The San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld San Diego are among the top San Diego attractions. Both focus on animals to a certain degree, but the offerings and vibe at each differ significantly.

Many visitors, especially when in San Diego with kids, will likely opt to hit up both of these big-name theme parks. But let’s say you’re more limited and need to choose or prioritize one.

In this article, I’ll break down the SeaWorld vs. San Diego Zoo question by highlighting the main factors that will most likely influence which attraction you select.

With this practical comparison, you can decide which one is best for your vacation. We have annual passes to both attractions, and I talk to people about these theme parks daily. I know who enjoys their visits and who doesn’t.

You can save on tickets, tours, and hotels through my affiliations. If you make purchases through the links in this post, I may be compensated. Also, prices at theme parks change rapidly and may differ from what is in this post. Check before you go.

Admission Comparison

Winner: Usually San Diego Zoo, unless you are active military or SeaWorld tickets are on sale.

Regarding the ticket price, San Diego Zoo edges out SeaWorld San Diego as a higher-value destination. Why? The tickets are usually less expensive – but not always.

What Admission Gets You at the San Diego Zoo

Prices stay relatively stable because tickets never go on sale. For this reason, we’ll use the online price since it is $2 less than if you were to purchase at the gate.

However, remember that I have discount San Diego Zoo tickets that will save you even more on 1-Day tickets than is listed below.

Here are the basic prices and details:

  • 1-Day Pass: Costing $65 for adults and $55 for children ages 3 to 11, the 1-Day Pass provides admission as well as a Guided Bus Tour, a ride on the Skyfari Aerial Tram, and a seat on the Kangaroo Express Bus whenever you want it. You can save an additional $2 per ticket if you choose a Value Day.
  • 1-Day Pass Plus: This ticket—$71 for adults and $61 for children—adds to the above a screening at the zoo’s 4D Theater. You can save an additional $2 per ticket if you choose a Value Day. (The cost of a 4D movie is $7 per person and can be added on at the park. It’s cheaper to do this and buy my discount tickets.)
  • 2-Visit Pass: The 2-Visit Pass, which costs $110 for adults and $100 for children, allows you to combine a visit each to the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Alternatively, you can use the pass for a discounted two visits to one or the other destination.

There are also limited, or unlimited zoo visits available through San Diego Zoo membership plans. Some of these include blockout dates.

Parking is free. And, I have an exclusive discount on 1-Day tickets.

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What Admission Gets You at SeaWorld San Diego

SeaWorld San Diego discount tickets are easy to find.

Because they offer sales throughout the year, you will rarely pay full price at SeaWorld San Diego. But, this makes a price comparison trickier. Here the gate prices for the most common tickets.

  • Date-Specific Tickets: Tickets for a single day’s admission begin at $99.99. This admission includes access to most of the rides and shows within SeaWorld San Diego, though the Skytower and Bayside Skyride cost an additional fee. This ticket is nearly always on sale or can be purchased at a discount.
  • Ticket & All-Day Dining Bundle: For a retail price of $144.88, you can add to your single-day admission an entree and side or beverage every hour at SeaWorld San Diego. This is also usually on sale.

When the tickets go on sale, they can be as low as $59.99 for a day’s admission, bringing a one-day visit close to the Zoo. A Ticket & All-Day Dining Bundle can be as low as $89.99.

We have tons of advice for buying discount SeaWorld San Diego tickets. You’ll pay to park at SeaWorld San Diego.

Other options include a SeaWorld Annual Pass, which besides a year’s worth of SeaWorld admission, lands you free parking, free guest tickets, and certain in-park discounts. Fun Cards also provide unlimited admission.

Active Duty military personnel enjoy complimentary admission to SeaWorld San Diego (as do up to three of their direct dependents).

There are also various upgrades available for SeaWorld admission, including Quick Queue Unlimited for getting to the front of lines and Reserved Seating for shows.

Combo tickets & SightSeeing Passes

The all-inclusive Go San Diego Pass includes both San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld San Diego admission in addition to over 50 other local attractions.

Using this pass removes admission as a factor in determining which park to visit, plus you get access to other popular museums, tours, and attractions.

In addition, several options combine admission for the two attractions:

Animal Exhibits

Winner: San Diego Zoo

SeaWorld San Diego and San Diego Zoo boast a variety of animal exhibits. That said, there’s no question that the Zoo offers a lot more variety — not surprising, given animal displays are the core of its appeal.

San Diego Zoo Exhibits

San Diego Zoo is home to nearly 13,000 individual animals representing more than 650 species and subspecies.

