How to Make the Most Out of a Single Day Visit to the San Diego Zoo
Featuring an unprecedented 3,500 different animals from more than 650 different species, the zoo grounds span 100 acres of lush habitats and contain more than 700,000 plants, making it one of the most beloved and expansive zoos in North America, and even in the world! It’s a veritable one-stop shop for rare animal sightings, insect encounters, reptile watching, and marveling at the variety of our planet’s incredible plant life.
How and when to get there
The San Diego Zoo is open every day year-round and the opening hours are typically from 9:00 in the morning until 6:00 in the evening.
The zoo is located within beautiful Balboa Park and extremely easy to access from sunny San Diego.
Free parking and public transportation
The zoo also offers lots of free parking for visitors. However, visitors who may have difficulty with accessing the park can also opt to take advantage of valet parking for just $18 on exceptionally busy days when handicapped spaces may be full. This is also a plus for parents with young children.
Accessing Balboa Park and the zoo via car or public transportation is quite simple – it is bordered by I-5, I-8, and I-15. A quick exit off any of the major roads coming from San Francisco, including I-5, I-8, and I-15 roads brings visitors directly to the zoo’s parking lots.
The MTA public transportation service will also bring visitors to Balboa Park from anywhere in the city. In addition, many of the hotels that aRes Travel offer with their San Diego Zoo packages feature hourly express shuttles that run from your hotel’s front door to the zoo, so you don’t have to waste your day navigating public transportation and parking.
Plan your trip in the low season
When time is a limiting factor, and you can only spend one day at the San Diego Zoo, it’s important to try and plan your trip during the low season. For example, you’ll find the park is much less crowded from October-May when the kids are still in school than it is during the summer months. This can help you cut down on time searching for a parking spot or waiting in line at exhibitions.
On top of being less crowded, you’ll find that the San Diego weather is much more forgiving and cooler, but not cold during these times, and you and the animals will likely be more active than you would be in the summer heat.
You can also optimize your time by simply being an early riser! The park is least crowded first thing in the morning, and if you arrive early enough, you may even be able to catch a glimpse of the morning feeding rounds and make your way to some of the more popular exhibits for a front row seat.
Arriving at the zoo: Where to begin?
Upon entering the zoo, visitors will encounter a large sign with a list of all the events that are going on at the zoo that day and inform park-goers of which – if any – of the animal enclosures are currently unavailable, as well as approximate feeding times.
Review the zoo’s webpage for scheduling information
However, for the visitor who is looking to see it all in a limited amount of time, waiting to get to the park to view that information is not the best idea. Instead, the night before your visit, check out the zoo’s webpage for scheduling and information about out-of-order exhibits. While it might change by the time you get to the park, doing so will give you a better idea of how to plan your time and develop a Plan B in case your original route falls through.
The zoo can also be a bit confusing concerning where all the animals and attractions are located, as certain routes loop back on themselves and merge together with others.
Understand the park layout
One simple way to remember which animals are located where is to understand the layout of the park, which is designed according to different geographic regions. Each animal can be found in the exhibit that pertains to their actual native geographic region, including the Northern Frontier, Africa Rocks, Lost Forest, and others.
This means that, if you are looking for polar bears and find yourself surrounded by hyenas, it’s likely you are not in the right place.
Locate a display map in the park
In keeping with the zoo’s dedication to lowering its environmental impact, paper maps are not distributed at the zoo. However, visitors will find that large maps can be found on display throughout the park. You can always download a PDF version of the map to your smartphone or another portable device for easy access to keep you on track.
If navigation isn’t your strong suit, consider downloading the zoo’s incredibly convenient smartphone app. It includes an interactive and GPS-compatible map that allows you to locate exactly where you are in the park at all times.
You can even choose an exhibit “destination” for the most convenient direction to your next stop or choose one of the zoo’s preset walking paths to prioritize your must-sees and make decision-making that much easier.
Visit your bucket-list exhibitions first
To save time, you may also want to make a list of all of the animal exhibits that you absolutely must see on your visit and strategically plan your route around those visits.
For instance, if giant pandas are on your list, keep in mind they are also a huge draw for many of the other visitors to the zoo, and it is best to get to that exhibit in bright and early to avoid the huge crowds that form around mid-day. This way, after visiting the pandas early, you can develop a route to the less crowded and in-demand exhibits later in the day.
Getting around the zoo
Another way to save on time when you don’t have much of it is to strategically plan not only when you will arrive at each exhibit, but also how.
Getting around can be accomplished in several different ways, each with their own set of pros and cons.
