How to do the San Diego Zoo with kids

I’m a child of the 80’s and I used to love to watch Johnny Carson, especially on the nights when Joan Embry from the San Diego Zoo would come on (this is a great montage). It always seemed like a magical place to me. Once I moved to San Diego and got a chance to go to the zoo, I wasn’t disappointed. I was struck by their message of conservation and education. They do such a fantastic job bringing you close to the animals. Once we had Big Nugget, we became zoo members.

San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo

This was the first year that we had the chance to go to the special donor breakfast and animal encounter. The breakfast was disappointing and not very family-friendly – fruit salad, yogurts, and some pastries plus they ran out of seats. However, the animal encounter made up for what the breakfast lacked. My girls were fascinated and for a little girl who wants to be a zookeeper when she grows up, it was the highlight of her year.

The zoo is nestled in the middle of historic Balboa Park, essentially in downtown San Diego. When you are in the zoo, you would never know it. Once in awhile, you do get a glimpse of the outside world and you can hear the bell tower chime every 15 minutes. We haven’t done the Skyfair Aerial Tram yet but I promised Big Nugget that we would do it next time. One of the joys of being members, you don’t have to cram everything into one day.


There are always volunteers or zookeepers out to answer any of your questions at various parts of the park. My Big Nugget has always said that she wants to be a zookeeper so she loved getting a peak into some of the work that goes into taking care of the animals. This zookeeper is getting breakfast ready for the koala’s.


The zoo is dauntingly hilly in parts and when you have two kids in a double stroller, you learn the routes of least resistance. This visit, I was thankful to have my husband with us to do the grunt work but I’ve done this day alone and regretted some navigational decisions. I always start by going right from the entrance. First stop, see the koala/giraffe/rhino loop. Then head to the Elephant Odyssey and up the hill to the polar bears. We then head to the new Africa Rocks exhibit, I love the new penguins. Finish that loop with the famous pandas – a can’t miss. Once you are back in the front of the zoo, we go to the hippos and then around to the monkey trail. Going this route, you avoid going UP this hill.


You get so close to the animals and can experience them with all your senses if you know what I mean. You can smell the rhinos from a block away. My Big Nugget likes to bring her binoculars but there really is no need.


Take your time, talk to the experts they have around the zoo and enjoy watching these animals up close.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

If you love the San Diego Zoo, then you will love their sister property, the Safari Park. Personally, I prefer it over the Balboa Park location for a number of reasons. Either way, you are spending a day learning and basking in the glow of some amazing animals.

Other Things to do in Balboa Park

Balboa Park is such a beautiful place. If you are spending time in downtown San Diego then I highly recommend walking this gem and checking out some of the museums. We love going down to the Natural History Museum and spending time in their Backyard Exhibit. It’s perfect for toddlers and preschoolers.

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  1. Great blog! Gifting us with zoo passes is the best gift of all. J as well as us, has immensely enjoyed it. There’s a lot to learn about the animals that has so many fun facts, your imagination takes ovee. Thanks for sharing.

  2. It’s been almost 5 years since I last visited(!!!), but your description takes me right back. Love the experience of the San Diego Zoo!

  3. Love this, looks like such a fun time- way to go to figure out the smart way around the zoo and so helpful of you to share, my girls and I always seem to find ourselves on a trek UP that big hill. 🙂 Africa Rocks was under construction last time we were there, can’t wait to see it!!

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