San Diego Zoo – The World’s Best?

When my daughter and I headed to San Diego recently to visit family,  I took a quick poll in a few travel blogger communities and asked the question that every parent traveling with their child seems to ask: What should we do? Do I take her to Sea World or the San Diego Zoo? Or both? Or wait, there’s a wild animal park… And maybe Disneyland? Is it worth it? Which park is more age appropriate?

Then you weigh all your options, make an educated guess, plan the best you can, and end up just winging it anyway.

I had distant, somewhat fuzzy childhood memories of Sea World. Splashing seals and dancing sea lions; I remember being thoroughly entertained. But then there’s the whole Shamu controversy that many feel strongly about.

We didn’t hit the zoo during that childhood family trip, but everything I was hearing was:

– It’s one of the best Zoo’s in the world.

– It’s phenomenal.

– My kids loved it.

We did’t have enough time to visit both, so I had to pick. Zoo (regular zoo or wild animal park) or Seaworld?

We are members, and regular visitors of our zoo at home in Nashville. E loves animals. Based on all the recommendations and research I’d done, it looked like the zoo was a sure bet.

And booooyee– was it!

The second we walked through that gate, I knew I made the right choice for me and my 20 month old.

San Diego Zoo, A Fantastic First Impression

One of the first things we encountered was the Skyfari cable car, which takes visitors from the entrance to the very back of the park. What a spectacular way to see the entire place from a birds eye view!

San Diego Zoo

First stop- Skyfari!

Backing up a bit, let’s talk about the Zoo landscape. The San Diego Zoo resides within the colossal, 1200 acre Balboa Park.  The scale of this vast urban jungle is so large that you could walk around for a full day and not have any sense that you are in the middle of a massive American city.

I’m a BIG fan of finding little “exotic” escapes that transport you to another place while never leaving your original destination!

San Diego Zoo

Checking out the view

Eagle Trail

Before getting into the details of our visit, I just want to clarify that we only saw about one-third of the zoo…. it’s THAT massive! Well, that and we sort of took our time – stop and smell the roses, you know?

After unloading at the top of the Skyfari, we were face to face with the polar bear exhibit in “The Northern Frontier”. No polar bears to be found, though. If memory serves, there was work being done on the exhibit.

Without any plan, we just sort of meandered our way down, checking out some African game along the way: zebra, impala and the like. We stumbled onto the very impressive Eagle Trail.

The eagles, in these huge open-air birdcages, seemed to be just as curious about us visitors as we were about them.

In fact, if there was one general observation I could make about most of the wild life in the zoo, it is that they all seemed to be ready to interact with us human-types. Not many were hiding or out of our vantage point.

Was it our lucky day? Or are these creatures just extremely friendly?

San Diego Zoo

On the Panda Trek

After meandering down the Eagle Trail, you walk through the Panda Trek before arriving at the three-paddock enclosure that is the Panda Canyon. It’s actually difficult to tell, on the map, where one trail ends and the other begins.

We got to see a playful Amur leopard hug a tree. That’s a first! (Both the Amur Leopard and the big cat tree-hugging).

San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo

When we got to the Panda Canyon, this guy (or was it gal?) was moving from paddock to paddock, unable to make up it’s mind about where it wanted to hang out!

San Diego Zoo

Aviaries Galore

Another rad feature of the zoo is the moving walkways. These aren’t your average airport “people movers”. They climb up through the forest canopy, like a modern day Swiss Family Robinson set up. Since my tot loves all things mobile, or that mobilize humans, rather (escalators, elevators, moving walkways, cars…), she was extremely excited about these tree-top treadmills.

The walkway spits you out on top – and right in front – of a couple of large aviaries: The Owens Aviary and the Scripps Aviary. Aviaries are always a fun, interactive affair. You can go inSIDE the eco-dome and frolic with the birds in their habitat.

Orangutan Trail

As I mentioned before, we were just sort of stumbling around, finding our way to cool creatures as we went. After going through the aviaries, we came to the Orangutan Trail, which was one of our favorite exhibits (the orangutan). They were very cognizant and interactive animals.

It was cool to see them so close, and the glass (in lieu of bars) was definitely something that made them seem closer- easier to touch, like the only thing separating us was this invisible forcefield. I know E really enjoyed the exhibits without bars, as it allowed her to see the animals better.

San Diego ZooOne of the coolest aspects of this zoo was the animal enclosure construction and proximity of the animals. They all seemed eager to be close to, and even interact with us- the spectators.

San Diego Zoo

E checking out the Zoo map and plotting our course.