A visit here takes you on a tour around the globe’s spectacularly diverse ecosystems and shows off just how varied and magnificent their lifeforms are.

A koala sits in a tree at San Diego Zoo.

The Zoo’s zones range from Africa Rocks, Asian Passage, and Lost Forest to the Reptile House at Discovery Outpost. Animals calling the place home include (to name only a few):

  • Bonobos
  • Orangutans
  • Western Lowland Gorillas
  • Baboons
  • African Lions
  • Malayan Tigers
  • Snow Leopards
  • Jaguars
  • Mountain Lions
  • Cheetahs
  • Grizzly Bears
  • Polar Bears
  • Sloth Bears
  • Tasmanian Devils
  • African & Asian Elephant
  • Hippos
  • Giraffes
  • Red Pandas
  • Meerkats
  • Komodo Dragons
  • Green Anacondas
  • Alligator Snapping Turtles
  • Chinese Alligators
  • California Condors
  • Flamingos
  • Secretary Birds
  • Harpy Eagles

A few other things to note: The San Diego Zoo is closely associated with modern efforts to conserve the giant panda, including a famous captive-breeding program. But as of 2019, giant pandas are no longer on view at the zoo.

Also, plant lovers will revel in the botanical collections at the zoo, which in their way are just as comprehensive as the faunal roster. Self-guided tours of the zoo’s gardens and plantings are available.

SeaWorld San Diego Exhibits

The exhibits aren’t nearly so varied at SeaWorld San Diego. But partly, that’s because of the theme park’s narrower scope.

After all, SeaWorld San Diego is an oceanarium and marine theme park. That means sea animals and entertainment in the form of shows and rides dominate its focus.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t absorbing exhibits like interactive touch pools and aquaria at SeaWorld San Diego.

Some of the mostly marine residents include:

  • Beluga whales
  • Orcas
  • Sharks
  • Rays
  • Moray eels
  • Sea turtles
  • Penguins
  • Sea Otters
  • Sea Lions
  • Seals
  • Walruses
  • Pilot whales
  • Bottlenose Dolphins

Even a few “topside” organisms make the SeaWorld cut, including macaws, toucans, and two-toed sloths.

Young and old alike should thrill at the chance to pet a sleek ray at Bay Ray Shallows or a starfish in the SeaWorld tide pools.

The same goes for the up-close looks at hulking marine mammals through plexiglass panes. And the harmless but thrilling gauntlet of toothy grins you pass through in the Shark Encounter tunnel is a reliable highlight.

Rides

Winner: SeaWorld San Diego

When it comes to rides, SeaWorld San Diego, without question, has more to offer than San Diego Zoo.

Rides at San Diego Zoo

The handful of rides at the San Diego Zoo are mostly low-grade thrills and tours but still very pleasant.

Skyfari Aerial Tram

The gondola experience offered by the Skyfari Aerial Tram, for one, includes fabulous top-down views of the zoo and its Balboa Park surroundings.

Guided Bus Tour

Other ride options keep you firmly on the ground. The first-come, first-served Guided Bus Tour is a 35-minute narrated introduction to the zoo’s layout and inhabitants—definitely recommended for first-time visitors.

Guests ride the San Diego Zoo guided bus tour through the park.

Kangaroo Express Bus

Not really a ride so much as practical around-the-zoo transportation, the non-narrated Kangaroo Express Bus makes four stops on its circuit.

Discovery Cart Tour (Paid Upgrade)

A longer narrated tour is available via the hour-long Discover Cart rides which is an upgraded experience purchased separately from admission.

Balboa Park Minature Railroad

The Balboa Park Miniature Railroad takes zoo goers on a brief three-minute, half-mile circuit through eucalyptus trees just outside the Zoo.

Tickets cost just $3, but there are less than fifty of these vintage trains left running.

Rides at SeaWorld San Diego

You’ll find a much more extensive spread of amusement rides at SeaWorld San Diego.

These range from low-key, toddler-friendly offerings such as spinning teacups to some of the gnarliest roller coasters in the Golden State.

Here are the main thrill and family rides on offer.

