Updated: Jun 9
Zoo-cations (that’s a vacation centered around a zoo visit) have to be some of my favorite vacations. But for our family, there is NO BETTER Zoo-cation then in San Diego. That is why you will find us in San Diego visiting the Zoo and Safari Park nearly every 3-day weekend scheduled by Itsy-Bitsy’s school.
We’re Going to the Zoo – Zoo – Zoo, You Can Come Too – Too – Too
Once you have made the decision to book your fabulous Zoo-cation, there are a few things you will need to prepare before heading down to San Diego. First, you will want to choose an amazing place to stay. Luckily, I can help you narrow down your choices with my blog Where to Stay When You’re in San Diego. Additionally, if you are flying in, I highly recommend that you rent a car. San Diego is much easier to get around with a car, especially if you are going out to the Safari Park.
Aside from where to stay and how to get around, you should also make choices about tours and safaris. Not sure if purchasing a tour is worth it? Please, let me dispel you of that illusion with my blog Take a Tour – How One Zoo Tour Changed the Way We Getaway. Planning ahead and booking your extra experiences before you go will make sure you not only maximize your zoo time but also insure you get the best choice of tours and times.
Fat Mama Tip: If you are an early riser or are just looking to get even more Zoo out of your Zoo-cation then I highly recommend booking an early morning tour or safari. Both the Zoo and Safari Park offer tours that start before the parks actually open to the public. This not only provides you with bonus Zoo time, it also gives you a great overview of the park, without the crowds, and allows you to visit exhibits in a nearly private experience.
I also highly recommended purchasing your Zoo and Safari Park tickets in advance. As regular Zoo-cationers, Fat Papa, Itsy Bitsy, and I all have San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Memberships, which will save you more money than you think during a 3-day Zoo-cation. But there are a variety of cost-saving ticket options to choose from. Check out my post How to Get the Best Deal on San Diego Attraction Tickets for my advice at covering costs for your Zoo-cation.
For easy reading, and because tours are ABSOLUTELY NOT NECESSARY for having an amazing Zoo-cation (though highly recommended), I have set up this 3-day itinerary without the inclusions of tours or safaris or anything extra you must buy. BUT I will include Fat Mama Tips throughout with my suggestions about great times to add pay-to-play activities and plenty of dining recommendations.
Additionally, in this blog post, I am assuming typical Zoo and Safari Park hours of 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. However, throughout the year, both locations run programs that extend their hours well into the evening. Jungle Bells (select dates around the winter holidays) and Nighttime Zoo (June-September) are two of our favorite extended hours programs offered by the Zoo and Safari Park. During these programs, the facilities stay open late, not closing until 8 p.m. (Jungle Bells) and 9 p.m. (Nighttime Zoo).
How to Use This Itinerary
Check out each day and the corresponding map. Day – 1 is marked in teal, Day – 2 in coral, and Day – 3 is yellow. Solid lines of color are my recommended routes around the Zoo and Safari Park with the colored dots representing bus or tram routes. The numbered ducks are points of interest, animals, or exhibits that I will provide greater detail and stories about in a post next week called 3 – Day San Diego Zoo-cation Highlights.
But even if you don’t read 3 – Day Zoo-cation Highlights, the ducks are still helpful reminders of fun places to explore. Each duck on the map represents a feature in the Zoo or Safari Park that I really enjoy. Most of the time, I have a funny story or memory that makes it special. I hope you enjoy each of my duck stops and have fun making your own memories across the Zoo and Safari Park.
Day – 1 Jungle Exploration
When you look at a map of the Zoo, you will notice that it is divided almost evenly by Upper and Lower Center Street. This divide makes a great landmark for mapping out your time at the Zoo. In general, I like to spend Day-1 exploring everything to the left of Center Street and Day-2 exploring everything to the right (with a few exceptions).
This means that our first day at the Zoo is going to be spent in some of the oldest parts of the Zoo, the jungle biome and the Reptile Walk. In which order you decide to tackle these parts of the Zoo doesn’t matter so much. But if you are looking to get the most out of your day, I recommend making a beeline for the jungle then ending with the tortoises, lizards, and crocodiles.
