Why the San Diego Zoo is the ultimate in feel-good fun

Practically synonymous with the city it calls home, The San Diego Zoo is so internationally renowned, it will be the first place in the U.S. to receive giant pandas when China’s Panda Diplomacy program resumes this year. In fact, as you may have caught anywhere from People to the Today Show, Yun Chuan and Xin Bao, as the pair is known, may arrive as soon as late summer.

But whenever you go, and whatever animals you find on arrival, you’ll see why the zoo is such a standout. And that starts with the far-ranging conservation efforts you’re contributing to simply by walking through the front gates, past the larger-than-life guardian lion.

Where else does the price of admission come with the knowledge that you’re helping to safeguard biodiversity, reintroduce wildlife into native habitats, preserve genetic resources and foster human-wildlife coexistence around the world? (And that’s just a short list of San Diego Zoo-supported initiatives.) Not that any of this high-mindedness takes away from the sheer, unmitigated fun of a day at the zoo, of course. For some of the highlights you’ll want to experience ASAP, read on.  

Take a guided bus tour

The zoo runs a free guided tour on a double-decker bus that departs every 10 or 15 minutes from a depot near the entrance. Taking you through the eight onsite conservation hubs in about 35 minutes, the ride is well worth doing and makes for a particularly great starter course if you can squeeze it into the earlier part of your visit.

The challenge? You may be so excited about seeing your favorite animals that you’ll want to run off in every direction all at once. Perfectly understandable. But if you can muster a bit of patience, here’s what you’ll get from the bus ride: all kind of helpful pointers (like, which part of a habitat tends to be best place to spot certain animals); fun facts (what’s the eye-popping primate you can see in only two North American zoos?) and juicy insider tidbits (how the zoo participates in genetic matchmaking services, aka Tinder for endangered wildlife).

Along the way, you’re likely to see all kinds of animals—literally, lions and tigers and bears, oh my!—plus dazzling American flamingos, adorably snoozing koalas, power walking elephants and a hyper alert mob of meerkats. Mob, by the way, is the actual scientific term, as your guide will likely explain. Your guide will also clue you in to some of the zoo’s most important plant life, conservation efforts and special programs.

Wander through Africa Rocks

The largest expansion in the zoo’s 108-year history, Conrad Prebys Africa Rocks debuted in 2017 with eight acres of naturalistic habitats—and some of the most fascinating creatures from the namesake continent.

As you make your way along the winding, wilderness-evoking pathways—behind a 65-foot waterfall and past dramatic outcroppings—you’ll visit six habitats: Cape Fynbos, home to beach-loving African penguins; Madagascar forest, home to tree-hopping lemurs and the deceptively docile looking predatory fossa; West African forest, home to water-loving reptiles from lizards to dwarf crocodiles; Acacia woodland, home to a branch-lounging leopard; Ethiopian Highlands, home to the “bleeding heart” Gelada baboons, among others, so named for the bright red markings you can’t miss on their chests (and whom you can see in only two U.S. zoos); and Kopje, home to the cartoonishly adorable rock hyrax and klipspringer.

Immerse yourself in a hippo habitat

Okay, you won’t actually be swimming with the hippos, but standing alongside their newly renovated, glass-sided pool in the zoo’s Ituri Forest, you’ll feel a part of their mesmerizing water ballet.

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Fu and Ama, as this mother-daughter pair is affectionately known, spend a majority of their day in these 200,000 or so gallons of water, so if the dynamic duo doesn’’t happen to be submerged and sauntering past you when you first arrive, just hang out a bit and see what happens (though the two are adorable on land, too).

Enjoy the Polar Bear Plunge

Another habitat with a glass-walled pool, this one is home to giant white furballs that seem just as happy to swim up to the glass and check you out as you are to look in at them.

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Old lady Chinook, big boy Kalluk and his sister Tatqiq are also awesome to behold as they roam the waterfall-splashed rocks of their habitat, but if you don’t see the trio there or in the pool, again, just wait a bit. As a sign reads, “they might be in the back area being fed, participating in training, or getting a checkup.” Meanwhile, you can pose for photos with outsized polar bear replicas, or—or you’re little—crawl into a replica iceberg and pose with a cute replica seal. 

Take the kids to Wildlife Explorers Basecamp

Equal parts kids’ museum, wildlife viewing zone and splash park-playground, this young explorers’ paradise is packed with options. From one minute to the next, the littles might be traversing a swaying suspension bridge or net tunnel, wandering under animated projections of butterflies or through a real-life hummingbird habitat; scampering over boulders or hiding in a treehouse.

Meant to represent four habitat zones—Rainforest, Wild Woods, Marsh Meadows and Desert Dunes—the area that once housed the historic Children’s Zoo is now a paragon of immersive tech and interactive play (see: the one-of-a-kind massive floating and rotating stone globe that lures a constant stream of kids). But maybe the best part of basecamp is also the most old-school: incredibly cool creatures.

Among the many that call this area home (coatis, squirrel monkeys, burrowing owls and Fijian iguanas, to name a few), dozens take turns starring in the daily presentation at 1 p.m. Seated right up against a small-scale outdoor stage, your family can get up close and personal with everything from a porcupine to a prairie dog.

Get the bird’s-eye view on Skyfari

A shortcut over the treetops from one side of the zoo, this several-minute ride packs in amazing views of not just the zoo below, but also the surrounding Balboa Park (especially the iconic California Tower) and Downtown San Diego.

Along the way, if you can pry your eyes from the panorama, read the sign inside the gondola: a brief bio note on the wild-looking bird species that adorns your carriage’s exterior, whether a hornbill, cock of the rock, toucan, macaw or some other winged wonder.

Treat yourself to a VIP Experience

While the standard zoo day that comes with the price of admission is epic, you can also book special experiences that cross into bucket list territory.

These include everything from a guided, hourlong hike among the zoo’s pygmy and river hippos (from $49) to a five- to seven-hour Exclusive VIP Experience that’s tailored to your personal interests and gets you into habitat areas, animal interactions and a private sit-down lunch (from $710 per person).

Feed the giraffes

As amazing as those VIP experiences are, here’s one that will set you back $7, versus $700. For the price of a biscuit (or as many as you’d care to spring for),  you can have a super-close encounter with the resident giraffes, who’ll gladly take your purchase off your hands, and probably lick your palms in the process—an absolutely surreal exchange.

Of course, your hands will be pre-treated with the provided sanitizer—one of a few steps you’ll be briefed on in the feeding area—lest the moment lead to any unintended harm. Feeding hours are between 11:30 and 1:30 on Fridays through Sundays, and a line tends to form as early as 11, but moves quickly. And as with nearly every encounter at this zoo, this one is well worth the wait.  

Indeed, from one exhibit to the next, you’ll realize something: Your time with these amazing creatures—and by extension, your contribution to their ongoing conservation around the world—easily makes for a day well spent.

Ready to go? Get a sneak peek with these animal webcams, then grab your tickets to the San Diego Zoo.

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