A boat splashes as hit hurls down the track on Journey to Atlantis, one of the most popular SeaWorld San Diego rides.
Journey to Atlantis

High Thrill Rides

  • Emperor: California’s tallest, fastest, and longest dive coaster (143-foot vertical drop, 60+ miles per hour)
  • Manta: Launch coaster
  • Electric Eel: San Diego’s tallest and fastest launch coaster
  • Tidal Twister: Dueling rolling coaster
  • Journey to Atlantis: Flume ride

Medium Thrill Rides

  • Shipwreck Rapids: Whitewater ride with rapids and waterfall
  • Riptide Rescue: Spinner ride

Low Thrill Rides

  • Bayside Skyride: Gondola ride (paid upgrade)
  • Skytower: Tower offering 100-mile sightlines over Greater San Diego and out to the Pacific
  • Elmo’s Flying Fish: Kiddie ride
  • Tentacle Twirl: Swing ride
  • Abby’s Sea Star Spin: Swinging teacups
  • Sea Dragon Drop: Shot-n-drop tower suitable for small children
  • Octarock: Kid-friendly swing
  • Oscar’s Rockin’ Eel: Kid-friendly side-to-side slide
  • Aqua Scout: Bumping kiddie ride

SeaWorld San Diego debuted Sesame Place San Diego in 2022, which includes water attractions, among them a 500,000-gallon wave pool and water slides. This is a separate theme park located in Chula Vista.

Shows

Winner: SeaWorld San Diego

You’ll find live entertainment with an educational component at both parks.

Generally speaking, the shows at the San Diego Zoo are on a smaller scale and focused on education. Most would be better called talks or presentations.

For flashier (splashier?) shows focused more on entertainment, SeaWorld San Diego is the place to go.

Which park you prefer based on shows alone depends on which type of show is more meaningful to you.

Shows & Presentations at the San Diego Zoo

A keeper tells guests about meerkats.
A meerkat Wildlife Care Specialist Talk

Regular Wildlife Care Specialist Talks reveal some of the inside scoop on meeting the behavioral, dietary, and other needs of specific species at the zoo.

The San Diego Zoo presents its various animal ambassadors in daily shows at the Africa Rocks stage, Rady Ambassador Presentation Area, and Wegeforth Bowl amphitheater.

Keep in mind that the zoo also offers a variety of upgraded tours and activities that, if not exactly “shows,” are still engaging and exciting experiences.

These include the Crazy About Cats, Animals in Action, and Early Morning Cheetah experiences, plus the Inside Look Tours that take in some behind-the-scenes goings-on related to animal care.

Shows & Presentations at SeaWorld San Diego

Live shows are definitely at the heart of the SeaWorld San Diego experience.

The killer-whale show, Orca Encounter, is the defining draw, giving you a firsthand look at the beauty, agility, and intelligence of the ocean’s apex predator.

Also popular are the Dolphin Days and Sea Lions Live shows, each featuring its own sleek and charismatic marine mammals.

There are slower-paced animal experiences as well, including sea-turtle feedings and sea-otter presentations.

And not all of the SeaWorld shows have to do with sea life. The Sesame Street Meet-and-Greets allow children to rub shoulders with their favorite Sesame Street characters. The Cirque Electrique performances include acrobatic and jet-skiing thrills at the Bayside Amphitheater.

Evening fireworks provide a regular spectacle as well (check the calendar as they do not occur daily).

Crowds & Size

Winner: San Diego Zoo

Both the San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld San Diego are major tourist attractions.

After all, we’re talking about the most-visited zoo in the country and the original SeaWorld location. Expect large crowds, especially on weekends and during the summer or holiday seasons.

But, do they feel crowded? Let’s find out.

San Diego Zoo Crowds & Size

The San Diego Zoo covers 100 acres, with some hilly terrain to navigate.

You can expect plenty of company, particularly around the larger water-dwelling animals such as polar bears and hippos. That’s because guests tend to hover around the glass that showcases them swimming underwater.

However, the size of the zoo and its spread-out exhibits means it rarely feels uncomfortably packed with people.

But keep the hilliness of the zoo’s grounds in mind (which is nothing anyone ever complains about). You may get a little workout during a typical zoo visit, especially if you push a stroller around.

The Kangaroo Bus and Aerial Tram come in handy when you need a break from walking or are visiting with more mobility-challenged friends or family members.

You don’t wait in line for much at San Diego Zoo since there are no rides and people tend to move through the exhibits at a reasonable pace.

SeaWorld San Diego Crowds & Size

Given the most popular attractions at SeaWorld are rides and shows, expect a somewhat more crowded feel. You’ll spend time waiting in lines since rides are among the most popular things to do there.

SeaWorld San Diego is a big place, too, covering some 172 acres. (Though it doesn’t feel nearly 2x the size of the Zoo.)

Children reach into the reef shark touch tank at SeaWorld San Diego.
Reef shark touch tank

Who Visits?