Fat Mama Tip: The newly opened Wildlife Explorers Basecamp (February 2022) is the Zoo’s newest attraction, and it replaces the old Children’s Zoo. This is a fantastic exhibit for the end of the day when visiting the Zoo with little ones because it can be difficult to get them to leave this kid-friendly and highly interactive area. It also happens to be located near the Reptile Walk, Reptile House, Komodo Kingdom, and Hummingbird Habitat, all of which you should definitely go see … on your way to the Basecamp.
In the jungle biome there are 5 major trails that will lead you through most of the exhibits: Monkey Trail, Hippo Trail, Tiger Trail, Aviary Trail, and Treetops Way. But, like any real jungle, this jungle is easy to get lost in because its trails crisscross, overlap, and intersect one another regularly. So don’t get too frustrated if you get turned around. Fat Papa and I get lost almost every time we visit.
For the best route through the jungle, stick to the Monkey Trail, then follow the Hippo Trail down to … well … the Hippos. Avoid the Tiger Trail if possible. The Tiger Trail is very steep, some of the pavement is uneven, and there are few animals you won’t see elsewhere (Tiger viewing is better at the Safari Park). But if you really want to take this trail, do so from the Monkey Trail. This will allow you to walk down hill rather than uphill.
Depending on where you are in the Zoo, when you get hungry, I highly recommend eating lunch either up in the jungle canopy at one of the eateries in Benchley Plaza (duck 11) or down in the valley at the Asian Passage (duck 9). Both of these areas provide tables, chairs, shade, and bathrooms if you have brought your own lunch and just need a place to picnic. They also offer a variety of food, and each has their own culinary theme.
Fat Mama Tip: Benchley Plaza is home to Albert’s, the Zoo’s only sit-down restaurant. The food and drinks here are great. I highly recommend eating here, but I also suggest making reservations through Open Table ahead of time.
If you don’t plan to eat at Albert’s, then try to make it all the way down the Hippo Trail to Lower Center Street to have lunch at the Hua Mei Café. There are far more tables and chairs here. I also like the Asian inspired food more than the salads and sandwiches in the jungle (both locations have chicken tenders, burgers, and desserts for kids).
Either place you choose to stop for lunch is going to be a great option. One thing I will say for the Zoo and Safari Park, the food might be nothing fancy, but it is good for mass production at an entertainment park. I know that doesn’t sound like high praise, but I LOVE eating at the Zoo and Safari Park. Fat Papa and I totally plan the day around which eateries we want to hit up. Albert’s and Hua Mei Café are among out favorites.
Having traversed half of the Monkey Trail and most of the Hippo Trail prior to lunch, I recommend continuing to explore the jungle by following the upper part of the Monkey Trail out of Benchley Plaza. Eventually cross Treetops Way and join the Aviary Trail which will take you down to Upper Center Street.
Congratulations! You just made it through a full exploration of the jungle.
Be sure to check out the amazing animals in the Asian Forest (Map Marker 11) before taking a little break on the Kangaroo Bus, which you can pick up near the meeting of Lower Center Street and the Hippo Trail (duck 14). Itsy Bitsy always loves riding the Kangaroo Bus because it provides a fun perspective on many of her favorite animals.
Fat Mama Tip: When choosing your seats on the Kangaroo Bus, I always recommend sitting up top on this fun double decker experience. Also, if possible, ride on the right side of the bus, but switch to the left side just for the Urban Jungle. You will get a much better view of the animals this way (unless you desperately want to see polar bears from atop the bus, then sit on the left side between Stops 2-3).
Once you have ridden the Kangaroo Bus to the Urban Jungle, the day is yours. Feel free to follow my suggested path to the Reptile Walk and Wildlife Explorers Basecamp or kick around other parts of the Zoo that look interesting. Either way, make sure to get a good night's sleep because we are going to wake up and do it all again for Day-2.
Wow, what a fun first day of this Zoo-cation!
Day – 2 A is for Adventure
It’s 9 a.m. on day two of our Zoo-cation. The Macaws have been released at the front entrance, officially welcoming everyone into the Zoo. That is totally a thing. We’ve only seen it once, but if you are on Front Street by the entrance at 9 a.m., you can see this, and it is amazing! Also keep an eye out for the peacocks that like to walk around, hide in the trees, and hang out on top of the buildings.