Hop on the Kangaroo Bus or Fly the Skyfari Skyway
Firstly, the Kangaroo Bus and Skyfari Skyway are free to all zoo visitors and allow you to cover a lot of ground quickly. The Kangaroo Bus also permits visitors to bring strollers aboard – a huge plus for parent’s with young children, as the terrain is quite hilly and pushing a stroller can become tiring in a short time. The bus also runs frequently and stops at four different locations throughout the park.
Though the Skyfari cannot accommodate strollers, rental strollers can be left at a depot at your departure point, and a new one can then be picked up when you disembark.
For adults who are looking to get from exhibit to exhibit as quickly as possible, the park provides electric scooters for rent at $55 per day, a convenient way to limit the time you spend dedicated to commuting between exhibits and maximize your day at the zoo.
Eating and amenities
Each area of the park offers several eating options based on the theme of that area, and the majority of your dining options at the park are grab-and-go for quick and efficient meals that keep you on schedule. Visitors will find various options to suit any dietary restrictions, simply check out the park’s website for food allergy information for each dining location.
On the other, hand, for visitors who would like to use their mealtime to relax and recuperate from their busy day of touring the park, there are also various themed sit-down restaurants, and food stands, such as the Rainforest Cafe or the soon-to-be-opened Boardwalk Beer Garden.
Albert’s is another excellent full-service dine-in option that overlooks a private waterfall, a great way to unwind in the middle of the day and get out of the California heat. Situated above the trees, the restaurant offers an incredible view of the park, which makes it another great way to take in a few exhibits without actually taking the time to walk up to them.
For sit-down diners who want to conserve as much of their time as possible, there are a few tips and tricks to getting in, getting fed, and getting going as quickly as possible. First, on weekends, popular sit-down restaurants like Albert’s are extremely busy, and you may end up spending quite a bit of time in line if you do not make a reservation.
For fast service without a reservation, schedule your meals during non-peak hours, such as an early 11:00 am lunch, or a late sit-down lunch at 2:30 pm. In addition to securing a table, this will also mean your group can get a less crowded look at some of the more popular visits that tend to empty around mid-day as other visitors attempt to grab a bite.
Pack a picnic lunch
For visitors who plan to pack and bring their lunch to the park, you will find a large outdoor picnic area located just outside of the zoo with picnic benches and ample shade. Ticketholders must receive a stamp when they leave in order to re-enter the zoo after eating.
Finally, there are bathroom facilities with diaper changing stations throughout the park, and there is no need to plan your route according to which facilities are located where.
From animal interaction to live shows and educational opportunities, there is always something special happening at the San Diego Zoo.
Shows and presentations
The park offers a full show and presentation schedule on any given day that the whole family is sure to enjoy. The majority of these shows are centered around animal education, and the animals are presented with a focus on conservation efforts, as many of the zoo’s inhabitants include rare and endangered species.
You can check the zoo’s website for a comprehensive list of which shows are available and where on the day of your visit to incorporate your must-sees into your schedule.
Customized one day visit
While most of the attractions at the zoo are included in the price of your ticket, there are some great options for visitors who are willing to pay a little extra for a fully customized and exclusive experience that is the surest way of fitting everything the zoo has to offer into your one-day visit. One of those options is a fully personalized guided tour. Different from the guided bus tours, personalized tours included a one-on-one experience with an official zoo tour guide and run the entire length of the day.
Visitors who are interested in the logistics of zookeeping can also opt for the Inside Look tour, which includes a two-hour behind-the-scenes tour. Choosing from one of four available animal exhibits, visitors get an up-close look at how keepers interact with their animals as they feed and care for them.
On weekends, visitors can also check out the giraffe encounters, which allow you to come toe to hoof with these incredible creatures as you feed them their favorite snack. However, keep in mind that this is an incredibly popular attraction, and if visitors plan to make it part of their day, then getting to the giraffe area early is a must to avoid wasting precious time in line.
Exclusive San Diego Zoo packages and tickets from aRes Travel
At aRes Travel, we offer various options when it comes to San Diego Zoo packages and exclusive ticketing deals.
When you purchase your single-day tickets through aRes Travel, you’ll enjoy a $7 discount per ticket, which you can conveniently purchase online, print out, and head straight to the gate on the day of your visit: No need to wait in admission or will-call line.
For those planning to visit the zoo in one day but spend more than that amount of time in San Diego, aRes Travel’s Go San Diego® pass is the perfect way to maximize savings and see it all. In fact, with your Go San Diego® pass, you’ll save up to 55% on admission to your choice of 40 different attractions, including such popular attractions as the San Diego Zoo, LEGOLAND®, SeaWorld® San Diego, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and many more. Go San Diego passes are flexible in terms of the number of days that you book, and visitors can choose from 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-, 5-, and 7-day options.
Get going with aRes Travel
Contact aRes Travel today and start planning your family’s perfect, animal-filled getaway to the beloved San Diego Zoo.
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