San Diego Zoo Tips You Need To Know Before You Go
For a couple of summers, I did work for the San Diego Zoo. I worked in the exit gift shop and one of the restaurants in the park. Before you visit, here are a few San Diego Zoo tips and tricks essential for a great day.
Best Hotels Near The San Diego Zoo
Best Time To Go
I worked at the San Diego Zoo during the summer of 2017 from June to August. I noticed quite a few things. Yes, the summertime is crazy for the zoo but there’s a small period of time when it really isn’t that bad.
Try to go before the 4th of July in the summer because some kids are still in school or haven’t gotten vacation time yet. The zoo is open every single day so go on a gloomier day or a colder day as you’ll likely have more of the park to yourself.
Just like going to Disneyland or Disney World, the offseason is the best time to go. I guarantee that the employees will be more lenient with things and you can get summer merchandise for a sales price. Plus, the animals will still behave the way they usually do.
Important: If you have kids under 12, plan your visit for October, as kids are free during that time.
Try to go during the week in spring, fall, and winter. Everyone is either working or in school. Earlier in the morning or later in the day is ideal because most people are there in the late morning, early afternoon.
If you’re going in the summertime, go later in the day. After 1 PM is ideal during the middle of the week. Beware though, most days in the summer, the zoo is packed.
On A Budget? No Problem! Here Are Cheap Ticket Tricks
While the zoo is a non-profit organization, its prices can be steep. Day passes can be $65 without tax for adults and $53 for children between 3-11, if you go on less popular days. There are a few discounts you can get to make the visit worth it.
You can get the San Diego Go Pass that allows you admission to both San Diego Zoo, San Diego Safari Park, LEGOLAND, SeaWorld, and 55 other SoCal attractions for a set price. Get Your San Diego Go Passes Here.
The Zoo also offers plenty of discounts. Members of the military and their families get 10% off with valid I.D. AAA members also get 10% for up to 6 people. Airline and cruise line employees and travel agents also have access to the discounts. But if you aren’t any of those, you can get a big group discount for groups of 15 or more.
Seniors and students get a whopping 15% off. But these discounts are only available for tickets. The good news is that they are available on the major holidays too. And remember, in October kids (under 12) are free!
Book your tickets in advance here:
- Skip the Ticket Line: San Diego Zoo Ticket
- Skip the Ticket Line: San Diego Zoo Safari Park Ticket
- Skip the Ticket Line: San Diego Zoo and Safari Park Combo Tour Ticket (much cheaper!)
- San Diego Zoo Hunt: Roar with Rex Adventure at the San Diego Zoo
>>Also read our List of Free Things to do in San Diego with Kids
What To Bring To The San Diego Zoo
There are a few things the San Diego Zoo allows that other amusement parks and attractions don’t. If you are going to the zoo, especially in the summer, please make sure to have these items.
A Light Weight Backpack
The zoo allows its visitors to bring backpacks and other bags. Take advantage of this. Bring the backpack you usually use as an airplane carry-on as they will be durable. This is an item that’ll set the tone for your visit since you need room for a few things. A hiking or biking bag is also great.
A BIG Water Bottle
Yes, you are allowed to bring in a water bottle. Even though they are a global corporation, they don’t want their guests dropping dead from dehydration. Please please PLEASE bring a big water bottle or a couple of smaller water bottles. Don’t buy any water bottles in the park because they are grossly overpriced and definitely not worth it.
Get a reusable water bottle and fill it halfway to freeze overnight. Then fill the rest of the way before leaving. It’ll keep your water cold and you can ask any concession will gladly fill your water bottle with water if you ask nicely.
You are allowed to bring food to the park. I recommend going to Walmart or the dollar store and getting some protein bars, granola bars, and other snacks to keep you going. Not only will this keep your energy up but it will prevent you from overspending at shops. Most of the snacks there are not worth the price.
If traveling with children, be sure to pack enough snacks for at least two every two hours depending on how many kids you have.
Small Lunch Packs and Ice Packs
This is especially useful if you’re planning on going for a whole day or you have kids. It allows you to store cheese sticks, fruits, veggies, and sandwiches.
This is also a way around having to buy food. If you put your lunch pack in your backpack then you can bring in picnic foods without getting in trouble. It’ll also make it safer to bring breastmilk or formula for infants.
Hand Sanitizer and Wipes
I’m going to hit you with some grade-A honesty. The zoo is gross. Millions of people touch every single surface and there are animal interactions. Hand sanitizer will prevent diseases of any kind. Now, the janitorial crew is awesome but they can’t always keep up with everything so please be cautious about what you touch. This is also helpful if you have kids. Keep those noses clean.
Sunscreen, Hat, and Lip Balm
You are going to be exposed to the sun for a long period of time so please bring sunscreen and hat. You will regret it if you don’t. Be sure to also bring lip balm to fight dry lips. You will thank yourself later.
