Updated: Jun 9, 2022
There are so many reasons why San Diego is an amazing place to travel with kids, but the Zoo and Safari Park are at the top of our list! You would think that after a dozen Zoo-cations in 4 years we would get tired of the Zoo, but that isn’t the case. We love coming back to the Zoo and Safari Park every time because there is ALWAYS something new and exciting to discover.
Now that you have decided you are going to the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park for three days and you’ve read my other blogs about booking lodging and buying tickets, it is finally time to go to the ZOO! But how do you maximize your time and make sure you can see AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE between 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.?
The San Diego Zoo and Safari Park are both MASSIVE facilities. Being able to see everything in one day is ducking impossible …. especially when you have little ducklings in tow. But, having visited both locations so often, Fat Papa and I have come up with a solid approach to seeing as much as possible. This is why we really enjoy having three days to explore. I recommend spending two days at the Zoo and one day at the Safari Park.
This 3-day itinerary has got you covered to make the most out of your Zoo-cation. It might seem silly, but I am going to guide you, almost landmark-by-landmark, through the Zoo and Safari Park to make sure you and your ducklings see the best the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance has to offer. But first, a little history and insight about the Zoo.
We’re Going to the Zoo – Zoo – Zoo, You Can Come Too, Too, Too
The San Diego Zoo was founded in 1916 after the World Fair hosted in Balboa Park (that is the large and beautiful park surrounding the Zoo). Take any tour, visit the website, or read the dozens of plaques around the Zoo to learn more about the founding. I mention it here because the Zoo’s age plays an interesting role in its design, concept, and growth.
Over the last century, the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance has grown and expanded in wonderful ways. Along with a mission more focused on conservation, research, and education, the Alliance has also found new ways for guests to have immersive experiences without interacting directly with the animals. This is a big step forward in education and conservation; it’s also a great example of how the Zoo itself has changed.
For example, when Gigi and Fabby were girls growing up in San Diego, they used to come to the Zoo and RIDE the Galapagos Tortoises in the Children's Zoo. While that is thankfully no longer allowed, there is a life-size bronze statue of a Galapagos Tortoise that kids can climb. Such statues can be found throughout the park offering guests an interactive demonstration and size comparison.
Another way the Zoo and Safari Park have changed are in the designs of the grounds. As you walk around the two park-like facilities, look around you, not just at the animals and exhibits but at your surroundings. Aside from having an extensive collection of animals, the Zoo and Safari Park are also botanical gardens. In fact, the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s botanical collection is more numerous and valuable than their zoological collection.
When you look at a map of the Zoo or Safari Park, and certainly as you walk around, you may notice that each zone or group of exhibits represents a specific biome. Each biome is full of plant species native to the habitats of the featured animals. These plants are not just in the habitats, but along the walkways and as part of the scenery. While this does provide a beautiful setting, it also educates visitors about the animals and where they come from. It’s a fun, immersive way to connect to the animals and feel like you are really walking through their environments.
Fat Mama Tip: As you move around the Zoo and Safari Park, take note of the weather. How does the weather, air temperature, sun feel right as you walk into the park? As you walk around into different zones and biomes, reassess your opinion of the weather. How does the temperature feel? Does the air feel humid or dry? Does this match with what you would expect for San Diego weather?
The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance has worked very hard to recreate the habitats of their animals, not just in the exhibits, but along the walkways for guests as well. As you travel around the parks, you will notice microclimates across the facilities. For example, the jungle areas along Hippo and Monkey Trail may feel wetter and warmer while Elephant Odyssey is going to be dry and hot. In fact, Zoo designers even built a giant waterfall in Africa Rocks specifically to provide humidity for the plants and animals that need it in this biome.
As you explore the Zoo and Safari Park over the next three days, keep in mind that this Zoo-cation is a full immersive experience. Take the time to really enjoy the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and interactions the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance has worked hard to provide. After all, it is an experience more than 100 years in the making!
How To Use This Itinerary
When combined with my post 3-Day San Diego Zoo-cation Itinerary, you will get a full guide to the Zoo and Safari Park that includes which Trails and Paths are the best to take and which exhibits are must see attractions! On their own, each post has its own insights to provide but when read together, they will provide much more information.
Day – 1 Jungle Exploration Duck Highlights
For the first day of our Zoo-cation, we are going to explore the jungle biome. Check out the teal route I’ve drawn on the map, reference my post 3-Day San Diego Zoo-cation Itinerary, and make sure to match the numbered ducks on the map with the numbers below.
If you follow my duck highlights around the Zoo, you will be sure to have an amazing jungle exploration that makes the best use of your time and energy at the Zoo. Now let’s go get lost in the jungle!
1. Rex the Lion Statue
At the front of the Zoo entrance, you will find a GIANT 27-foot tall, 10-ton bronze statue commemorating Rex, the lion that started the Zoo’s animal collection in 1916. Most days Zoo photographers will be available to take photos for visitors.
