It’s no secret that the giant pandas are the stars of the San Diego Zoo. From the time they first arrived in 1996 to present day, both residents and guests love their clumsy ways and adorable faces—photographing them like mad even when they’re sleeping. It means that lines can form, the perfect shot isn’t always possible and you’ll sometimes feel rushed to exit in order to grant others a turn.
My daughter and I are panda fanatics, to put it simply, so I booked Early Morning with Pandas even though we’ve seen them at the Zoo hundreds of times. I’m so glad we did. However, this behind-the-scenes tour isn’t just for panda lovers.
About the Pandas
The San Diego Zoo is home to three giant pandas: Bai Yun, Gao Gao and Xiao Liwu (the newest cub). Together, Bai Yun and Gao Gao have given birth to five cubs. It’s one of the four zoos in the United States with pandas on loan from China, but it’s by far the most successful in regard to breeding them. The first two pandas born in the United States that have survived into adulthood were both born at the San Diego Zoo.
(Fun fact: We visited Wolong Panda Reserve in Sichuan Province just after Hua Mei, the first baby panda born in San Diego, was returned to China. She lived at Wolong before the Chengdu earthquake and is now at the Chengdu Panda Research Base, last I heard.)
Keepers were waiting in front of the Zoo entrance so there was no mystery regarding where to go, thankfully. I booked the tour online and printed the tickets at home, but we needed to do a quick exchange at the admissions kiosk which took about a minute.
Our group of about 10 people arrived promptly and inside we went. The keepers drove us in two carts to the panda enclosure where we spent about 45 minutes learning everything there is to know about the special residents.
Time at the Panda Enclosure
We spent quite a bit of time watching Bai Yun munch bamboo for breakfast (adorable). The keepers told us a number of interesting details about each panda. Apparently, Bai Yun is a bit of a diva—eating her bamboo cake dessert prior to her bamboo stalks. Next door, the baby Xiao Liwu proved to be a bit more active than usual and so, so cute.
It was easy to take multiple photos without any obstruction. While we were mesmerized by the unusually robust panda activity—about half the time we visit, they’re sleeping—keepers went into great detail about the Zoo’s breeding programs, panda diet, and so much more. It was incredibly cool to have the devoted attention of two keepers who were eager to answer any questions we had.
Gao Gao’s enclosure is off-limits to the public because he’s getting older, but we were able to quietly sneak a peek at his home.
The Unexpected Remainder of the Tour
Somehow, I missed the memo that the remainder of the tour was a pretty much private tour of the zoo. Because the tour ends just after the Zoo opens, it is a spectacular way for new visitors to get oriented and for repeat visitors to ask questions about other animals. The keepers will drive you through the main parts, highlighting activities and fun facts because they know each animal by name and habits (which blew me away—there are a lot of animals at the San Diego Zoo).
Where the keepers stop along the way throughout the remainder of the tour will probably depend on what is happening with the animals. To give you an example, ours went into the elephant building to learn about how they care for their feet among other things. Then, a highlight for my daughter, it ended with an opportunity to feed lettuce to a very willing giraffe.
Though the carts eliminate extensive walking during the tour, kids will need to be at an age where they can remain attentive without wandering. I would say elementary school is the youngest, while babies in carriers would be quite easy. With the latter, keep in mind that the pandas are sensitive to noise.
I highly recommend this tour especially if you are visiting our Zoo for the first time!
Cost: $89 per person, plus Zoo admission
Time: 8:30 a.m. – 10:30 a.m.
Book: online or by calling 619-718-3000 in advance of your visit
If you need San Diego Zoo tickets, there are a few ways to buy them. Go straight to the gate with discount San Diego Zoo tickets from aRes Travel. Or, try the Go San Diego pass, if you plan to visit multiple attractions during a San Diego vacation.