The sheer volume of fun and educational activities at the San Diego Zoo for kids and toddlers makes it the top San Diego family attraction. We’re active members, and I strongly believe that arriving armed with some knowledge of what to do, time-saving tips, programming to plan around, and San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s conservation initiatives will help you maximize your day.

The must-see kid-friendly activities are rated by me, my family, and readers that I work with to help plan San Diego family vacations. Keep in mind that I also have a list of general tips for visiting the San Diego Zoo and can also help you buy discount San Diego Zoo tickets.

Be Prepared to Spend A LOT of time in Wildlife Explorers Basecamp

Kids run across a rope bridge at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Explorers Basecamp.
Crossing the Conrad Prebys Foundation Discovery Bridge (Photo courtesy of San Diego Zoo)

I used to believe that the Zoo was a one-day experience. That is until we visited the new Wildlife Explorers Basecamp, the area dedicated to kids built on the site of the former Children’s Zoo, with a young child.

There is a lot to do across 3.2 acres. It is a giant playground with ropes, bridges, tunnels, waterfalls, and splash pads woven throughout four types of habitats — of course, featuring the types of wildlife that live within them.

Interactive exhibits await in the immersive McKinney Family Spinelss Marvels building, showcasing insects, arachnids, and crustaceans. Sure you can balance an eco-system by playing a video game or do crafts, but the highlight is the giant beehive at the end of the building.

There used to be a petting zoo in the former Children’s Zoo area, but these animals now call the San Diego Zoo Safari Park home.

Guided Tours/Upgraded Experiences Make Exploring with Young Kids Easier (and Interesting)

Feeding a giraffe at the San Diego Zoo
My daughter feeds a giraffe during an Inside Look tour.

The top reason to consider upgrading your day with one of the San Diego Zoo tours is to minimize walking and maximize up-close animal viewing, which is incredibly helpful for kids.

Many of them have cart service, which means that you’ll not only have a staff member with you to answer questions, but you’ll zip around the Zoo feeling like kings of the jungle. Some of these tours start before the Zoo opens to the public, which is great for early birds and those who are short on time.

You can also book a VIP interactive experience with your own personal tour guide, as most of the Inside Look and other tours are for small groups.


Use Skyfari Aerial Tram to Go From One Side to the Other

Upward view of two Skyfari aerial trams against a blue morning sky.
Take the Skyfari at least one way.

Skyfari Aerial Tram also cuts down on walking by transporting you from near Reptile House uphill to Northern Frontier by Polar Bear Plunge and back. It’s a terrific shortcut and very relaxing. Mind your children, but have your camera ready as the view from above is spectacular.

You’ll spot a few animals, see Balboa Park, and it does feel a little bit like a slow-moving theme park ride. The tram has been open since 1969 and is free to ride.


See Polar Bear Plunge Early

The money shot is the polar bear swimming next to the glass here (which I’ve never been able to capture well).

My favorite San Diego Zoo exhibit is Polar Bear Plunge. Sure, they’re immense, graceful, and adorable creatures that can adapt to icy environments and San Diego sunshine, but how you view them here is unique.

From the main viewing area, which is nicely shaded and offers some bench seating, you can see both the polar bears on land and underwater because the glass windows here cover both viewpoints.

If you are lucky, they will swim up to the window, which is an event that I have seen many times but have never been able to take a decent photo of. As you might imagine, people tend to crowd the area.

Even if you don’t see the polar bears plunge into the water, it’s still rewarding to see them. Nearby, kids can crawl into a faux polar bear den and explore the play area (more on this below). A docent is often on hand to answer questions like what does a polar bear eat.

Fun fact for kids: Did you know that polar bears do not hibernate? Their bodily functions slow down in winter, but they can still have babies during this time. San Diego Zoo has studied the effects of noise pollution on the bear’s ability to communicate, which they hope will support conservation laws to protect bears.


Don’t Miss the Koalas in the Outback

The highlight of the Outback is the Zoo’s koala colony which is the largest outside of Australia.