Fat Mama Tip: Hang on to the photo card Zoo photographers provide; if you see additional Zoo photographers inside the park offering other fun photo opportunities, all of your photos can be kept together in a single file. Just present the card to the Zoo photographer when taking photos at the designated areas. You will then be able to see all the photos at the end of the day by visiting the photo kiosk near the front entrance or visiting the photo company’s website (info on the card).
2. Jungle Java and Flamingos
I almost always need a coffee before starting our jungle adventure and Fat Papa loves to start the day with some fresh popcorn; both can be found here at Jungle Java. This also happens to be right next to the Flamingos and the start of the Monkey Trail that leads to some of the most fun primates the Zoo has to offer.
Make sure to look up as you walk along this part of the Monkey Trail. The Zoo has installed some fun sculptural art in the form of monkeys hanging from branches above the walkway. It's also the perfect opportunity for a dad joke about escaped monkeys. Yes, Fat Papa makes that joke every time, and yes, Itsy Bitsy ALWAYS tells him, “That’s not an escaped monkey, that’s a statue!”
3. Monkey Trail - Mandrills
Definitely stop and check these guys out. Itsy Bitsy always laughs at their blue butts, and they are usually active in the mornings. Also, their faces are just SO COOL to look at! This part of the Monkey trail is fantastic for strollers, mobility vehicles, toddlers who love to run and want to be independent, and anyone TWF.
It’s also wonderful because from the Mandrill exhibit you can look to your left, right, and behind you to see other primates as well. There are also plenty of benches to sit on for when you can’t tear your toddler away from the amazing monkeys and apes (we have definitely spent upwards of 30 minutes in this part of the Zoo because Itsy Bitsy was so enthralled with all the animals).
4. Monkey Trail - Pygmy River Hippos
Get your phones ready . . . this is one of the best photo opportunities. If you like selfies and interesting backgrounds, the beautiful fish that share the Pygmy River Hippo habitat make for an incredible background. This is one of my favorite habitats, not only because I have been able to get great photos of Itsy Bitsy, but because there is a ton to look at here and Itsy Bitsy LOVES exploring this well-designed exhibit.
If you are not looking to impress followers, this is still a MUST STOP exhibit. The tiny hippos are adorable, there are always 2 or 3 on exhibit, and it doesn’t matter if they are swimming, sleeping, or eating -- they are just fun and cute to watch. This exhibit also has a variety of cool terrariums with frogs and turtles. It is also the only place to cross over to Treetops Way where you can easily find a bathroom.
5. Scripps Aviary
This is the LARGEST and probably coolest aviary at the Zoo. It is where Itsy Bitsy first tried to run after a bird at the Zoo, and when it didn’t run away, she wasn’t sure what to do with herself. It was hilarious! Bird – 1, Itsy Bitsy – 0.
We always love walking through Scripps Aviary. The birds, the plants, the waterfall are all beautiful and lush. Really take the time to enjoy this feature of the Zoo, you won’t regret it.
6. Tiger Trail
If you desperately want to see Tigers at the Zoo and can’t wait until the Safari Park, then walk ONLY the bottom part of the Tiger Trail, which you can access from near the Okapi habitat. This is the least steep part of the trail and will take you right to the Tiger habitat.
7. Hippo Trail - Hippo Habitat
This is another MUST SEE habitat, and if you have kids with you, plan to spend a good amount of time here. This an impressive habitat for many reasons, from the sheer size of the water tank to the Hippos who are almost always up near the glass or in some other prime viewing location. But what might be most impressive is the Zoo’s participation in a Hippo breeding program.
Why is this so impressive? It means that most of the time, the Hippos on display are a mom and baby. If you thought those Pygmy River Hippos were cute, wait until you see a FREAKING BABY HIPPO. Words cannot describe the cuteness. And I kid you not, mama Hippos cuddle and nuzzle their babies. ADORABLE!
There is also a bronze hippo statue that has been set up for kids to climb on. This is another great photo opportunity and a chance for your littles to get out their wiggles. From toddler to 5-year old Itsy Bitsy always makes a b-line for it … I mean … just look …
8. End of Hippo Trail
This is where the Hippo Trail dead ends into Lower Center Street. This is an important landmark mainly because you have so many options from here. First, there is a bathroom almost directly in front of you, if you need one. Second, this is where you can pick up the path that leads to a bunch of cool Asian Cats and the Red Pandas.
Additionally, this is the main thoroughfare of the canyon floor. From here, make a left and go under the giant bridge to head toward Africa Rocks and the Asian Passage (a collection of shops and eateries). Go left and you can check out a beautiful pond with some of the largest pelicans I have ever seen while you wait for the Kangaroo Bus at Stop 2 (Duck 14).
But whatever you do, DO NOT TURN LEFT AND WALK UP THE HILL unless you are in excellent physical shape! This is one of the steepest paths in the entire park. Fat Papa and I walked it once. AND ONLY ONCE. It was awful, it scared us for … a few minutes. But really, it is very much not TWF friendly, and I recommend taking the bus to get up the hill.
