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La Jolla Mom

6 San Diego Zoo Tours that Elevate Your Visit

Get even closer to the animals and go behind the scenes

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We’re big fans of San Diego Zoo tours for the valuable insight you’ll receive from keepers and staff in a small group or private environment.

These special experiences are fantastic for animal enthusiasts, families, locals who are already familiar with general admission activities, those who want to minimize walking, and guests who have a limited time to visit.

Some even start 30 – 60 minutes before the Zoo opens to the public which means that you’ll start the day by having some exhibits mostly to yourself.

Right now, there are six upgraded San Diego Zoo tours to choose from, described in detail below.

Tour tips:

  • Prices for San Diego Zoo tours can fluctuate depending on the season. We’ve listed starting prices here where applicable.
  • Read the safety restrictions carefully as not all tours are suitable for ages 5 and below.
  • You will still need to purchase Zoo admission separately. Here’s how to buy discounted San Diego Zoo tickets.
Save with Discounted Tickets

1. Inside Look Tours

Price: Starts at $87 per person
Time: 2 hours

San Diego Zoo Inside Look Tours provide visitors with guided access to off-exhibit areas for an “inside look” at how zoo staff members care for animals.

These tours involve walking in between exhibits though some take guests by cart into keeper-only areas. It’s wise to prepare for more walking and standing than rides.

At the time of this writing, there are six tours on offer. The other good news is that I have a discount on Inside Look Tours.

Inside Look: Surprise

This tour grants visitors a special, up-close experience at two animal habitats. Which two animals will you see? That’s the surprise!

This tour can start at 8:30 a.m., which is before the park opens (recommend), or at a few other times during regular San Diego Zoo hours.

Inside Look: Giraffes and Friends

Feeding a giraffe at the San Diego Zoo
We fed giraffes during an Inside Look Tour

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the giraffe habitat to learn what the San Diego Zoo is doing to help giraffes in the wild. You’ll then take a spin around the Zoo to enjoy keeper insight on other animals.

Inside Look: Penguins and Friends

Get closer than ever before to these cuddly, flightless birds in the new African penguin habitat. You’ll take an exclusive look at the penguin’s nesting area.

Inside Look: Koalas and Friends

A koala in a tree at the San Diego Zoo

View the largest koala colony in America alongside keepers who will share what goes into their care and the Zoo’s koala conservation efforts.

Tip: The koalas are most active in the morning so try to book the 8:30 a.m. tour, before the Zoo opens to the public. The koalas tend to sleep in their trees, sometimes out of view, as the day progresses.

Otherwise, this tour is available during regular hours.

Inside Look: Elephants and Friends

An elephant eating plants at the San Diego Zoo

Learn about the care and conservation of the Zoo’s largest inhabitants, the elephants. You’ll spend the entire tour here because there’s a lot to see and learn about how these gentle giants are trained and cared for in this state-of-the-art facility.

(If you saw The Zoo: San Diego on Animal Planet, you know that they even receive acupuncture here!)

Inside Look: Twilight Tour (Seasonal)

The Twilight Tour is a special nighttime experience that showcases the animals’ nightly habits that daytime visitors don’t typically get to see.

Book your Inside Look Tour for less.


2. Early Morning Experiences

Aside from the early Inside Look Tours, there are two other Early Morning Experiences guests can book. Both of these cart tours start before the zoo opens to the general public.

Early Morning Photo Expedition

Price: $79 per person
Time: 90 minutes

This tour is designed for animal photographers — novice and professional alike. You’ll get an even earlier jump on the crowds by starting at 8 a.m. and take one of several tour routes. Repeat visitors can enjoy a different experience each time they join an Early Morning Photo Expedition.

Make sure to have plenty of space on your camera so that you can catch the animals in action the way you’d like to.

Early Morning Cheetah Experience

Price: Starts at $99 per person
Time: 2 hours

The second early morning experience is all about the fastest land animal, the cheetah. Well, you visit several African animal habitats on the Early Morning Cheeta Experience cart tour but the main attraction is the close-up cheetah experience and access to off-exhibit areas.


3. Discovery Cart Tour

Price: Starts at $53 per person
Time: 1 hour

The Discovery Cart Tour takes place during regular park hours and is an opportunity for guests to see several areas throughout the park, including some that aren’t available on the Guided Bus Tour. Close-up experiences and special photo ops are sprinkled in along the way.


4. Crazy About Cats

Price: Starts at $99 per person
Time: 2 hours

Enjoy a cat-centric for all ages experience with the Crazy About Cats tour by cart. Specific animal availability varies from day-to-day. What’s certain is that you’ll be spending time in the company of the most exotic cats in the world.

This isn’t limited to big cats, like lions, tigers, and leopards either. You may also view fishing cats, servals, and ocelots, to name a few.

This tour is another of your early-admission options, usually starting as early as 8:30 a.m.


5. Animals in Action

Price: Starts at $99 per person
Time: 1 hour

As the name implies, this San Diego Zoo tour isn’t your typical animal viewing. In this tour, animal trainers demonstrate what these awesome creatures can do while sharing stories about each one.

See several different species jump, climb, play, and perform other tricks for you to record.

Even more amazing is that some of the Zoo’s animals are exclusive to the Animals in Action tour. If you want to see them, you have to book it and we have a discount.

Book Animals in Action for less.


6. San Diego Zoo VIP Experience

Price: Starts at $675 per person
Time: 5 or 8 hours

Finally, those who would like a top-of-the-line day should book the Exclusive VIP Experience. This private tour lasts either 5 or 8 hours and gives you more animal close-encounters, more off-habitat access, and more privacy than any other San Diego Zoo tour.

The San Diego Zoo VIP tour is customized just for you and your party based on your personal interests. You’ll need to call no earlier than 72 hours in advance of your visit to check availability for this luxury experience


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Can You Hold Animals at the San Diego Zoo?

Typically, no, but you can occasionally touch them while participating in certain upgraded experiences like the Animals in Action Tour which involves the San Diego Zoo’s trained animal ambassadors. The best advice though is not to expect to touch or hold animals.

The Children’s Zoo is closed for renovation and this area used to have a petting zoo.

How Much Is the Bus Tour at San Diego Zoo?

The Guided Bus Tour is free! It’s included with general admission and runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

However, annual pass members need to purchase tickets ($13 per adult and $10 per child, ages 3 through 11) that cover unlimited rides on the Guided Bus Tour and Kangaroo Bus on the day of their visit. Donor level memberships do not need to purchase an additional ticket for the Guided Bus Tour.

How Long Does it Take to Tour the San Diego Zoo?

With upgraded experiences, a plan, some quick walking, and using the Kangaroo Bus, it can take three to four hours to tour the San Diego Zoo.

However, we recommend at least five to six hours so that you can move at a more leisurely pace. Arrive when the Zoo opens, eat lunch, and spend a few hours after that exploring the areas that you missed in the morning.

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