3 – Day Zoo-cation Highlights

Updated: Jun 9

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.

Itsy Bitsy loves watching the monkeys at the San Diego Zoo (January 2018)

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.

Itsy Bitsy and E-man "riding" a tortoise (Dec. 2021)

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?

Aviaries, like this one, are especially magical places where animal and guest experiences combine (Jan. 2018)

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.

Solid teal lines are Fat Mama's suggested Day-1 route - teal ducks are places you should explore - teal dots represent the Kangaroo Bus route between Stop 2 and Stop 1

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
Itsy Bitsy loves the fish in the Pigmy Hippo exhibit (Sep. 2018)

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.

Itsy Bitsy has always loved birds and the Scripps Aviary is always a favorite for our family (Jan. 2018)

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.

E-man and Itsy Bitsy were absolutely fascinated with the Hippos (Dec. 2021)

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
We love BIG CATS and we cannot lie (Dec. 2018)

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
Itsy Bitsy likes when we upgrade her meal to include a fun straw (Sep. 2018)

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
Uncle Andy chilling with a Bonobo (Sep. 2018)

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.