9. Lower Center Street - Hua Mei Café
This is one of my top 3 favorite places to eat in the Zoo. Serving Asian-inspired dishes like potstickers, teriyaki chicken, and edamame (as well as kid’s meals), it makes for a nice break from the typical Zoo junk food that I also love.
This part of the Zoo has also been designed nicely with many tables and umbrellas for shade, a bar cart serving frozen drinks, beer, and wine as well as a dessert and snack booth with soft pretzels, popcorn, and ice cream.
I’m not hungry, you’re hungry.
10. Lower Center Street - Elevator to Bashor Bridge and Benchley Plaza
Need to get back up to the jungle biome or Elephant Odyssey from Lower Center Street? No problem, just take the elevator, seriously, don’t climb that hill past duck 14! Taller than any tree around, the elevator will shoot you from the bottom of the canyon to the top of the jungle canopy. Even if you don’t intend to cross the bridge, look over the edge once you’re at the top. The view down is rather amazing.
11. Benchley Plaza
This is where the jungle biome all ends or begins if you are crossing the bridge from Elephant Odyssey. It is also a great place to grab a bite to eat, enjoy a view of the canyon, or pick up provisions for your jungle exploration. Admittedly this is not where Fat Papa and I eat, too many sandwiches and wraps on the menus … unless we are going to Albert’s
Albert’s is the Zoo’s one and only sit-down, physical menus, waiters-take-your-order type of restaurant. I LOVE eating here. The food is nicer than what you are going to get in the park without being too upscale for a Zoo. Does that make sense? For example, I can order a great pizza or the catch of the day and know both are going to be wonderful. Also, you can make reservations using Open Table before you even arrive at the Zoo.
12. Hippo Trail - Bonobo Habitat
I love the Bonobos. These little apes are just so much fun. These guys are regularly out playing with their enrichment items and are just a ton of fun to watch. Uncle Andy visited the Zoo with us a few years ago and the Bonobos seemed to take a liking to him. One even hung out next to him for a while posing for photos. It was a great time!
Dr. Fabby Tip: Okay, this is just a fun science fact, Bonobos are human's closest living relatives. They share 98.7% of their DNA with us.
13. Orangutan Habitat
Orangutans are probably my favorite primate, and the ones in San Diego do not disappoint. First, these Orangutans seem to be rather frisky, because every few years there is a new baby born. In fact, a new baby was just born in January 2022. So, the likelihood of seeing a baby, or at least a young, Orangutan is rather high. And they are so cute when they are young!
Second, there is an old Orangutan named Karen who likes to hang out near the glass. Itsy Bitsy really likes this Orangutan because Karen regularly smiles or waves at her … not just her, most people, but still its adorable. Although this last time when Karen smiled at her, it scared Itsy Bitsy and I got it on video (as you can see above) … it was rather funny. So go check them out, you won’t be sorry you did.
14. Kangaroo Bus - Stop 2
Just hop-on and ride for as long as you like. We like taking the bus from Stop 2 to Stop 1 in the Urban jungle because it gets us up the steepest hill and then lets us see the back part of the Jaguar exhibit. Why is this important? For whatever reason, the Jaguar really likes hanging out in the back of her habitat where guests on the footpath can’t see her.
All the education guides like to make jokes that she is a diva because she only can be seen by the buses and tours. So, if you really like Jaguars, consider booking a tour. The education guides love showing her off!
15. Urban Jungle and Kangaroo Bus – Stop 1
If you pick up the Kangaroo Bus at Stop 2 and don’t want to ride it all the way back around to Stop 2, then this is the last change to hop-off before the bus starts its circuit again. The Urban Jungle is a great collection of animals known as “Ambassadors” who interact with the public and Zookeepers in a variety of ways. You can read all about it on plaques in front of each animal’s exhibit.
The Urban Jungle is also where you can purchase tickets for the giraffe and rhino feeding, watch a show at the Urban Jungle Stage, or grab lunch at Sydney’s Café. Really, there is a ton to do in this section of the Zoo with a bunch of iconic animals, including Koalas, Giraffes, a Black Rhino, Zebra, Flamingos, and Cheetahs.
16. Reptile Walk
Located directly behind the Reptile House is where you will find both the oldest living animals in the zoo and the animals with the oldest DNA … practically living dinosaurs. The beautiful paths take you through deserts and wetlands to meet a variety of shelled and scaled animals. So, if you have a kid that loves creepy crawly things or dinosaurs or unusual animals, then this is a must-see section of the Zoo.
17. Komodo Kingdom, Hummingbird Habitat, and Reptile House
The Komodo Kingdom, Hummingbird Habitat, and Reptile House exhibits can all be accessed from either Front Street of the end of the Reptile Walk. Each one feels rather self-explanatory, but I will say, all three are uniquely awesome. Absolutely worth a look-see.
The Komodo Kingdom exhibit is one of Pappy's absolute favorites and he has been very happy since it opened in 2021. Pappy loves visiting the fierce-looking Komodo "dragons." He has become quite good a photographing them, the above photo is from his collection.