A koala in a tree, a popular sight at San Diego Zoo for kids.
They sleep most of the time but are still cute.

The first koala arrived in 1925, and each of the San Diego Zoo koalas has personality traits for which they are named. The deck from which you view the koalas is raised so that you don’t have to strain to look up to see where they are usually sleeping in the eucalyptus trees. Popping the kids onto your shoulders, though, still helps them get a better look.

You’ll see other marsupials here, including wallabies and tree kangaroos, in addition to Tasmanian devils, wombats, and a variety of birds.

Keep an out for the group of aboriginal-style totem poles that are topped with an Australian species. Young kids love looking up to these to ramble off their animal knowledge.

Fun fact for kids: Did you know that koalas have two thumbs on each hand? They also have teeth in their cheeks that help them munch on tough leaves.


Or, Hippo Trail

The San Diego Zoo is home to both river hippos and pygmy hippos, and you can see them on Hippo Trail. These mammals spend much of their time out of the water, but their nostrils close so that they can spend around 5 minutes feeding underwater without coming up for air. 

Hippopotamuses are actually very aggressive creatures and currently hold the record for the world’s deadliest land animal. You and the kids will learn all about them on the hippo trail, seeing a hippo family from up close (but not dangerously close). As well as a truly adorable pygmy hippopotamus.

Fun facts for kids: Pygmy hippos weigh 350–600 pounds whereas river hippos can weigh up to 4 tons.


Cool Down in the Reptile House + Tortoise Friends

If you have young kids, this is one of the best places in the zoo to bring them. It’s the closest attraction to the entrance, and while there are outdoor exhibits, The Reptile House is indoors, so a nice place to shield from the afternoon sun.

A snake rests on a log inside its Reptile House enclosure at San Diego Zoo.
One of the many snakes inside Reptile House.

The Reptile Houses have snakes, lizards, and bugs, while the petting zoo has several cute and fluffy creatures that will make this stop a delight. Sometimes the bigger animals, like elephants and lions, can be a rather daunting thing to start with. So spending time acclimatizing to these smaller creatures is the perfect way to ease in.  

Behind The Reptile House you’ll find the tortoises and gators in Discovery Outpost. Don’t miss the Galapagos tortoises. I could watch them for ages.

Fun fact for kids: Some of the Galapagos tortoises have been at the Zoo since 1928, which means that they are over 100 years old. Males have white-painted numbers on their shells, while females have red-painted numbers on their shells. See if you can count how many of each there are!


Watch Elephant’s Play

San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey has both African and Asian elephants, so you can see the distinct differences between the two mighty creatures, from their ears to their trunks (with the help of some signage around the exhibit).

An elephant inside Elephant Odyssey at San Diego Zoo holds a tree branch in its trunk.
An elephant eats lunch (shot with a zoom lens).

What creature in the world can compare to the elephant? So immense, with lovely intelligent eyes and skin that makes you feel good about your heels, even on your worst days.

You could even watch a training session, used to exercise the elephant’s big brains and bodies. It’s a great deal of fun. And be sure to learn about the amazing creatures while you all marvel at their hulking figures. 

Fun facts for kids: Elephants have about 40,000 muscles in their trunks which is more than humans have in their entire bodies.


See Baboons, Meerkats, More in Africa Rocks

Africa does rock. The continent has such a wealth of biodiversity, with animals and plants found naturally nowhere else in the world. This exhibit celebrates that, with six different habitats you can immerse yourself in and discover.

There are a lot of highlights here. The meerkats are usually active and will be easy for kids to see as the viewpoint isn’t too far from where they burrow.

Several clans of hamadryas baboons live here, and their antics can be quite funny when they’re all out and active in the exhibit, which is quite large.

A baboon chills on the grass in the Africa Rocks exhibit at San Diego Zoo.
The hamadryas baboon colony here is quite large.

In the Cape Fynbos habitat, you’ll see African penguins burrowing into the soil and frolicking in the water. In the Madagascar Forest, spot lemurs swinging from the trees. 