San Diego Zoo

Making new friends

There’s even a Zoo Brew for parents who want to stop for a cool one while hanging out with the orangutans.

The Lost Forest and The Hippo Trail

Hippos are one of those treasured finds on an African safari. Because they can be dangerous and are also (paradoxically) pretty shy, they can be hard to spot. When on a canoe safari, you often have to sneak up on the hippos, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see their eyes pop up out of the water as they surface for a snort of air. (Unless you’re my dad, and one charges after you on the Zambezi River).

If you’re staying at a safari lodge with a lake that has hippos, you may have more of a chance to see them loitering about, making their tell-tale “haw! haw! haw!” grunting sounds, or even catch one mid-yawn (if your trigger finger is ready for the shot).

The neat thing about the zoo’s Hippo Trail was that we were able to see the entire creature under water as it swam around and around, doing it’s little hippo dance ritual circuit. It’s like having a behind the scenes pass, and suddenly, you have a little glimpse in to what life could be like for them (and why you see them so rarely above the water).

San Diego Zoo dancing hippo

I definitely had flashbacks to Fantasia’s dancing hippos in tutus. It was that cool!

San Diego Zoo

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a hippo – fully –  under water!

It was like watching a massive water cow walk – slash – swim in a circle…. Fascinating!!!

Then there was this random tapir critter.

They look like part pig, part ant-eater … Right?

San Diego Zoo

Tiger Trail

We’re big fans of tigers! The majestic, orange feline is, after all, the mascot of my alma matter. In fact, all tigers are “Mike” according to my daughter (except she pronounces it “Mite”).

So this was neat… And it was another glass enclosure- no bars. This allowed a more personal, closer look.

I almost melted when she put her paw next to his!

San Diego Zoo

I can imagine that from a toddler’s perspective, being so close to these big, wondrous animals beats the heck out of trying to spot a pacing lion at the back of an enclosure through metal bars.


If you’re not already reading books to your kiddos that are filled with all sorts of wild animals, I recommend starting soon! It ignites their imagination, and seeing these guys in the flesh pulls those stories from the books’ pages and in to life!

Flamingo Fancy

Of course we ended our visit with her favorite, the flamingoes.

San Diego Zoo

It was actually a total (but awesome) coincidence, since, as I mentioned earlier, we were just stumbling through the zoo, trying to cover as much ground as possible with the time we had.

My girl loves her pink flamingoes (we always go see them at our Nashville Zoo). She even became one for a day for Halloween…

San Diego Zoo Flamingo baby

Visiting her people


As I sit here and review the San Diego Zoo “cutesy map” (as my dad calls them), I excitedly retrace our path for my daughter, showing her the corresponding pictures on my computer as we talk about the animals we saw and experiences we had.

She remembers, and she loves saying BIG words like “orangutan” now and can associate with the map pictures, telling me that we also saw the panda bears, for instance.

“Yes, that’s right honey! Here’s the picture!”

Experiential learning at it’s best.

And looking at this colorful, intricate map, I’m overwhelmed with excitement about returning, perhaps in another year, to see the ENTIRE zoo! (We’ll have to start much earlier in the day!!)

I’ve never really been a “zoo girl”

They never did much for me, really. A caged animal that sometimes moves around but usually hides or sleeps??

Get me out in the bush – on a safari – where I can see lions fighting their prey, or the great wildebeest migration stampedes, or an elephant heard forming protective circles around their babies who suddenly decide to take an impromptu nap in the middle of a dirt road —- all in the wild —- a la National Geographic channel in real life…. THAT is worth my time in a major way (and worth about 5000 digital photos).

But after having a kid – and parents, I’m sure you can agree – so much has changed in the way I perceive the world. Even the tiniest detail can hold infinite wonder and joy when you see it through your baby’s endlessly excited and appreciative eyes. It’s truly magical. Cliche. Because it’s true.

That’s why I’ve been saying (for nearly two years) that every day can be a total adventure- whether you are in your own back yard (take yesterday – when we literally played in our little back yard all.day.long!) or on an epic journey to Montana, the Virgin Islands, or the San Diego Zoo!!

Baby Virgin Islands

Baby’s first Caribbean (St. John, USVI, August 2015)

It is fun when you find such a treasure, though, that really up’s the ante as far as detailed planning, ambiance and entertainment go…

Zoos are our favorite these days. And The San Diego Zoo is definitely the most impressive one we’ve seen to date!

We’ll keep telling stories and talking about you, dear hippos and pandas and big birds and orangutans. And until next time . . . we shall see you again. Soon, we hope!!! Big muah (kiss)!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *