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San Diego Zoo

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Planning Your Visit

The day has arrived –your visit to the San Diego Zoo! Everyone is excited and has something different they want to see. The question is: What should you see first and what’s the best way to get around the Zoo?

My first suggestion is to arrive with tickets in hand. You can purchase discount tickets online which saves money over gate prices. Every little bit helps and this will save you a wait in line which becomes meaningful at 4 o’clock when the kids are tired.

Once inside the main gate, take a breath and contain the excitement for just a moment. Find a comfortable place to sit—there are several eating areas near the entrance with tables and chairs. Open the map you received at the turnstile. Make sure everyone in your group has a map in case you separate. Take a few moments to look the map over and begin planning your routes.

Very important fact: The San Diego Zoo is very large with several miles of walkways, stairways, people-moving conveyors, steep canyons, narrow paved trails along with roadways that are shared with vehicles and large buses. And some Zoo exhibits like aviaries require opening large, heavy doorways that are challenging for small children and the elderly to negotiate—not to mention parents with strollers and anyone with mobility challenges.

After seeing plenty of grumpy people and toddler-meltdowns at the Zoo, I realized that planning your day is essential to keeping spirits high and seeing all the great animals and exhibits you came for.

With miles of pathways and exhibits spread out to all corners of the Zoo, your mobility will play a key role in how you experience the Zoo. If you love to walk and came prepared donning proper shoes and attire for spirited movement—fold up your map now and take off in any direction—you don’t need me anymore. But anyone with mobility limitations like strollers, wheelchairs, power chairs or any condition that affects your ability to negotiate this facility, should take a few moments to plan your routes and transportation.

Rather than attempt to plan your day—I am simply going to provide a list of tips, suggestions, insider-info and first-hand experience from the hundreds of Zoo visits I’ve made over the years. Hopefully some of my experience will rub off and help you plan a fun and happy day at the San Diego Zoo.

San Diego Zoo Bus Tour, Express Bus and Transportation

For starters, the Bus Tour is a great way to see the Zoo. The 35-minute narrated tour covers 70% of the Zoo while sitting in a comfortable seat. Or you can use the Express Bus for transport to various stops throughout the Zoo. The Bus ticket includes five on/off stops on the Express Bus. The Bus Tour and Express Bus service are included in the One-Day Pass admission price: The Bus Tour and/or Express Bus will save lots of walking up steep canyons which can be tiring especially on hot days.

San Diego Zoo Skyfari Aerial Tramway

The Skyfari aerial tramway is not only a great way to get a birds-eye view of the Zoo, it’s also a great way to travel to the west side of the Zoo for exhibits like Polar Bears and Elephant Odyssey. Once again, your one-day-pass includes unlimited use of Skyfari. (Note: The standard one-day Zoo ticket you purchase at the gate DOES NOT include Skyfari or Bus Tour. I strongly recommend the one-day PASS that includes Skyfari and Bus service)

San Diego Zoo Logistics

Panda Canyon is the low point of the Zoo. Virtually every exhibit is an uphill walk from there.

Want to get to the heart of the Zoo quick and avoid the crowds? Take the Fern Canyon Trail to Center Street to Canyon Café. This route includes steps so is not appropriate for anyone with mobility challenges.

The Canyon Café is a great meeting point and rest stop. There are lots of tables and food service and a shady area behind the gift shop which is welcome on hot days. There is a Bus stop in front of Canyon Café along with restrooms, gift shop and ATM. This is my preferred rest and meeting area because it’s usually less crowded than the entrance area and it’s shady. Plus there are many walkways and travel routes out of the Canyon to access almost every part of the Zoo.

Plan your visit by routes and not animals. Don’t visit the Polar Bears followed by the Giraffes, you’ll be in for a ton of walking and will hurry by lots of interesting exhibits.

Children at the San Diego Zoo

Save the Children’s Zoo for later in the day when kids need a little freedom to move around and parents need a sit-down break. Let the kiddos loose in the play area. If you do the Children’s Zoo first, your kids will expect the same level of freedom and excitement all day which makes the walking and spread-out Zoo experience more challenging.

On weekends, use a Balboa Park Railroad ride as an incentive to keep kids happy and helpful all day. Remember, you can exit and enter the Zoo again with a hand stamp. A Railroad ride is a nice break from the crowds and brings the energy level down a bit. Parents have told me exiting the Zoo for even 30 minutes changed their entire day for the better.

San Diego Zoo Food

Food at the Zoo is very expensive and offers limited healthy choices. I recommend bringing as much of your own food and drink as possible. Store your food and gear in lockers behind the Reptile House or leave in car and exit Zoo for lunch. There is a nice grass-covered lawn in front of the Balboa Park Railroad just outside the exit—perfect for a picnic. Save your money for soft ice cream cone treats or maybe a souvenir from a gift shop.

More Zoo Tips

Here is a short list of exhibits and areas that tend to concentrate traffic and be difficult to navigate and enjoy on crowded days: Reptile House, Panda Exhibit, Orangutans, Gorillas and Polar Bears. Consider visiting these exhibits early or viewing them during a Bus tour.

Here are some of the least crowded areas that provide some relief on busy days: Discovery Outpost (Alligators, Tortoises and Reptiles), Urban Jungle (Giraffes, Rhinoceros) and Africa Rocks (Hyenas).

On hot days seek shade in the canyons of Center Street and Park Way. On cool days warm up with a walk through Elephant Odyssey.

Getting to the Zoo & Directions

The San Diego Zoo is located in Balboa Park just north of downtown San Diego. Southbound from I-5, take the 10th Avenue exit, turn left on A Street, left again on Park Boulevard, and follow signs to the Zoo. Northbound from I-5, take the B Street / Pershing exit to Pershing and then go left on Florida Drive. Turn left on Zoo Drive, left onto Park Boulevard, and follow the signs to the Zoo. Southbound from Highway 163, take the Park Boulevard exit, turn, and follow the signs.

You can park in the Zoo lot off Park Boulevard. Parking is free and abundant, but it’s always wise to get an early start during the summer months and on weekends and holidays. You can buy film, sunscreen, and treats at the Zoo entrance; strollers and wheelchairs are also available there for rent. For current information, visit the San Diego Zoo website or call (619) 234-3153.

Enjoy Your Day

Most visitors cannot see all the Zoo’s exhibits in one day. There is just too much to see and it’s no fun rushing around especially on busy days. My philosophy is quality over quantity. Try to focus on the experience and thoroughly enjoy the animals and exhibits you do see. I’ve been visiting for years and discover new things every time I go. Above all, have a happy day and enjoy the animals.

John Rogers

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