You’ll also get to see the leopard one of the most magnificent predators in the world as well as dwarf crocodiles and baboons.

This is a very big exhibit so plan at least an hour here.

Fun fact for kids: Baboons don’t yawn because they are tired. They yawn to show off their teeth as a symbol of dominance.


Learn About Rhinos and Big Animals in Urban Jungle

Rhinos are some of the most important animals that you can see at San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park due to San Diego Zoo Global’s extraordinary rhino conservation work.

An Indian Rhino rests at San Diego Zoo.
An Indian rhino at San Diego Zoo. Bernard Gagnon / CC BY-SA

The San Diego Zoo is home to Greater One-Horned Asian Rhinos (also known as Indian Rhinos) which you can see in Urban Jungle. San Diego Zoo Global provides funding and research to help save these giants in India, Nepal, and Sumatra.

More than 60 Indian rhinos have been born and bred at San Diego Zoo Safari Park, including the first baby ever to be born in a zoo or wildlife park.

There is a Frozen Zoo (really) at the Nikita Khan Rhino Rescue Center at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, where scientists are working to bring the northern white rhino back from the edge of extinction. Only two are left in the world, and they can’t breed.

Incredibly long story (and timeline) short, they are creating northern white rhino embryos using stem cell technology that will eventually be artificially inserted into female southern white rhinos to hopefully save the species.

Back to the Zoo, Urban Jungle is home to other incredible big and fast animals like the giraffes and cheetahs.

Fun fact for kids: A rhino’s horn is made from keratin and can be safely cut just like your fingernails.

Fact for parents: This means that rhino poaching to cut off horns for medicinal use, of which the Zoo believes there are none, is entirely unnecessary.


Walk Less Thanks to the Kangaroo Express Bus

When the kids get tired of walking or if you’d like to conserve their energy, take advantage of the Kangaroo Express Bus, another fun and quick way to get around.

Kangaroo Express Bus stops look like this.

The Kangaroo Express Bus arrives every fifteen minutes. You can hop on and off at four different stops around the zoo, making it easy to get around and see the exhibits your family is most excited about.

The bus (it’s more like a small cart) is included in your entrance fee. There are no tickets required, you just get on. One thing to note is that it can handle small fold-up strollers, so anything bigger than that won’t work.


Learn More at Keeper Talks and Animal Encounters

A meerkat keeper at San Diego Zoo holds a tub of food and answers questions about their care.
The meerkat keeper talk in progress.

One of the best things about visiting the zoo is that it is both super exciting, and truly educational for your kids. They can learn so much about the world and the animals in it, just spending one day here.

Take your family to see the zoo’s keeper talks and animal encounters. These daily shows are incredibly educational and interactive. You can learn all about giraffes – like their natural habitat and why their necks are so long. Or about polar bears, lemurs, and meerkats. 

There’s a lot going on every day, so be sure to check out which presentations are happening when so that you don’t miss out on your favorites. 


Walk Through Bird Aviaries

Blue tropical bird in San Diego Zoo.

San Diego Zoo isn’t confined to the ground. It also has an incredible array of bright feathered birds. Just prepare for things to get a little loud. The aviaries are lush with diverse plant life and have a great many birds flying all about. They’re constantly communicating, and you’ll find they can get louder and more boisterous than the kids.

The Owens Rain Forest Aviary is the main aviary in the zoo. It’s an impressive structure enclosing everything while remaining light and wild-feeling. You can stroll along the walkway above the trees, spotting birds and listening to their mating calls. Find it in The Lost Forest.

The aviaries are an excellent place to cool down on hot days. You’ll find also find aviaries in Africa Rocks and the new Hummingbird Habitat in Discovery Outpost.


Take a Seat and in the Mostly-Shaded Monkey Trails

Another fun attraction for kids of all ages is the Monkey Trails, and there is also some shade here on this elevated walkway which is helpful on sunny days.

Here you can see adorable capuchin monkeys, spot-nosed monkeys, and colobus monkeys, among others. 

