San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park
When it comes to zoos and wildlife, San Diego offers animal aficionados two of the most incredible zoos in the world, both of them run by the same nonprofit organization, the San Diego Zoological Society. Each of these attractions will provide at least one full day's worth of entertainment that's suitable for the entire family.
The San Diego Zoo
2920 Zoo Drive, San Diego
Open every day, including all holidays. See Chapter 6 for prices.
Located in Balboa Park near downtown San Diego, the 100-acre San Diego Zoo is home to more than 4,000 rare and endangered animals. Its grounds also hold a prominent botanical collection featuring more than 700,000 exotic plants. Some of the most popular creatures here include black-and-white pandas and the largest collection of koalas outside Australia.
RAINY DAY FUN
It seldom rains hard in San Diego, and animals are sometimes more active when it's cool and damp outside. Bring rain gear and enjoy them. On the few really rainy days, the bus tour will keep you dry, and you can focus on the indoor exhibits such as the nursery, reptiles, and other indoor areas.
When you first arrive at the San Diego Zoo, pick a place to meet in case your group gets separated or splits up on purpose. The Flamingo Lagoon near the entrance is a good spot, and you can watch the colorful orange birds while you wait. Walk there together so everyone knows where it is.
The majority of the San Diego Zoo's animals live in natural habitats, including the following.
Red-haired orangutans and black siamangs, both indigenous to the same Asian rain forest ecosystem, share a jungle habitat. It offers them plenty of places to climb and swing, just as they would in their home forests.
The petting zoo and animal nursery are a big hit with adults as well as kids.
More than seventy of the large, coral-colored birds make their home in the lagoon, and they've been a favorite since the zoo first opened in 1916.
Giant Panda Research Station
One of the zoo's most popular areas ever since giant pandas Basi and Yuan Yuan took up residence in 1987, the panda viewing area has been expanded to allow more and better views of the current residents. When a newborn panda is on hand, lines grow quite long and the exhibit may close periodically to keep the mother and baby from getting too stressed.
Gorilla Tropics/Scripps Aviary
A simulated rain forest is home to the zoo's gorilla family, a troop of bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees), white-fringed colubus monkeys, and a flock of free-flying birds who roost in the aviary.
The equatorial rain forest setting is designed to mimic the real Ituri in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Swamp monkeys and river otters are the exhibit's most entertaining creatures. They play together, with the monkeys trying to grab the otters' tails or hitch a ride on their backs. Their companions include hippos, guenons, and monkeys.
A variety of unusual animals live in a replica of an East African kopje (a little hill or rocky island in the middle of grassland). The lions live with klipspringers, dwarf mongooses, and Bateleur eagles.
Monkey Trails & Forest Tales
A forested canyon is home to golden-bellied mangabeys, Schmidt's guenons, large and colorful mandrills (all of them monkeys), exotic birds, pygmy hippos, and a clouded leopard, as well as many other creatures.
Polar Bear Plunge
This chilly environment houses not only polar bears, but also other Arctic animals such as Siberian reindeer, Pallas's cats, and diving birds. You can watch the polar bears swimming underwater as well as on dry land. You'll see a herd of reindeer in the exhibit behind the white bears, just as you might in the wild, but they're safely separated by a protective moat. The diving ducks are also fun to watch.
Rain Forest Aviary
The path through this free-flight aviary leads down from the treetops to the forest floor, and along the way, you will see hundreds of Asian tropical birds.
An amazing collection of slithery pythons, cobras, boas, tortoises, rattlesnakes, and gila monsters live here, along with Galapagos tortoises and other reptiles.
Sun Bear Forest
Energetic Bornean sun bears — named for the yellow patch on their chest — are zoo favorites, climbing trees and looking great for all the photos that get snapped while they're in action.
Malayan tigers live in this rain forest environment, where they have a flowing river and waterfall. They share their home with longsnouted Malayan tapirs and web-footed fishing cats.
Wings of Australasia
You'll see a colorful collection of over 100 birds native to Australasia (Australia, New Guinea, Tasmania, and the surrounding islands), including wrinkled hornbills and Micronesian kingfishers.
Elsewhere in the zoo, you'll find elephants, giraffes, zebras, koalas, and many more creatures to enjoy. Daily shows feature sea lions or explore predators and prey.
