our 2.5 year old daughter loves zoo animals – she would visit the zoo every day if she had a chance. It was a no-brainer to add the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park to our itinerary when we were looking for things to do in San Diego with a toddler and a baby. We were excited to take her to see the many animals that aren’t found in our local zoo, especially the pandas, polar bears, koalas and orangutans.

Make a San Diego Zoo Plan

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. This is especially true if you are visiting the zoo in a single day.

To help plan your trip to the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, you can download a map 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 a several of the zoo 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.

A toddler enjoys looking at the San Diego zoo map

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San Diego Zoo Tips with TODDLER or BABY

  • Buy your 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 pretty crazy. Do yourself a favor, buy your San Diego Zoo tickets online and skip the lines. 

  • Make a plan: 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 zoo in one day.

  • 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.

  • Follow the wheelchair routes: If you elect to bring a stroller, look for the wheelchair accessible routes on the map. Wherever a wheelchair can go at the San Diego Zoo, so can a stroller.

  • Take the San Diego Zoo bus: Save time walking within the zoo by taking one of the complimentary buses. The Kangaroo bus has four stops within the zoo.

  • Nursing station: If you are nursing your baby, you may wish to use the San Diego Zoo nursing room. It’s located at the first aid office, near the Reptile house.

  • 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.

  • San Diego Zoo Playgrounds: The 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

BUYING Zoo Tickets – 4 Ways to Skip the Line

  • Buy your tickets online directly from the zoo (requires printer).

  • Or, save a tree and still skip the line with a mobile entry ticket

  • Are you also going to the San Diego Safari Park, Legoland, Seaworld, Knott’s Berry Farm and/or the USS Midway? Save an easy 20% with the Build Your Own San Diego Pass.  

  • Enjoy unlimited admissions to over 50 San Diego attractions (including the San Diego Zoo) with the Go San Diego Pass and save up to 46%.

Kid-Friendly route through the 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 Australian Outback to see the koalas.

A koala bear at the zoo

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 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 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

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.

My favorite animal - the Orangutan

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.

San Diego Safari Park Tips with a Toddler or Baby

  • Prioritize your time: Visiting the Wild Animal Park with a toddler and a baby, we knew we wouldn’t 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.

  • Buy your tickets in advance: Same advice here as for the zoo…. skip the ticket line by purchasing your Safari Park ticket online.

  • Carry small kids: If your kids are small, plan to have a stroller or carrier. The Safari Park is a great place for a walk, but 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
  • Dress appropriately: There can be a noticeable temperature difference in Escondido compared to San Diego. It was cloudy and a little chilly when we left San Diego, but when we arrived in Escondido it was hot and sunny. Your best bet is to dress in layers, so you can remove clothing if it’s too hot.

  • Save time for play: There’s the Tiger Trail play area, the Samburu Jungle Gym and the African themed Village Playground.

  • Bring swimsuits: If it’s a hot day or your kids simply like to get wet, stop at the Savanna Cool Zone.
A toddler plays in the splash park at the San Diego Wild Animal Park
  • 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.

  • Premium Encounters: There are several premium “Animal Encounters” available for purchase, but many seem better suited to older children.
Nursing a baby at the Safari Park - San Diego

Safari Park Tickets – 4 Ways to Skip the Line

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. It’s San Diego’s most famous attraction for a reason – it’s truly an excellent zoo.

We visited both parks and are happy that we did – the experiences were different enough that we felt it was worth it. If you want to visit both parks, be sure to save 20% on admission to both parks with the Build Your Own San Diego Pass.

Looking for more to add to your San Diego itinerary? Check out these 5 Family Friendly Walks in San Diego.

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tips for the San Diego Zoo & Safari park