18. Wildlife Explorers Basecamp
Okay … confession time … I have never been to this exhibit. But we have been waiting for it for 3 years now. I am so EXCITED for it to finally open in February 2022! I hope there are no more delays. We only ever visited the Children’s Zoo once with Itsy Bitsy before it was closed to begin construction on the new Basecamp, so I really CANNOT WAIT to see what this part of the Zoo will be like. Fat Papa’s aunt who works for the Zoo is very excited so I think it must be big!
Did you enjoy my route around the Zoo? I hope you found my color commentary and insights helpful, Now, get ready for Day-2!
Day – 2 A is for an African, Asian, Australian Adventure Duck Highlights
Today we are going to explore the second half of the Zoo (everything to the right of Center Street). That means exploring the various biomes of Asia, Africa, Australia, and a bit of the Arctic thrown in for good measure. So, I hope you are rested and ready to go for a full day of adventure!
1. Australian Outback
As you walk toward the Urban Jungle, you will find yourself in the Australian outback greeted by some of the most iconic animals including the Kookaburra and Tasmanian Devil. Check out both of their habitats; our family loves both of these animals, the Kookaburra for its distinct and instantly recognizable song and the Tasmanian Devil for its very un-devilish, rather cute, face.
The Tasmanian Devil exhibit is particularly fun to explore because it provides multiple places for the animal to burrow, hide, and tunnel. Look in the logs, under rock outcroppings, and in the viewing den to see if you can find the fun and mischievous creature.
2. Urban Jungle - Giraffe and Rhino Feeding Ticket Booth
If you plan to participate in the Giraffe or Rhino feeding, then the booth next to the Giraffe exhibit is where you will get your tickets. Feedings are done every Saturday and Sunday plus holidays. But this event is not advertised, so if you are unsure if it will be offered, call the Zoo in advance.
The cost is only $15 for three pieces of food, so theoretically, one ticket can cover three people. However, the feeding is a TON of fun, and I recommend purchasing at least one ticket per person in your group. It is well worth doing multiple times. Plus, the money spent on tickets all goes to research on conservation.
Fat Mama Tip: Tickets go on sale at 11 a.m. but I have seen lines start forming as early as 9:30. Also, there are only 20 tickets available for the rhino feeding, which does sell out fast. I’ve never seen the giraffe feeding sell out, but that one is also limited as well. For this reason, sending one person from your party to get tickets while everyone else does Africa Rocks is usually a good idea.
3. Upper Center Street - Grizzly Bears and Other Big Animals
I just LOVE all the BIG animals on Upper Center Street. While most of the animals you are going to see here will be bears from around the world, there are also a couple of big cats and sometimes the River Otters are out. But if you are in this area and hear a roar, it is NOT one of the bears, it’s the Tiger! So keep your eyes and ears open for this very cool experience.
One of my favorite animals along Upper Center Street is the pair of Grizzly Bears. They are two brothers who were from Colorado and came to live at the Zoo because, as cubs, they had learned to forage for food in campsites. Now, they have a safe home at the Zoo where they, and the public, can be kept safe.
4. Africa Rocks – Penguins and Tiger Sharks
Africa Rocks first opened in July 2017, only 2 months before our family first started going to the Zoo, and it has always been one of our absolute favorite exhibits. The entire thing is massive with a huge zoological and botanical collection, not to mention the amazing design features … which is why it gets so many Duck Highlights on my map … like this first one … the Penguin and Tiger Shark Cave.
As you first walk into Africa Rocks you walk into an underwater cave were Tiger Sharks and Penguins swim together. This shared habitat is such an amazing exhibit that lets visitors see both animals up close and personal. Its also a great place to stay cool if you happen to be visiting San Diego during a heat wave.
5. Africa Rocks – Waterfall
Further up the path you will also find a 65-foot-tall waterfall, the largest human-made waterfall in San Diego according to the Zoo. Not only does this waterfall play a vital role for the habitats in this part of the exhibit by providing needed humidity, it also is a ton of fun! Guests can walk behind it and experience what the backside of falling water looks like.
Despite always feeling like it is too loud, Itsy Bitsy always insists on walking behind the waterfall. It really is an amazing site and fun for the whole family. Plus, it’s a great photo opportunity.
6. Africa Rocks – Woodland Aviary
Another engineering masterpiece is the Woodland Aviary. Not only does this aviary have two viewing areas, an upper and lower section, but Zoo architects mimicked many natural features in the design. For example, if you look closely at the walls, you can see small divots that designers placed there to encourage natural insect and bird behaviors.
One of the prominent bird species found in this aviary is a collection of Bee Eaters. To promote natural hunting behavior, live bees live in the aviary, playing their role in the life cycle as pollinators and food. You can even see the beehives from the upper viewing area.
7. Africa Rocks - Hamadryas Baboon
The largest single habitat in Africa Rocks has to be for the Hamadryas Baboons, or as Itsy Bitsy likes to call them, “the red butts.” These highly social monkeys have very structured family groups, and this makes them a ton of fun to watch.