Zoo visitors can take a thirty-five-minute guided bus tour to get oriented, and the Skyfari Aerial Tram can be a great shortcut across the park as well as a way to see what the place looks like from above.
JUST FOR PARENTS
The San Diego Zoo allows you to get close to many exotic animals not found in other zoos and offers a variety of animal experiences. However, the animals are kept in a somewhat artificial setting compared to the San Diego Wild Animal Park, where several species live together in groups on spread-out areas, more as they do in the wild. If you have time to see only one of the parks, choose the experience you think you and your children will like best.
For a special (albeit simulated) adventure, try the ENTCO Wild Earth Safari Ride, an interactive experience that takes a driver and photographer on a quest for that “perfect” picture.
If you're in the area when one is scheduled, the overnight Safari Sleepovers are quite popular and a lot of fun. During these fun events, you and the kids aged four and up can enjoy special activities, sleep overnight at the zoo, and enjoy breakfast the next morning before you leave. When evaluating the cost of these special events, don't forget that you will not need a hotel room for the night.
Allow a full day to see everything at the zoo, or if you have less time, pick the most interesting areas and skip the rest. Plenty of walking is required and almost all of the exhibits are outdoors.
The San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park are about thirty miles apart, and if you try to see them both in the same day, you'll end up seeing nothing at either one.
The San Diego Wild Animal Park
15500 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido
Open daily, including all holidays. See Chapter 6 for prices.
Of all the zoos in America, this one is among the most spectacular in terms of visual appeal, home to 3,500 animals representing more than 400 species.
When you arrive at the Wild Animal Park, pick a place for your group to meet in case you get separated or decide to split up. Just like in the San Diego Zoo, the flamingo lagoon is a good place to meet.
RAINY DAY FUN
Much of the Wild Animal Park is in the open. The Wgasa Bush Railway cars have a roof (but no sides) and may be dry enough if it's not raining too hard. If it's raining hard, you may be better off heading somewhere else.
Most of the animals at the Wild Animal Park don't live in cages, but in habitats where many species roam freely together, as they would in the wild. Guests travel through these areas in an open-sided tram, with a tour guide to explain what you're seeing. The fifty-five-minute Wgasa Bush Line Railway tour (included in your admission) is a highlight, but it's not the only thing to do at the Wild Animal Park. Exhibits include:
This open aviary boasts rare species seldom seen in the wild, prehistoric-looking African open-billed storks, and a host of other feathered creatures.
Besides exhibiting North America's biggest flying bird (the California Condor), this area is home to big-horned sheep and thick-billed parrots.
Heart of Africa
Okapis, warthogs, giraffes, and cheetahs are just some of the eleven species of mammals and twenty species of birds found here.
A thick glass window keeps you safe from the lions, but you can watch them close-up.
Buy a cup of nectar for $2 before you enter this fun exhibit. The next thing you know, your hand, shoulders, and arms will become a perch for a handful of hungry lorikeets (colorful birds a little bigger than a parakeet).
The park has four Asian elephants and four African elephants, and this overlook puts you in the middle so you can watch them all.
Inside this glass-walled greenhouse, you can get a look at smaller creatures such as butterflies, small birds, and insects.
Kilimanjaro Safari Walk
A two-mile walking trail gives you a chance to slow down and see some of the animals in the East Africa Field Exhibit.
Other areas to visit in the Wild Animal Park include the Petting Kraal and Animal Care Center. If you're hungry, you'll find places to eat in Nairobi Village.
The Wild Animal Park also offers a wide range of special activities, including bird and elephant shows, and their animal encounters provide a chance to see some of the animals up-close and learn about them from their trainers.
You and your kids may enjoy one of the park's sleepovers, when the family can stay in the park after closing time, enjoy special activities, sleep in a safari tent, and have breakfast before leaving the next day, or if you'd like to stay late but would rather sleep somewhere else, their Roar and Snore programs offer an after-hours look at the park.
Besides all of this, you can get a bird's-eye view of the park in a helium-filled balloon, take a photo safari, get close to the cheetahs, and ride an animal-themed carousel. Special programs for adults only include behind-the-scenes tours and visits to the animal conservation center and veterinary center. For more information about these tours and activities, call the Wild Animal Park or visit their Web site.