It’s never a dull moment on Monkey Trails

These lively creatures are extremely social. Watch them interact, and see how many different species you can all spot, noting their different behaviors. 

The trails move through multiple exhibits since monkeys come from all over the world and have varying habitats and social behaviors. This trail is also shaded in many parts.

Fun fact for kids: The Wolf’s monkeys share the same exhibit as the pygmy hippos. One of the monkeys likes to ride on the back of one of the hippos.


Burn off Energy at the Playgrounds

Aside from the amazing animals, San Diego Zoo toddlers have plenty of fun working off some energy at the three fantastic playgrounds:

  • Elephant Play Yard: This open-air playground offers puzzles, a play fossil dig, and plenty of space to explore and play. It’s opposite of Elephant Odyssey, so you’ll hear some fun toots and bellows.
  • Koala Klimber: You have to see the koalas, so while you’re in the Australian Outback let the kids climb like a koala at this fun playground. You can also take photos with koala replicas in their natural habitat.
  • Polar Play Area: Do your children love storybooks or polar bears? This impressive play area takes the cake, with supersized illustrated storybooks, life-size statues of polar bears you can awe the kids with, and a polar bear den to crawl into. 

Plus, there are various statues to climb all over scattered throughout the Zoo.


See a Movie in the 4D Theater

One place to take a break during the day is at the 4D theater in Northern Frontier not too far from Polar Bear Plunge.

This 4D theater brings imagination to life, bringing the physical effects of the film to your experience. That could include temperature changes, vibrations, and wind so that you can better experience what you’re watching on-screen.

An additional fee of $7 per guest applies and it’s easy to check movie times and titles on the San Diego Zoo app.


Use the San Diego Zoo App to Get Around

Let’s say your kids want to see the baboons but you’re on the other side of the Zoo in Polar Bear Plunge. The app will tell you how long it will take to walk from exhibit to exhibit.

This way, you’re not left to guess which is valueable when the kids are tired of walking. I use this feature all the time, even though I’m familiar with the layout.


Shop the San Diego Zoo Kids Store

A treat after a day at the Zoo for children is a visit to this fun San Diego Zoo Kids Store. You will walk by it as you visit exhibits but try to keep it as your last stop as a positive way to end the day, if a souvenir is on your itinerary. You can pick up plush toys of favorite animals, T-shirts, games, educational activities, and more.

My favorite thing about the San Diego Zoo Kids Store though is the Sweets and Treats cookies and ice cream stand inside, one of my favorite San Diego Zoo food outlets! You can grab a gourmet coffee and reset sad faces with tasty treats.

Of course, you can also pick up a variety of stuffed animals and other souvenirs to remember your visit by.


Ride the Balboa Park Railroad Miniature Train

Just outside of the exit at San Diego Zoo, you’ll find this cool miniature train replica of a real diesel locomotive.

Its hours are seasonal so you’ll want to check before you go. Typically, it operates on weekends and holidays between 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. and runs on a small loop that takes about 3 minutes. It did also run daily in the summer.

It’s short but terrific, with a friendly train conductor and lots of excited kids enjoying the ride. This is a great way to close off an adventure-packed day. Or start it. Children under 1-year-old ride free, and tickets are just a few dollars for all ages 1 and older.

If you leave the Zoo to ride it and would like to return to see more animals, be sure to get a hand stamp which allows you to reenter for free.


Another attraction that’s just outside of the zoo is this beautiful 1910 carousel. It feels rather magical, with all but two of the menagerie of animals still the original hand-carved pieces.

It’s well maintained and lovely, an enjoyable ride for all ages. Go for a ride with the kids, and take a few photos. After all, it’s not often you get to ride on the same carousel generations of families have enjoyed.

The kids can choose their favorite animal after seeing the real deal at the zoo. Pick your racer: horse, camel, lion, or zebra?


Utilize San Diego Zoo Kids’ Programming

Guests walk through the main entrance to the San Diego Zoo.
The San Diego Zoo entrance

Other San Diego Zoo kids’ activities extend far beyond a day at the park. I especially encourage locals to take a look at them.

