Mar 07 2012
Our family recently returned from a fun-packed vacation to southern California. In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing about our experiences at the varied places we visited. Today’s post is about the last stop on our trip, the San Diego Zoo.
As we were planning our trip to California, most people who heard we were going to San Diego asked, “Are you going to the zoo?” Indeed, the San Diego Zoo is one of the most famous attractions in the city, and is loved by locals and tourists alike. Find a list of the best zoos in America, and the San Diego Zoo will likely be near the top of the list.
But I still wasn’t sure we were going to go. After all, we’ve been to zoos — a lot of zoos — and after awhile, they can all start to look alike. Plus, the San Diego Zoo is not cheap to visit, at $42 for adults and $32 for children, and they don’t offer reciprocal membership discounts like many U.S. zoos do. Our vacation philosophy is to do things we can’t do at home, and I wasn’t sure the zoo would be different enough to warrant spending a good chunk of our time and money there.
When the San Diego Zoo sent us four media passes in order to give the zoo a try, I decided that we could buy the additional two tickets we’d need for our family and penciled it into our last remaining time slot, from 9 till noon on the last day of our vacation, just before heading to the airport for our flight home.
And even with a minimal investment in time and money, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be impressed.
I was wrong.
We arrived in San Diego’s Balboa Park bright and early on a February Monday morning, which also happened to be President’s Day. We wandered around the park a bit before returning to the zoo a few minutes before it opened to secure our tickets. While it had been peaceful and tranquil and uncrowded in the park, as the 9 a.m. opening of the zoo approached, so did the crowds at the entrance gate, making me even more apprehensive about our visit, as crowds and I do not belong in the same place.
After getting a map of the zoo, we wandered around for a few minutes without a plan in place as we got the lay of the land. We considered the narrated bus tour near the entrance, but the lines there were already becoming long. We walked to the Skyfari entrance, only to discover that it didn’t open until an hour after the zoo. So we hastily moved on to Plan C: find the tigers.
We’d been to the Safari Park a few days earlier and were disappointed that the tigers were not visible when we went to see them in their large Safari Park habitat. After winding through the cool and shady trail at the zoo, however, we had our first pleasant surprise of the day: the tigers were not only visible, but close to the glass and easy to see from more than one vantage point. Score one for the zoo.
Next up: see the pandas, as the San Diego Zoo is one of only four locations in the United States to have pandas. We followed the paths around to Panda Canyon and were delighted to see the pandas eating their morning snack. Zoo score, round two.
Because we knew our time was limited, we had a pretty small to-do list, and we’d already covered two items. Next up, Skyfari. We had to look a bit, but we found the set of long escalators that would take us up the hill to the Skyfari West station, and got there just as the sky ride opened at 10 a.m. With a minimal wait as the first passengers were loaded into their cage-on-wire cars, we climbed aboard the aerial shortcut back to the entrance.
Despite my dislike of heights or scary things, I found the Skyfari ride to be smooth and easy (in distinct contrast to, for example, the swinging car on Mickey’s Fun Wheel at Disney’s California Adventure). For a few minutes, we enjoyed the view from above the animals, peeks of Balboa Park, and the San Diego Skyline, and when we reached Skyfari East, we found a long line of people waiting to board. Score one for a bit of serendipity in avoiding long lines, and for a nice mode of transportation across the zoo.
Keeping an eye on the time, we decided the bus tour should be our next priority. The line was still quite long, but it moved quickly. After 15-20 minutes, we boarded the bus for a 40-minute guided tour of the zoo. At first, I thought my seat on the driver’s side was a poor choice, as all the animals seemed to be on the right, but as the tour progressed, it evened out so that I had some excellent views of the animals right out my open-air window. As our tour guide pointed out the various animals, I found myself wishing we had enough time to walk back and take a closer look at many of them. The bus tour gave a good overview of the zoo and allowed us to see many of the animals in a short window of time.
Sadly, after the bus tour our time at the San Diego Zoo was drawing to a close. We’d seen only a small portion of the zoo, and hadn’t attended any of the keeper talks or activity booths or animal encounters or shows or other special activities that were included with our zoo admission. The zoo was open until 5:00 the day we visited, and had it not been for a plane to catch, we could have easily spent the rest of the day there without seeing it all.
Yes, the San Diego Zoo is expensive. But it is also home to many unique animals. It’s an accredited botanical garden, so walking the paths allows the opportunity to explore beautiful plants as well as animals. It’s huge, and there’s a lot going on. And despite the fact that people were still streaming in the gates as we left at noon, it did not seem crowded.
I’ve changed my mind completely on the notion that the San Diego Zoo is “just another zoo.” It’s one of the places from our vacation that I wish we’d had much more time to explore.
Tips for Visiting the San Diego Zoo:
- Get there as soon as it opens so you can make the most of your time there.
- To avoid Skyfari lines, make your way to the far (Skyfari West) station just as it opens and ride back to the east station by air.
- Some of the shows and talks are presented only once or twice a day. Check the schedule and plan around those you want to see.
- The zoo is very large with some steep hills on the trails. If you have trouble with the terrain, find the elevators and escalators to help with the biggest elevation changes, or spring for an Express Bus pass to move you from one area to another within the zoo.
- Food is pricey, with kids’ meals being more expensive than at the amusement parks we visited. You can bring your own food into the zoo; if you have a large cooler you can eat in the picnic area outside the zoo gates.
- To save money on admission, consider one of the multi-day or multi-park tickets for San Diego area attractions, or show your AAA card for a 10% discount. Zoo memberships are also a good option, but some are only available to southern California residents.
Have you been to the San Diego Zoo? How did it compare to other zoos you’ve visited?