Their exhibit has been designed to provide optimal viewing from all around their habitat. Itsy Bitsy loves this exhibit because not only are the Baboons fun to watch, but there are caves and rock outcroppings that she can go in for fun viewing opportunities. This is a truly great exhibit and another impressive architectural achievement.
The Africa Rocks exhibit is full of amazing engineering accomplishments. From giant landscapes to clever lookouts to habitats that offer nearly 365° of animal viewing. The Africa Rocks exhibit is not a part of the Zoo you see, but rather one you experience.
8. Koala Climb
One of Itsy Bitsy’s favorite parts of the Zoo is how many interactive and climbable statues there are for kids. I don’t want to call them playgrounds because the Zoo doesn’t really have playgrounds. But there are a bunch of “statues” and “sculptures” and “structures” clearly designed for kids to climb on. Hands down, Itsy Bitsy’s favorite is the Eucalyptus Tree with Koalas next to the Koala house.
9. Elephant Odyssey – Play Area
Another part of the Zoo that has been designed to maximize guest interactions with animal exhibits and habitats is Elephant Odyssey. It is also the only place you will find what can be generously called a playground at the Zoo (we are hoping the new Basecamp will have a real playground).
Between Map Marker 10 and the Sabertooth Mexican Grill, families can find a wide variety of structures and manipulatives for kids to play with. From fun pretend x-rays to a giant camel to colorful climbing posts, this is a great place to get out all the wiggles before lunch. Oh, there are also some very fun animals in this area, too.
10. Elephant Odyssey – Sabertooth Mexican Grill
The Sabertooth Mexican Grill is in my top 3 places to eat in the Zoo. There are tons of tables and chairs so finding seating even on crowded days isn’t too difficult and the view of the Elephant exhibit is great. I mean, come on, who doesn’t want to have lunch with Elephants?
I also feel that the Sabertooth Mexican Grill has one of the more expansive menus in the Zoo. If you are traveling with picky eaters, I think you will have the most luck here. Between salads, tacos, taquitos, burritos, chicken tenders, nachos, side dishes, snacks, and giant ice cream cones (oh, and margaritas!), there is something for everyone on this menu.
11. Elephant Odyssey – Elephant Care Center and Secretary Bird
Did you know that at the San Diego Zoo their Elephants get pedicures? In fact, they get a whole range of hygienic and medical care all provided on site at the Elephant Care Center, the large building with the giant cages located just past the Secretary Bird exhibit. If you are lucky, you might even see one of the Elephants getting looked over or cared for by Zoo staff.
Be sure to also check out the Secretary Birds, one of Fat Papa’s favorites. As you will notice along Elephant Odyssey, there are numerous displays that discuss prehistoric life in San Diego and the United Sates. Many of the animals on display are descendants or relatives of animals that used to live in the area before humans. The Secretary Bird and Elephants are both examples of such animals.
12. Elephant Odyssey – Prehistory
If you want to learn more about the animals that roamed the earth thousands of years ago, and the ancestors of the animals you are seeing today, then check out the exhibit at the start of Elephant Odyssey. Here you will find replicas of all sorts of fossils, a fake tar pit, and recreations of giant Elephants and a prehistoric cat.
13. Polar Bears
Another favorite exhibit of Itsy Bitsy’s is the Polar Bear Plunge. Sure, she loves the big, white, fluffy bears, especially when they are swimming in the water, but what she really loves is the interactive exhibit. Here you will be able to find a small series of “ice caves” that kids can crawl around and pop their heads up to pretend to be Arctic Seals.
Fat Papa and I enjoy this exhibit because we have fun watching the Polar Bears while Itsy Bitsy has fun pretending to be their food … of course she has no idea that she is reenacting prey behavior. When she is a little older this will be a great interactive display to show her how Polar Bears hunt and how Seals try to stay safe. For now, she just loves to play.
14. Asian Cats
If you didn’t take the time yesterday to check out the Asian Cats, be sure to see them today. The Snow Leppard and other big cats in this exhibit are just breathtaking. We always love doing this walk. Both Itsy Bitsy and Fat Papa love to oooh and ahhh over the fluffy kitties.
15. Treetops Way
The fastest way to get from Lower Center Street or Upper Park Way to the front of the Zoo is by getting to Benchley Plaza and taking Treetops Way directly to Front Street. I greatly appreciate how the Zoo designed Treetops Way because other than the one viewing window into the Gorilla exhibit, there are no obvious habitat lookouts along this path.
I mean, sure, adults can easily see where to turn to see the Orangutans, Pygmy River Hippos, or even where to catch a glimpse of the Mandrills through the trees. But when you are trying to high-tail-it out of the Zoo with a toddler on the verge of a meltdown, it is nice to know that Treetops Way is going to be your distraction-free pathway to Front Street.
Good luck making it to the exit though … souvenir carts and toy stores abound.
16. Guided Bus Tour
If you are looking for a fun, easy, and free activity at the Zoo that also lets you rest a bit, then the Guided Bus Tour is your thing. Included with your admission, this hour-long bus ride will take you all over the Zoo (way more places than the Kangaroo Bus takes you) while your bus driver shares fun facts about the Zoo, animals, and exhibits.