Summer Camp

The Zoo offers an amazing variety of Summer Camps for children of all ages. These camps will have your little ones spending most of their time outdoors. Learning about and interacting with animals, engaging in arts and crafts, and playing games. 

Campers can be Pre-K to Grade 12, with each grade catering to their age bracket.

Zoo Corps

Zoo Corps is for teens from ages 13 to 17. It’s a really cool opportunity for your teens to learn about animals and spend time with them.

But also to experience a little responsibility and learn public speaking skills, teaching zoo guests about wildlife conservation and animal care, among other topics. 

Zoo Internquest

Taking it up a notch, Zoo Internquest allows participating teens to discover careers in wildlife conservation. The internship focuses on collaborative writing, critical thinking, and teamwork. It’s a brilliant opportunity for anyone interested in animals.


Tips for Visiting the San Diego Zoo with Toddlers and Babies

Having a baby or toddler on your visit to San Diego Zoo won’t be an issue. With years of experience, I’ve put together a few tips to make things easy. (Prices are subject to change so call for certainty.)

Use Available Rentals

If you did not bring a stroller on your San Diego vacation, you can rent one on a first-come-first-served basis for $16 or a double stroller for $20. 

Lockers can be rented at the entrance so that you can leave everything you don’t need there. They range in size, so you pay for the space you need. These are also first-come-first-served.

Bring Your Own Food

You can bring your own food into the zoo, which helps families with dietary restrictions. And, of course, you’ll likely save money by doing so. Large food containers like coolers are prohibited.

Glass, alcohol, and straws are all not permitted to be brought in. Straws are unavailable at park concession stands as they are not safe for animals should they blow away.

Manage Animal Expectations

Sadly, the giant pandas have returned to China, so they are not on display anymore. Let the kids know not to expect them.

If the kids feel sad that their favorite animal isn’t in view, tell them that the exhibits were created to mimic their natural habits, including hiding spaces that help them feel safe.

Wagons Are Allowed

You can bring wagons for kids to San Diego Zoo. Many people do. Just be mindful that there is some uneven terrain. The Zoo’s mobile phone app will help you navigate it.


Save on San Diego Zoo Children’s Tickets and Annual Passes

I work with aRes Travel to bring readers exclusive discounts on San Diego Zoo and other theme park tickets. I may generate revenue via purchases made through links to their site below.

Kids Free Promotions

First, children ages 2 and under always receive free admission to San Diego Zoo!

October is one of the best times to visit San Diego because of our annual Kids Free San Diego promotion. Details are usually announced the summer prior.

1-Day Kids Tickets at a Discount

Children ages 3–11 are eligible for child’s tickets. 1-Day child tickets currently retail at the gate for $59 and 1-Day adult tickets are $69 for ages 12 and older. You don’t have to pay full price.

You can save by using my exclusive San Diego Zoo discount code offered through San Diego based aRes Travel who is an authorized San Diego Zoo ticket seller. I’ll need to send you the details so request it by text or email below.

ACCESS MY EXCLUSIVE DISCOUNTS

Check for unpublished deeper savings on tickets through my partnership with aRes Travel, an authorized San Diego Zoo ticket seller.

*By texting the word SDZOO to 1-833-490-0799 you agree to receive automated promotional messages with how to secure my deeper ticket discount and this agreement isn’t a condition of any purchase. Msg and data rates may apply. 2 msg/mo. Reply STOP to cancel. Read my full privacy policy.

Annual Pass for kids (Highly recommend)

San Diego County residents and those considering visiting San Diego Zoo or Safari Park should take a look at the Wildlife Explorer annual pass for ages 3–17.

The cost is $67 per child per year and they will receive free admission to San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park in addition to other perks.

This is a great deal because you will save big if you visit a San Diego Wildlife Alliance park twice.


If you have questions about what to do at San Diego Zoo for kids, please leave a comment and I’m happy to answer them.

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Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).

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2 Comments

    1. Hi! I have seen wagons in both the Zoo and Safari Park though I do not know of any official rule about whether they are permitted or not.