Every year, except during COVID, since Itsy Bitsy was 18 months old, our family has celebrated the New Year with a trip down to San Diego. Now, this isn’t the only trip we take to San Diego. You could say it is both the last and first trip we take every year since it always encompasses December 31 – January 1. But in general, this trip closes out and kicks off our travel year!
For us, San Diego is special for many reasons. It’s the perfect distance away from home to feel like we are on vacation but close enough to require minimal advance planning. It’s where Gigi and Dr. Fabby grew up. It’s where Pappy and Gigi met and fell in love. It’s an ideal road trip from Santa Cruz with tons of places to stretch our legs, easy to travel roads, but not so far that we must stop for the night.
It’s also where Fat Papa’s favorite step-aunt lives and works for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance as an Associate Director of Recovery Ecology. While she REFUSES to take the credit, I always tell people that it is her love of birds, the work she does with animals, and her encouragement of us to take Itsy Bitsy to the zoo that started Itsy Bitsy’s OBSESSION with zoos and animals!
It is also Fat Papa’s ornithologist aunt who gave us the best advice EVER. She told us to “take a tour”.
As a zoo employee, she was able to provide our family with free tickets into the San Diego Zoo, which we appreciated GREATLY. Since money was tight for us as new parents, we really appreciated the tickets, especially because she provided them for us multiple times! So, around our third visit we asked, “Since you are getting us in for free, is there something we can do to give back to the zoo?” That is when Fat Papa’s aunt told us to “take a tour.”
“Yes, tours are more expensive than the price of a ticket,” she informed us, “but every penny goes into conservation, research, and education for the animals.” By this time, life with a toddler had settled down and our finances didn’t feel quite so ducking flighty, so we did just that. We booked an Inside Look Tour and our obsession with San Diego, and especially the Zoo and Safari Park was sealed!
Since then, our little family makes sure to take at least two road trips down to San Diego per year, if not MORE. We go so often now that we feel bad constantly hitting Fat Papa’s aunt up for tickets, so we became zoo members instead. But for us, and especially Itsy Bitsy, no trip to the San Diego Zoo or Safari Park is complete unless we “take a tour.” That is still the best advice anyone has EVER given about visiting a zoo!
Visiting the Zoo as a Monetarily Challenged Kid
Before meeting Fat Papa’s aunt, I never would have thought about taking a tour of a zoo. Frankly, it didn’t cross my mind that such a thing would even be … well … a thing. Growing up in Los Angeles County, our family didn’t have much money. When we went to the zoo, it was usually as a field trip to the LA Zoo with school. If it was for a fun day out with the family, we certainly didn’t have the extra cash to spend on something so frivolous as a tour.
One of the reasons I LOVE the San Diego Zoo is that even as a family with little money, you are getting a lot of bang for your duck with the price of admission. While admission is certainly more than when I was a child (but then again so is everything), your $62 adult and $52 child tickets gets you a goodly amount, including access to the Guided Bus Tour*, Kangaroo Express Bus*, Skyfari Aerial Tram*, (*subject to availability), Africa Tram (Safari Park) and all regularly scheduled shows.
Fat Mama Tip: If you plan to visit the Zoo and/or Safari Park for two or more days then be sure to buy a Zoo Membership for ANYOME in your group ages 3-17. The cost of a single-day ticket is $52, a two-day ticket is $94, but a child's membership is only $62! You will pay it off in only two visits, get access to both the Zoo and Safari Park, plus other fun digital content. Adult memberships don't start paying off until your third day at the Zoo and/or Safari Park.
This means that, especially in the summer when the park is open late, you can get in a good 10+ hours of entertainment (that is less than $6 per hour per person, not too bad). But even during the winter hours of 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., a full 8 hours at the Zoo or Safari Park is a great value, especially when you add in rides on the Aerial Tram, the buses, or Africa tram.
As a parent, especially one that remembers being a poor kid, I cannot thank the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance enough for the amount of value they have built into their admission tickets. I can still remember visiting the San Diego Zoo once as a kid and feeling so special for getting to ride the Arial Tram, something the LA Zoo didn’t have. Now visiting as an adult, and with the incredible changes that have happened at the zoo since my childhood, the value seems even more remarkable.
I love that everyone who buys a ticket can also take a guided bus tour, can fly above the animals, can hop on and off the zoo transport, and really feel like it’s something special. Even now, one of Itsy Bitsy’s favorite things to do at the zoo is to ride the double-decker Kangaroo Bus around the zoo at least once so she can see all the animals “from way up high on the roof.”
Providing the buses and trams as part of the included experiences is a way of helping kids (young and the young at heart) interact with the zoo and animals in fun unexpected ways. It sounds silly, but as a kid, it is the Aerial Tram that stands out in my mind as being special, I felt special for experiencing that, for getting to fly over the animals. As an adult, I am so happy to know that experience didn’t cost my parents extra and to this day, the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is continuing to provide experiences that are special and included with the price of admission.
So, even if you are not able to splurge on a behind-the-scenes tour, you can still “take a tour” at both the Zoo and Safari Park. Both destinations offer a guided tour with admission because they are dedicated to education. Sure, it isn’t going to be interactive in the same way a small group tour is going to be, but who cares! Every tour offers a unique perspective, new information, and an exciting experience. Take the tour, you won’t regret it!
Fun For All Ages
For me, zoo tours and special experiences fall into a grey area of spending and splurging. It feels so overindulgent because it was never something I would have been able to experience growing up, which makes me want to provide it for Itsy Bitsy even more. But also, it’s a unique educational experience so I can justify the cost by saying, “Well, at least we are all learning something", because continuing to learn new stuff as adults is just as important as Itsy Bitsy learning new things too. And I always learn something new every time we take a tour at the zoo!