This is a great experience for both kids and adults. It is also a fantastic rest mid-day or at the end of your day before heading out of the park. While there really isn’t a bad time of day to do the bus tour, keep a few things in mind … If the weather is hot, you might want to do the tour in the morning or evening when things are cooler, and animals are more likely to be active. If you are visiting during the winter, think about what time it will start getting dark. You might not want to be on the last bus of the day, because by the end of the tour, some of the animals may have already turned in for the night.
Fat Mama Tip: When choosing your seats on the Guided Bus Tour, think about the animals you really want to see. I always recommend sitting up top on this fun double decker experience and, if possible, ride on the right side of the bus. Most exhibits are on the right side, and you will not be able to switch as easily as you can on the Kangaroo Bus (or at all). However, if your favorite animals include Polar Bears, Giraffes, and Cheetahs, then sit on the left side of the bus.
17. Something to Remember the Day
Fat Papa and I are suckers for souvenirs. BIG time. From our family collection of caricatures to Itsy Bitsy’s 100+ stuffies (no that is not an exaggeration) to our ever-growing collection of t-shirts and magnets, we love picking up something special to remind us of our travels, even if we have been there before.
The Zoo makes this both easy and difficult. On the one hand, there are two large shops right as you are leaving that have almost everything you have seen in the park right there next to the exit. This is nice because you don’t have to carry your souvenirs around with you all day. It is also the way we get Itsy Bitsy to stop asking for things all over the Zoo (we tell her if she keeps asking then she gets nothing when we leave).
The difficult part is that there are also souvenir carts and shops all over the Zoo to tantalize and tempt you. Every now and then that one thing you or your kid wanted WON’T be at the front, then you are crushed, or have an angry kid, or really want to walk all the way back to the Asian passage for the cool shirt. No, I have to remember, I’m the adult, I’m in control, I need to calm down my inner child.
Also, there is a really good cookie bakery right inside the kid’s store just before the exit. We almost always get a dozen mini cookies to split on our way back to the hotel. Yay, family traditions.
Well, we did it! We just conquered the San Diego Zoo in 2 days. Are you ready for the Safari Park? Make sure to get your coffee on the drive out there, you’re going to need it!
Day – 3 We’re Going on Safari Duck Highlights
It is difficult for me to say if I love the Zoo or Safari Park more. Both have wonderful features and amazing exhibits. But the Safari Park is unique in the way the habitats have been designed. From the interactive Kangaroo Walk to the expansive Asian Savanna and African Plains to the immersive African Loop, you will never experience zoo habitats and exhibits the way you do at the San Diego Safari Park. It is truly an experience like none other.
Fat Mama Tip: If you are going to do one tour and one tour only during your 3-day Zoo-cation, I highly recommend choosing either a Wildlife Safari or Behind-The-Scenes Safari at the Safari Park. While all the tours at the Zoo and Safari Park are amazing, these two in particular, are above and beyond INCREDIBLE.
The Wildlife Safari will drive you out into the Asian Savanna and/or African Plains habitats to get up close and personal with the animals in their own habitats. You also get to ride around in the back of one of those cool safari trucks.
The Behind-The-Scenes Safari, on the other hand, will show you the back side of some popular exhibits at the Safari Park and give you a new perspective on some of your favorite animals that cannot be seen except on the tour. This tour also comes with a fun animal interaction (we have met kangaroos, lizards, tortoises, sugar gliders, hogs, and birds on this tour in the past).
Either Safari is well worth the price. You will be VERY glad you splurged ,.. definitely memories to last a lifetime!
1. Conservation Carousel
Located just far enough away from the main hub of the Safari Park that you might be able to distract your ducklings long enough to walk past it without being forced to ride. This carousel is not only beautifully designed, but it won’t break the bank if, like Itsy Bitsy, your littles never want to stop riding. An all-day pass costs less than $10.
For us, this is always our last stop before leaving the Safari Park, but Itsy Bitsy’s first ask of the day. So, it makes a nice bribe to keep her on good behavior. “Well, if you don’t eat your lunch, you aren’t going to be able to ride the carousel,” is one of my favorite threats.
Feel free to borrow that one, I don't mind.
2. Map Marker 3 – Area in Front of Safari Base Camp
This is the main hub of the Safari Park. In some ways the Safari Park reminds me of a wheel, with all paths leading back to this one area. From here you can get to just about anywhere in the Safari Park. It also makes a great meeting place in case anyone gets lost.
Fat Mama Tip: The Zoo and Safari Park are both huge and it is easy for kids to get lost. For younger kids, having them stay put until an adult finds them might be the safest bet, but for older kids, choosing a designated meet up spot may make more sense. Also, both parks use volunteers throughout the facilities. In both cases, volunteers wear red polo shirts and khaki pants so they are easy to spot. Point the volunteers out to your kids so they know who they can turn to if they need help.