Winner: San Diego Zoo

Needless to say, there’s quite a bit of crossover when it comes to the Seaworld San Diego vs. San Diego Zoo target audience.

Both spots rank among the city’s biggest family attractions, though their appeal—especially when it comes to the San Diego Zoo—isn’t at all limited to kiddos.

SeaWorld offers a higher-octane vibe given its thrill rides and more spectacle-oriented shows, but the zoo delivers a broader and richer overall experience.

Who the San Diego Zoo Will Appeal to the Most

The San Diego Zoo is an all-ages destination. It’s certainly an outstanding place to bring kids, especially younger children still reliably wowed by firsthand encounters with the animal kingdom.

But, I can tell you that retirees, newlyweds, singles, and even business travelers go out of their way to visit. Even locals will head over first thing in the morning to walk through the gardens and various areas for exercise (at a brisk pace or in the right sections, it’s a workout). Looking for backyard inspiration? Many of the 700,000 plants are labeled.

The Zoo’s a particularly potent draw if you or somebody in your party has a special interest in the natural world or conservation. That said, a roaring big cat, gargantuan elephant, or inquisitive great ape is likely to captivate just about anybody, young or old.

Who SeaWorld San Diego Will Appeal to the Most

SeaWorld San Diego’s allure is usually stronger for the younger crowd.

Smaller children will find the touch pools and the Sesame Street Bay of Play area intriguing. Many locals have season passes during the toddler years because, well, there’s Elmo, Abby, Cookie Monster, and the gang featured in tame rides, merchandise, and characters roaming the park.

Teens love it for roller coasters. Other than the historic coaster at Belmont Park, these are the only ones in San Diego. And they’re big and fast.

I don’t typically hear of or see many visitors going without kids in tow. One exception would be when they are running food festivals or holiday events.

Dining

Winner: San Diego Zoo

Given they’re designed to be half- or full-day destinations, it’s no surprise that both the San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld San Diego are well equipped to satisfy appetites.

The Zoo, though, wins for the diversity of dining options. However, SeaWorld San Diego offers dining packages that could save you money if you plan to spend all day at the park.

Rest assured that adult beverages are served in both parks! And both offer vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options.

Dining at the San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo offers an impressive lineup of eateries, snack bars, and watering holes well distributed throughout the grounds. From on-the-go snacks and sit-down meals to adult beverages, they cover multiple cuisines ranging from hearty to healthy.

A fish taco at Albert's, one of the best San Diego Zoo restaurants
A hefty Chardonnay pour and fish tacos at Albert’s.

Named for a famous, bygone silverback resident of the San Diego Zoo, Albert’s in the Lost Forest is a full-service restaurant and bar with a fabulous patio beside a small waterfall. Along with its daily lunches and dinners, Albert’s offers a popular weekend brunch.

Track down more casual dining, meanwhile, at the following establishments:

  • Busy Bee Café (Zoofari Party Area)
  • San Diego Zoo Sandwich Co. (Front Street)
  • Front Street Sweet Shack (Front Street)
  • Safari Kitchen (Front Street)
  • Lagoon Terrace (Front Street)
  • Sydney’s Grill (Australian Outback)
  • Hua Mei Cafe (Asian Passage)
  • Sabertooth Mexican Grill (Elephant Odyssey)
  • Treetops Cafe (Lost Forest)

That’s not all: You’ll also find close to 20 snack-and-refreshments-style outlets in the San Diego Zoo, from the Northern Frontier’s Ituri Hut and the Lost Forests’s Jungle Java to the Boardwalk Beer Garden and Busy Bee Cocktails.

The San Diego Zoo also allows visitors to bring in their own food and beverages (single person), though no glass containers, coolers, alcohol, birthday cakes, or party trays are allowed.

Dining at SeaWorld San Diego

Craft Beer, Fried Green Tomato, Brisket, Bratwurst Sliders that will be served at SeaWorld San Diego Zoo Days.
Sliders on offer during a food festival.

SeaWorld also offers a range of eateries and snack stations but not quite the variety of the San Diego Zoo. And if I’m to be frank, the quality of the food isn’t as good though it’s fine for a theme park.

Its restaurants and refreshment stands include:

  • Big Bird’s Bistro
  • The Waterfront
  • Calypso Bay Smokehouse (ribs here are popular)
  • Mama Stella’s Pizza Kitchen
  • Shipwreck Reef Cafe
  • Craft Beer Bar
  • Sea Lion Amphitheater Bar
  • Explorer’s Cafe & Bar

You can also bundle all-day dining with your ticket, which allows three items at participating restaurants as much as once per hour. There are some limitations, but if you are going to be spending time eating, it can be a good deal. It can also make lines long during peak days.

