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 minutes before the Zoo opens to the public, which means that you’ll begin the day by having some exhibits mostly to yourself.

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

Tour tips:

  • Prices and themes for San Diego Zoo tours can fluctuate depending on the season and are subject to change. I’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 but you can access my discount by text or email below.

GET MY EXCLUSIVE TICKET DISCOUNTS

I have the best final price on San Diego Zoo Safari Park tickets that is available to the general public, with no membership required, through my partnership with aRes Travel, an authorized San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance ticket seller. For this reason, we can’t publish the promo code online, but you can get it by text or email. The price is $68/adult and $58/child (ages 3–11) — all taxes and fees included!

*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.

1. Inside Look Tours

Price: Starts at $89 per person
Time: 90 minutes

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. Therefore, it’s wise to prepare for more walking and standing than rides.

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: Polar Bears and Friends

This tour will give you exclusive access to the polar bear habitat. You’ll learn how the bears are cared for at the Zoo and how the Zoo supports their survival in the Arctic. This exciting adventure is recommended for all ages. 

The Polar Bear Plunge exhibit is really neat and can be crowded in front of the glass where you can see the bears swim underwater.

Inside Look: Penguins and Friends

Would you like to learn more about the resident African penguin colony? Then, this tour is the ticket! You’ll be able to get a better look at the penguin beach and nesting area and also learn about what the Zoo is doing to promote conservation in their native habitats.

Inside Look: Baboons and Friends

A baboon chills on the grass in the Africa Rocks exhibit at San Diego Zoo.
The baboons in the Africa Rocks exhibit are fun to watch.

This tour will allow you to meet with a wildlife care specialist and learn all about Hamadryas baboons that I think are really fun to watch.

You’ll be given a unique view of the baboons from a special viewing area and learn more about what the Zoo is doing to help support their survival in the wild. 

Inside Look: Wild Canines and Friends

Fennec foxes, wolves, and even a singing dog are all some of the canines you may have the opportunity to see up close during this tour. You’ ll also learn now domestic dogs are enlisted to help the Zoo protect wildlife worldwide. 

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.


2. Early Morning Experiences

Aside from the early Inside Look Tours, there is an Early Morning Experience that guests can enjoy. This tour starts before the zoo opens to the general public, at 8:30 a.m.

Early Morning Cheetah Experience

Price: Starts at $92 per person
Time: 1.5 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 $55 per person
Time: 1 hour

The Discovery Cart Tour takes place during regular park hours. It 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.

This is a very popular upgrade when visiting San Diego Zoo with kids as you can see quite a bit and conserve energy for other fun activities in the park.


4. Crazy About Cats

Price: Starts at $92 per person
Time: 1.5 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. It’s only offered on select days. This tour is recommended for guests ages 5 and up.


5. Animals in Action

Price: Starts at $89 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.

This tour is recommended for guests ages 5 and up with a maximum of two children per adult. It is one hour long and offered on select days


6. San Diego Zoo VIP Experience

Price: Starts at $675 per person
Time: Up to 5 hours

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

The San Diego Zoo VIP tour is customized 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.

There is otherwise no petting zoo at San Diego 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 from just after 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (7 p.m. during Nighttime Zoo).

San Diego Zoo memberships (annual passes) also now include the Guided Bus Tour. It used to be that members needed to purchase an additional ticket.

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, I 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.

Can You Take a San Diego Zoo Virtual Tour?

The best way to see San Diego Zoo from home is by watching the live animal cams available in certain exhibits at both San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


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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