3. Walkabout Australia - Zuest Woodshed
At the top of Walkabout Australia, you will find the Zuest Woodshed. Not only is this where you will find the nicest bathrooms in the Safari Park (my personal opinion), it is also where you will find tucked away behind the food and souvenirs two very cool animals. Be sure to walk through the Woodshed to the Tree Kangaroo and Cassowary habitats to get a glimpse at these very cool Australian creatures.
If you don't believe scientists when they say birds evolved from dinosaurs, the Cassowary will make you a believer. This bird truly looks like a living dinosaur!
4. Walkabout Australia – Platypus Habitat
If you see nothing else in the Safari Park, you MUST make time to see the Platypus. Why? Because the San Diego Safari Park is the ONLY place outside of Australia where you can see a Platypus. This habitat was years in the making and OMG it is impressive!
When you walk into this exhibit, you are instantly transported into a nighttime world to accommodate the Platypus’ nocturnal rhythms. The cave-like exhibit not only blocks out light but helps visitors feel like they are walking along a moonlit river in a forest. The whole experience is very cool, and the Platypus never fails to impress visitors.
Our family loves all things strange and odd so you can understand why this is a favorite animal, and exhibit, of Fat Papa’s and mine.
5. Walkabout Australia – Kangaroo Walk
Do you like cute and cuddly things? What am I saying? Of course you do, after all you chose to take a 3-day Zoo-cation. Well after you check out the Platypus, head down to the Kangaroo Walk where you get to walk with Kangaroos. No, I'm not exaggerating! No, I don’t mean you get to walk along their enclosure. I mean you get to WALK WITH KANGAROOS. You might even get to pet them too!
In this exhibit, the animals roam free and are free to interact with guests. The number one rule … guests must stay on the paths. If animals approach you, THEN, and only then, can you pet them. We have seen Kangaroos come up to the walkway for pets. We have seen little joeys poke their heads out of mom’s pouch. We have seen Wallabies hang out for selfies. It’s an awesome experience … and its FREE.
6. Tiger Trail - Sambutan Longhouse
This large, covered eatery and patio is a great place to take a small rest, grab a snack, and view some Tigers. That’s right, pull up a chair and view two separate Tiger exhibits from this one patio. What is even better is that on multiple visits we have seen the Tigers right up against the glass sleeping. This means, while you are enjoying your Diet Coke from the concessions stand, there is a Tiger taking a cat nap just feet from your table.
7. Tiger Trail – Camp Play Area
Unlike the Zoo, the Safari Park has a variety of playgrounds tucked away throughout the Park. This one hidden along the Tiger Trail (and it is a little hidden) is one of Itsy Bitsy’s favorites. Designed to mimic a natural landscape with pretend rocks and fallen branches for climbing, kids can get out their wiggles while adults lounge on nearby benches.
8. Nairobi Walk – Petting Kraal and Village Playground
Another favorite stop for Itsy Bitsy is along the Nairobi Walk. This entire path really feels like it was designed with kids in mind as many exhibits and terrariums are at kid eye-level and interactive, none more so than the Petting Kraal and Village Playground. Attempting to recreate the feel of a an old Kenyan tribal village (nothing like modern day Nairobi), the Kraal lets kids pet goats and other ranch animals while the Playground offers fun structures and chances for kids to create a basic building.
9. Lagoon Loop – Mombasa Cooker
At the bottom of the Lagoon Loop, you will find a wide variety of eateries, picnic tables, and covered patios. Our favorite place to grab lunch is the Mombasa Cooker where they smother chicken tenders in all sorts of yummy goodness.
Just beyond the eatery is a wonderful little patio right next to the Lagoon with chairs and tables. This is an ideal place for lunch as the birds are a ton of fun to watch and help keep Itsy Bitsy entertained while Fat Papa and I get a few minutes to enjoy our lunch.
10. Lorikeet Safari
Hands down, this is Fat Papa’s 100% FAVORITE thing to do at the Safari Park. For $5, you can feed Lorikeet parrots. These beautiful, greedy, little birds will walk all over you to get the delectable nectar you are holding for them. I will admit, it is an extremely fun experience.
Itsy Bitsy always loves the idea of feeding the Lorikeets, and every time she tries to be brave and hold her little cup of nectar. And every time it ends up on the ground. But that’s okay, we are working up our courage. Admittedly the birds can be a bit intimidating, especially for little kids. They do have claws and will nip at your fingers if you are not careful, so parents watch your kids closely if they choose to participate.
Overall, a must do. Plus, for only $5 per person who wants to feed, it is the best priced animal interaction at the Safari Park. Way better than the Petting Kraal in my opinion.
11. Map Marker 16
This is your first real chance to see Elephants. If someone in your group is a BIG fan of Elephants, then I HIGHLY recommend taking the Behind-The-Scenes Elephant and Friends Safari. It will let you get closer to the Elephants than any other place in the Safari Park. Otherwise, this is a great vantage point and it only gets better further down the African Plains Trail.