SeaWorld San Diego offers a few special dining packages and experiences. The most noteworthy is the Dine With Orcas deal, which provides a chef-curated meal on a private poolside patio with orca-viewing and information.

Unlike at the zoo, you cannot bring outside food or beverages into SeaWorld save for bottled water. Exceptions are made for baby formula visitors with certain dietary restrictions or food allergies.

Location

Winner: San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld San Diego are both easily accessible from Downtown San Diego. The Zoo gets the edge when it comes to the convenience of its location simply because it’s a shorter Uber from Downtown hotels and Balboa Park is next door.

But, seriously, there’s no need to get too hung up on their locations. The drive time between the two is usually about 15 minutes.

San Diego Zoo

Situated in Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo’s mere minutes from downtown and directly accessed by a bus line (the No. 7).

That location also means a whole host of other attractions. Some of San Diego’s top museums and gardens—are within ready walking distance from the zoo.

Balboa Park’s one of the best places for strolling in town and hosts a regular calendar of concerts and other special events. And heads up: You can also ride the free Balboa Park Tram to get around in the vicinity.

SeaWorld San Diego

SeaWorld is located on Mission Bay, about 15 minutes from Downtown San Diego.

The No. 8 and 9 Metropolitan Transit System buses offer public transportation to SeaWorld from the Old Town Transit Center. SeaWorld’s general vicinity isn’t walkable to anything.

But, while you’re there, you can take a short drive to Belmont Park San Diego and the Mission Beach area (parking at the beach can be tough during peak season).

Parking

Winner: San Diego Zoo

There’s ample parking at both the San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld San Diego.

Parking at the San Diego Zoo

The zoo offers free parking in its City of San Diego-managed lot.

If the zoo parking lot is full, which is rare but does happen, try looking for space along Park Blvd. or elsewhere in the Balboa Park vicinity.

Parking in the Balboa Park parking lots is also free.

Parking at SeaWorld San Diego

You’ll pay for parking in the huge SeaWorld lot: a separate fee from admission.

General Parking is $25, while spaces close to the entrance cost $30 or more for Up-Close Parking and $35 or more for VIP Parking.

You can pre-pay parking online if you like, but you can also pay the attendant when you get there.

SeaWorld vs. San Diego Zoo: Summing Up

When all is said and done, the San Diego Zoo is the more universally engaging destination. The quality of its animal exhibits and the breadth of on-site interpretation and education regarding its denizens and global conservation are outstanding. It’s one of the world’s most highly regarded zoological parks for good reason.

SeaWorld is certainly also well worth checking out, particularly if you’re visiting San Diego with kids. But it’s a bit more one-dimensional, and could be a more expensive day out.

Here’s a brain dump of questions people ask me when comparing both parks.

SeaWorld San DiegoSan Diego Zoo
Reservations necessaryNoNo
Discount tickets availableYesYes
Same-day tickets availableYesYes
Non-profit parkNo, but SeaWorld Entertainment operates nonprofits committed to animal
and habitat rescue.
Yes
Accredited zooYesYes
Children’s sectionsSesame Street Bay of PlayWildlife Explorers Basecamp
Free parkingNoYes
Opportunities to touch animalsTouch pools with rays, feeder sharks, tide pool animals.No, unless you get lucky during an upgraded tour.
Other attractions within walking distance
No

Balboa Park is next door.
VIP toursYesYes
Bring in foodNo (baby food and special diet food okay)Yes
Stroller and locker rentalsYesYes
Gluten, vegan, and vegetarian dining optionsYesYes
Adult beverages for saleYesYes

FAQs About San Diego Zoo or SeaWorld San Diego

How far apart are SeaWorld and San Diego Zoo?

The two theme parks are about 8 miles apart. The drive time without traffic is about 15 minutes.

Can you visit SeaWorld San Diego and San Diego Zoo on the same day?

In theory, yes, you can visit both parks on the same day if you have enormous stamina. I would not recommend it, especially with young children.

You will get the most out of both parks if you see them on separate days.

Which Zoo is Best in San Diego?

The answer depends on your interests. Most people will vote for San Diego Zoo. However, there are three zoos in San Diego:

  • San Diego Zoo
  • San Diego Zoo Safari Park
  • SeaWorld San Diego

Hopefully, this article helped you decide between San Diego Zoo or SeaWorld San Diego. We’ve covered San Diego Zoo vs. San Diego Zoo Safari Park as well if you need help deciding between these two parks.

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