Of course, when Itsy Bitsy announced, after finishing our very first Discovery Cart Tour, that she wanted to be an animal doctor, not a veterinarian but an animal doctor at the zoo, our fate was sealed. Since then, we have never been able to visit the San Diego Zoo or Safari Park without participating in some sort of special program.
I’m so excited that Itsy Bitsy loves the tours, and I am doubly happy that I can point at a tangible positive result of taking her to the zoo and doing these amazing tours. BUT, it's all an excuse. I LOVE THE TOURS. I am obsessed with these behind-the-scenes tours. My favorite part of planning our San Diego vacations is always visiting the Zoo’s website to see what new experiences they are offering.
Between the Zoo and Safari Park, our family has probably participated in upwards of twelve different Discover Cart, Inside Look, Behind-The-Scenes Safari, Wildlife Safari, and Car Safari tours over the years. And I can’t get enough! I’m glad I can use Itsy Bitsy as an excuse, but I’m the real driving factor here. I mean, how many people do you know who can say they received a tour of the platypus facility at the Safari Park (the only one of its kind outside of Australia), or who has gotten to pet a kangaroo, or High-5 a rhino?
I have. I can say this. I did these things! And you can, too!
Sure, part of my love of these tours is bragging rights, but it's also just an INCREDIBLE experience. Plus, the cost of the tour all goes to research, conservation, and education for these amazing animals. So in one philanthropic action, I get to support a wonderful cause, feel good about myself, and participate in some ducking crazy feather fluffing awesomeness … I mean just checkout these photos!
So, if you have some extra cash to splurge on your San Diego vacation, I highly recommend using it on a tour at either the Zoo or Safari Park. There are a wide variety of topics, animals, and experiences to choose from but, really, whatever you choose is going to be amazing. It is definitely fun for all ages.
More than Just a Fun Experience
Participating in the tours and experiences is what has brought us back to the zoo over and over again. It is what makes the zoo Itsy Bitsy’s favorite vacation. However, if the only thing we got from these experiences were bragging rights, I don’t think we would visit nearly as much. For me, what really sealed the deal on our family obsession with the Zoo and Safari Park was seeing the very real impact it made on Itsy Bitsy.
I’m convinced that being able to see the animals in their exhibits and habitats, then go behind the scenes and learn more about them is what inspires Itsy Bitsy’s love and compassion for animals. Since we started going to the zoo, Itsy Bitsy has gravitated not towards dolls but towards stuffed animals. She regularly asks questions about caring for our pets and animals in the wild near us. Her imaginative play is often related to animals or animal families. Not to mention the fact that since she was 2 years old, she has wanted to be an animal doctor but not just any animal doctor...
When itsy Bitsy says she wants to be an animal doctor, she doesn’t mean she just wants to care for the health of the animals. Because of these tours we have gone on, she understands how much care and maintenance goes into the upkeep and well-being of zoo animals … she just doesn’t have the full vocabulary to express that yet. But she does have a great book series, The Questioneers, that helps her express herself.
Itsy Bitsy wants to build them homes and habitats like Iggy Peck. She wants to engineer them new toys, feeders, and medical devices like Rosie Revere. She wants to solve problems and test hypotheses like Aida Twist. She wants to start petitions and protest for conservation like Sofia Valdez. And of course, she loves to create animal themed art, like her favorite illustrator, Aaron Slater.
Itsy Bitsy knows, far sooner than I ever did, that if she wants to be an animal doctor, that can mean so much more than just listening to hearts and drawing blood. Because we took her to the zoo and followed the advice of Fat Papa’s aunt to “take a tour,” our child now has a whole world open to her that I didn’t even know about until I was an adult. Yes, the tours at the Zoo and Safari Park are a splurge and an expense. But WOW. The world they have opened up to my kid is incredible.
It has been so amazing to develop Itsy Bitsy’s interest in everything from art, engineering, science, and reading, thanks to the animals she has been able to interact with. Already at 5 years old, she knows so much more about what her life can become, the paths she can take, and the way she can impact the world than I did at the age of 20. I know it's silly but I feel like it’s because we took a tour that my daughter will have a better life.
I feel like we took one tour and it didn't just change the way we vacation, it changed the way our family experiences the world. One tour opened the door to a whole new way of learning, discovery, and getting away.
There is Something Magical About San Diego
For us, vacations to the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park have become this crazy, magical thing. What started as a visit to the most famous zoo in the world (mostly to please my inner child), turned into a whole slew of family traditions and opened an entire world of learning to my daughter. And to me, I'm totally living my best inner 8-year old life every time we go to the zoo.
I can safely say that we have spent more time and money in San Diego than any other vacation destination we travel, but that’s because it is so worth it! There is always something new at the Zoo and Safari Park. From baby animals to new exhibits, to art installations to exciting experiences. It doesn’t matter how many times we go, there is always more to see, different adventures to go on, and something new to learn.
So, my gift to you, dear reader, this holiday season is going to be a Happy Zoo Year. Over the next several weeks and into the New Year I am going to publish a series of blogs all about San Diego, Southern California vacations, the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, and everything I know about how to make the most out of your zoo-themed getaway.
I hope that you and your family will enjoy this gift as much as me and mine have.
Remember, “take a tour;” it just might change your life.
All information about the San Diego Zoo and/or Safari Park pricing, programs, and attractions has been obtained from their website between the week of December 6 – 10, 2021, or is based on my own experiences. Any false, incomplete, or inaccurate information has been published by mistake. This publication is not affiliated with or authorized by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance in anyway.