Cellphone and Charger
If you’re going in a group, make sure everyone has their cellphones and bring one charger for every kind of phone in the group. There are outlets around the zoo you can use and it’ll prevent wandering out lost. Another great investment is one of those large portable batteries. That way, you can charge on the go, and don’t have to wait at an outlet.
What To Wear
You can wear pretty much whatever you want to as long as you’re comfortable. However, keep in mind that the zoo is built inside a valley. There is a steep walk coming no matter which direction you choose to take.
So, I recommend wearing something comfortable and breathable. I’ve walked around the zoo plenty of times and jeans are NOT something you should wear. The chaffing is incredible.
Wear something cute if you want but make sure it’s something you can comfortably workout in. Wear running shoes, something that won’t hurt your feet. You will be walking a lot.
Best Exhibits Around The Zoo
Not only have I worked at the zoo, I’ve taken many school trips to the zoo so I know which exhibits are totally worth seeing and which are kind of boring, like the koalas. The koalas are super cute, don’t get me wrong, but there is only a small window of opportunity to see them awake and moving. They sleep about 23 hours a day. These are only a couple, but most exhibits are worth going to because of the Botanics around the zoo.
Penguins: Africa Rocks
If you want an exhibit that if always full of activity then visit the African penguins. They’re always up to something goofy so it’s always cute to see them. It may be a touch crowded but it’s very worth how funny they are.
Serval Cats: Africa Rocks
Serval cats are my favorite type of felines. They look like domestic cats but they’re kind of like dogs in wild cat bodies. It’s a real treat if you get to see them fooling around with each other. They can jump up to nine feet to catch things and are quite long.
Takin: Asian Passage
So takin are super cool animals. You can find them in the Asian Passage section of the zoo. Basically, takin has the nose of a moose, horns of a wildebeest, and a bison body. They’re related to sheep and goats. As with most of the animals, it’s a hit or miss as to whether or not you see them.
Red Panda: Asian Passage
Since the San Diego Zoo doesn’t have the Giant Pandas anymore, the next best thing is those cutie Red Pandas. They have red fur to camouflage into the red moss of their natural habitat.
Where To Get A Bite To Eat In and Around The Zoo
I will not lie, the zoo is expensive. Sometimes the food is not worth the price. I don’t recommend visiting those concession stands unless you just want some fries. Those fries are to die for. Here are a couple of restaurants among the plethora of options.
Albert’s Restaurant: In the Zoo
I have personally worked at Albert’s so I can attest to the quality of food. It’s the only sit-down restaurant in the zoo and it can get super busy. I recommend not going for brunch or lunch because it is next to impossible to get a seat even with a reservation. They tend to overbook themselves. Make a reservation no matter what. It’s a popular restaurant so be prepared.
The Prado: Balboa Park
The Prado is a really nice Spanish restaurant near the zoo. It’s great for a nice quiet dinner for every kind of diet. There are vegan and vegetarian options.
Sabertooth Grill: In the Zoo
Sabertooth is near the elephant exhibit so it’s a nice stop while you’re near the bottom of the zoo valley. You will need a break so you should take it. It has a nice fresh California vibe that is complete with the fresh food they serve. It’s perfect to re-energize yourself. No reservations are needed.
Best Route Around The Zoo
No matter how you start your route around the zoo, you are going to hike. There is no going around it. I recommend just going right for it and pick a random direction.
There’s no wrong route because it’s all going to take the same amount of time. Just make sure you have good shoes on and walk!
Hidden Gems Around the San Diego Zoo
There are regular exhibits out in the open that are pretty obvious but there are little things that most people don’t even think about.
- Beyond the Reptile House: There’s a section behind the reptile house filled with more scally friends and more!
- Orchid Greenhouse: On the third Friday of the month, at no extra charge, you can view some amazing orchids from 10 AM to 2 PM.
- Hummingbird Hut: Near the reptile house, beyond some foliage is a beautiful collection of bromeliads. Hummingbirds will buzz right by your head.
Essential Knowledge To Know Before Visiting
- Stay hydrated
- If you ask politely, you can get almost anything
- Avoid the flamingoes, your nostrils will burn
- Don’t get too close to the big cats, they’ll spray you
- Pick up after yourself
- YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY PEOPLE WHO WANT SERVICE
- Practice patience and the employees will help you faster
- The keepers love telling you about the animals so just ask them
- Watch out for the tour busses!!!!
- Check if there is a fun musical number happening near closing (they happen in the summer and holiday times)
The San Diego Zoo has been around for over 50 years now and it has not lost its genuine love for animals. Being a former employee, I can say with confidence that the keepers love and care for all the animals they look after. But like with any attraction, there are traps. Hopefully, these San Diego Zoo tips will help you have a pleasant visit!
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San Diego Zoo Tips You Need To Know Before You Go From A Former Employee was written and edited by Hedge Metreyeon. For more San Diego Explorer posts, check out our homepage. For more of their articles visit here. Follow them on social media here.
Last Updated on May 11, 2023 by Maria Haase