If on the other hand, this view is all you need of the Elephants and you are way more excited to see some Lions, then skip the African Plains Trail, head down the Service Road to Duck 16 and join the African Loop at the Cheetah Run. But make sure to take a ride on the Africa Tram so you can still see all those great animals you miss seeing on the African Plains Trail.
12. African Plains Trail – Elephant Viewing Patio
This is going to be your best spot to view Elephants without joining a Safari. It’s a bit of a hike, but most people don’t make the effort, so it usually isn’t very crowded. From here you are going to get a great look at the Elephants, regardless of which enclosure they are in (there are two Elephant habitats right next to each other).
Fat Mama Tip: Heading down to the Elephant Viewing Patio is a great option if you can’t see the Elephants from Duck 11. The Elephants at the Safari Park have two large habitats because Safari Park staff cannot be in the habitat with the Elephants while cleaning. So, every day the Elephants are moved between the two habitats to allow Staff to clean, bring in fresh food, and provide new enrichment items.
13. African Plains Trail – The Watering Hole
Like the Zoo, the Safari Park has only one sit down restaurant and that is The Watering Hole. This is a very fun place to eat with great food that is only beaten by the amazing views. From the open-air dining room and patio, guests get a great view of the Asian Savanna and African Plains habitats.
The one time we ate here our party was lucky to be seated near the edge of the patio. From here, we watched a heard of Rhinos meander around a hillside about 300 yards away from us. It was a very cool lunch to say the least. Reservations through Open Table are highly recommended.
14. African Loop - African Tram
This FREE tram ride will take you INTO the African Plains habitat where you will see Giraffes, Cape Buffalo, Antelope, Rhinos and more like never before. This 25-30 minute tram ride through the African Plains habitat is a fun guided Safari through the largest multi-species exhibit on display by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and it is well worth seeing.
It’s also a chance to take a load-off for 25-minutes while you get to sit back, relax and learn fun facts about the amazing animals in this part of the Safari Park. While the African Tram is enjoyable for all ages, it will certainly be a memorable activity for kids who will be so excited to actually go into the habitat with some of the animals. Kind of like Jurassic Park … but way safer.
Fat Mama Tip: If the line is REALLY long and you are impatient, there is an option to purchase a ticket that jumps you to the front of the line. This is a nice option when you only have a single day to see the whole Safari Park and you don’t have time to spend waiting 60+ minutes for a 25-minute tour.
15. African Loop - Cheetah Viewing and Cart Safaris
If you do decide to enroll for a Safari like the Cart Safari of the Behind-The-Scenes Safari, this is where you will check-in and meet your education guide. It also happens to be the best place to see the Cheetah and her companion dog.
Don’t worry, that dog isn’t her lunch. The Cheetah and the dog are friends, and the dog helps keep the Cheetah calm. Ask one of the volunteers about it, they love talking about the bond between these two animals.
16. Balloon Safari
As you were driving up to the Safari Park this morning, you may have noticed a GIANT yellow balloon hovering in the air. Well, this enormous helium monstrosity is the Balloon Safari, and it is Itsy Bitsy’s favorite Safari in the whole Park. Adults for $18 and kids for $12 can be taken up 400 feet into the air for a literal birds-eye-view of the Safari Park.
You brave people are welcome to go flying with the birds. I will keep my feet firmly planted on the ground. This rubber duck was not made to fly. But I do always have fun yelling up at Itsy Bitsy and Fat Papa from the ground. They tell me the view is incredible.
17. Mawazo Woods Discovery Area
This is MY favorite playground in the Safari Park. Located close to food options, clean bathrooms, and picnic tables, it is a great place to take a break, have a snack, and let the little ones run wild. Much like the Camp Play Area along the Tiger Trail, the Mawazo Woods Discovery Area has been designed to mimic a natural landscape with fake rocks, logs, and shrubs for kids to climb on. This play area also has the added benefit of some fun animal statues and a truck to climb on as well.
I really appreciate how the Safari Park designers worked to create play spaces for kids that encourage imaginative play. Rather than simply providing swings and slides, they created worlds for kids to immerse themselves in. Itsy Bitsy always makes new friends and together they create stories based on the environment given to them by the Safari Park. It is really beautiful to watch.
18. Gorilla Trail
Most visits to the Safari Park end with a walk down the Gorilla Trail to see what the Silver Back Gorillas are up to (before hitting up the carousel, of course). These Gorillas are quite amazing as they always seem to be out, active, and mischievous in the early evening. Most visits, we come to their habitat around 4 or 4:30 and they are on full display eating, playing, and more often than not, a younger one is annoying one of the older ones.
This is a very fun exhibit to stop by on your way out of the Safari Park. And, if you have followed my suggested path throughout the day, the Gorilla Trail will lead you right to the front for some last-minute shopping, the carousel, or an ice cream before you say goodbye to the animals.
Wow! That was an exciting 3 days. Can you believe how much we saw and all the amazing things we did? You have definitely made some new memories that will last you a lifetime. I hope you enjoyed your Zoo-cation as much as my family always does.
Keep Calm and Quack On!