Today we are going to explore the second half of the Zoo, everything on the OTHER side of Center Street. For the most part, that is going to include a wide variety of desert and grassland biomes. I hope you’re rested because today, A is for an African, Australian, and Asian adventure.
Unlike yesterday where we stuck to one biome with many trail names, we are going to instead explore a variety of biomes and zones with no trail names. The plus side is that these zones don’t need tons of trail names because they all have only one path leading through them making navigation much easier.
Planning to do Upper Center Street and all of Africa Rocks before lunch is a good goal. Africa Rocks is divided into two parts, allowing you either to go back to the Urban Jungle after viewing the Hamadryas Baboons or continuing toward Elephant Odyssey. If you plan to participate in the giraffe or rhino feedings, then this is where you would divert for that activity. Otherwise … other adventure awaits at the end of Africa Rocks.
Far Mama Tip: If it is the weekend, and if you have hoofed it though Africa Rocks, go get in line at the ticket booth next to the giraffe exhibit in the Urban Jungle (duck 2). Here you can buy tickets for the giraffe and rhino feedings. Tickets go on sale at 11 a.m. but I have seen lines start forming as early as 9:30. For holidays, the feedings are extended to other days as well, so call ahead to confirm what days the feeding will be offered.
FYI, only 20 tickets are available for the rhino feeding while the giraffe feeding … well … I’m not sure how many tickets are available, I haven’t seen that sell out. Tickets cost $15 for 3 pieces of food, so I recommend at least one ticket per person in your party (we usually buy at least two). The feedings don’t start until 11:30 (rhino) and 12:00 (giraffe), so sending one person from your party to get tickets while everyone else does Africa Rocks is usually a good idea.
Aside from Albert’s, my hands down favorite place to have lunch in the Zoo is at the Sabertooth Grill (duck 10). Here you will find a selection of typical Anglified-Latin food, margaritas, and kids' meals. There is also a large dining patio with shade, bathrooms, and a nice view of the elephant habitat.
However, if your tummy is a grumbling before you make it our of Africa Rocks, detour to the Urban Jungle for Sydney’s Café. Here you will find burgers, sandwiches, and salads. It’s a decent spread. Gigi, Fabby, and I have very much enjoyed the fresh fruit and charcuterie plates available at this eatery.
After lunch, explore the upper half of the Zoo by walking through all of Elephant Odyssey. This second half of your day is going to be spent seeing some of the Zoo’s most impressive animals, including not only Asian and African Elephants but also a variety of big cats, graceful gazelle, and at the top of Upper Park Way, the Polar Bears.
Once you’ve made it this far, your day can either continue with an aerial adventure across the canyon on the Skyfari or with a walk down Eagle Trail to see some amazing birds of prey. Either way, make your way to your preferred destination because you have just seen the best the San Diego Zoo has to offer.
Fat Mama Tip: Want to learn more about the Zoo but not ready to pay for the cost of a tour? No problem. Follow the coral route on my map to Front Street and check out Map Marker 5 (duck 16). This is where you can take a FREE double decker guided bus tour of the Zoo. The coral dots are the approximate route the tour bus will take.
Unlike the Kangaroo Bus, this guided tour makes no stops, covers FAR MORE of the Zoo, and your friendly bus driver will share all sorts of great facts about the Zoo and animals you see along the drive. The end of the day is a great time to take the tour because there is still enough light to see the animals, and those that are nocturnal are starting to wake up!
Hooray! You made it through another day at the Zoo, and through all those incredible predators in Elephant Odyssey.
Are you ready to explore a new park tomorrow? See you at the Safari Park.
Day – 3 We’re Going on Safari
You are doing great! You’ve made it through two full days at the San Diego Zoo and now you are about to conquer the Safari Park. Go you!
Like the Zoo, the Safari Park is massive and difficult to do in one day (but that’s okay, I’m going to show you how it can be done). Also like the Zoo, the Safari Park can easily be divided into two parts, the upper park (Walkabout Australia, Tiger Trail, World Gardens, and Condor Ridge) and the lower park (everything else).
As you walk into the Safari Park, you are going to be in the main hub of the Park. This is where you will find the main gift shops (keep walking), the carousel (duck 1, keep walking), more gift shops (keep walking) and some restaurants (don’t stop here for food yet, it’s only 9 a.m.; you can get Starbucks and breakfast before getting to the Safari Park, the drive is long enough).