Getting decked out for the holidays has become a full-on extravaganza at San Diego’s world-class zoo, in Balboa Park, just north of downtown San Diego. Visit the annual Jungle Bells celebration, from mid-December through early January, and get into the spirit in ways only the San Diego Zoo can inspire. Take a ride on the Polar Express, which uses 4-D special effects (achieved with 3-D glasses, plus such enhancements as wind, mist, and snow!) to make you feel as if you’re riding to Santa’s North Pole home. Another 4-D movie adventure is Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas, where fans of the flick can join Manny, Sid, and Diego on a quest to get Sid off of Santa’s naughty list.
Twinkle Light Trolley lets you sit back and tour the grounds after dark, all the better to take in elaborate lighted displays such as the Northern Frontiers Holiday Forest, with specially designed lighting adorning trees, and displays of winter-loving animals. Also enjoy carolers, musicians, storytellers, elves flipping around in their trampoline Toy Hop Shop, and—of course—a huge decorated tree.
No holiday celebration is complete without a reading of the poem The Night Before Christmas, and here, it’s animal-themed, hosted by Dr. Zoolittle.
Outside the zoo, Balboa Park gets dolled up during the holidays too. Visit during the annual December Nights event for special music and dance performances, seasonal activities and crafts, carnival rides, holiday foods from around the world at the International Cottages, and spectacular displays in the historic Botanical Building.
Visiting the San Diego Zoo in San Diego’s Balboa Park is more than a chance to see animals from all over the world: it’s a chance to see one of the world’s finest facilities for seeing and learning about rare and endangered species, all in carefully naturalized enclosures spread across 100 acres. More than 3,700 animals from 650 species are showcased here, including crowd-pleasers like lounging lions and fuzzy koala bears and intriguing oddities like naked mole rats and two-toed sloths.
Plan to spend at least a day at this extraordinary attraction, and wear comfortable shoes—you’ll likely do a lot of walking. General admission into the zoo includes plenty to keep you busy all day, but it’s easy to make your visit even more memorable with several upgraded experiences.
Before visiting, check the zoo’s calendar of events. Seasonal happenings include Nighttime Zoo festivities that take advantage of later summer hours—until 9 p.m.—with live music, animal encounters, and more. Kids Programs include activities for toddlers as well as teens and preteens, where the “no grown-ups allowed” policy frees up parents to do their own thing.
If you have to cut your visit short, no worries: just log onto a collection of entertaining animal cams, which let you see what’s going on with a variety of species—the koalas Sumatran tigers, as well as polar bears, California condors, and more—even if you’re not in the park. Read on to find out more about all the amazing things there are to experience at the zoo; there’s also a rundown of what to see at another must-see for animal lovers: the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which is located 32 miles away in Escondido.
With their cartoon-cute looks and roly-poly gait, the zoo’s giant pandas are no-brainer favorites. The zoo’s resident trio—Gao Gao, Bai Yun, and their child, Xiao Liwu (born in 2012)—lumber about in their bamboo-shaded enclosure, munching away on leaves (about 700 pounds of bamboo are harvested per week) and seemingly oblivious to their adoring fans. It’s a rare chance to see these charmers—only an estimated 1,600 giant pandas are left in the wild, roaming the high mountains of western China.
To avoid crowds, consider joining the Early Morning Panda Tour, which includes access to the park before gates officially open. You’ll see the bears get their breakfast, then take a guided shuttle tour of the zoo.
Whether it’s a bounding kangaroo, a feisty Tasmanian devil, or a stuffed-animal-cute koala bear, the fascinating animals of Australia are an entertaining assortment. This expansive Conrad Prebys Australian Outback exhibit at the San Diego Zoo aims to let you see and learn about these intriguing creatures—some of them extremely rare—in attractive enclosures that mimic their natural habitats Down Under, and provide clever viewing areas.
For example, wide decks wrapping around Queenslander House (a replica of an 1800s house from Queensland, Australia) overlook the koala colony, putting you at eye level with the bear-like creatures. Here you can watch the fuzzy marsupials groom, nap (which they do a lot), lord over their designated areas (male koalas are territorial), and eat from their high perches in the enclosure’s trees. See if you can spy little koalas, called joeys, clinging to their mother’s backs.
Inside Queenslander House, find out more about these animals with a peek inside the koala-food prep-kitchen, where the keepers prepare the tree-dwellers’ meals of the tender shoots, leaves, and twigs of the eucalyptus tree. Walk to nearby enclosures to hear cockatoos squawk, kookaburras (a bird known as the bushman’s alarm clock) trill, chortle, and hoot, and see wallabies hop.
If you’d like a more in-depth experience, book the one-hour Discovery Cart Tour to learn more about koalas, kangaroos, and other animals from knowledgeable guides, who will answer your questions and relate how the zoo’s conservation efforts are having an impact worldwide. These tours go to area of the zoo not visited by the bus tours, and groups are small, so the guides can answer more of your questions.
General admission tickets into the San Diego Zoo include a guided bus tour, the Skyfari Aerial Tram, and all regularly scheduled shows, but there are also lots of ways to upgrade from just looking at zoo critters to learning more about them, and even meeting special zoo “ambassador” animals.
One of the best upgrade options the zoo offers are the “early-morning” series, which gains a visitor access to the zoo before doors open up to the general public. Sure, you may have to set your alarm a little earlier, but it’s worth it—book an Early Morning Cheetah experience, or an Animals in Action experience, where expert trainers bring big cats, flamingos, and other animals out for visitors to touch, lend a hand with feedings, and even help train. A Sunrise Surprise Stroll will allow you to take in the animals’ sunrise routines with a zoo educator.
Throughout the day, Inside Look tours let you learn more about the zoo’s elephants, koala bears, penguins, and other creatures via guided views and shuttle cart access to off-exhibit areas.
The ultimate way to go? It’s undoubtedly the Exclusive VIP Experience, a totally customized tour where you can design a special tour that best fits your own interests, so you can talk with animal experts, see off-exhibit areas, and have special animal interactions.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park, located 30 minutes away in Escondido, has its own array of adventures, such as the Roar & Snore Safari, available in all-ages and adults-only options, that let families and friends bed down in snug tents in a special area of the zoo, take private tours and walks after dark, and wake up to breakfast the following morning amidst the animals. Or go on a Flightline Safari, which will have you flying on the park’s two zip lines up to 130 feet in the air above the large animal enclosures. Closer to the ground, kids and fearless grownups love the Jungle Ropes Safari, where tightropes, rope ladders, hanging log steps, and other obstacles challenge the harness-equipped adventurer.
When you visit the world-famous San Diego Zoo, of course you’ll want to see lions, tigers, and elephants, but take time to visit some of the zoo’s less familiar species too. In the tropical African rainforest exhibits of Lost Forest, you’ll expect to find gorillas and hippos, but bonobos? Believed to be one of the world’s most rare and intelligent animals, these primates have a fascinating and complex social structures ruled by females. An elevated walkway called Monkey Trails winds you straight through the canopy so you can spot them, along with troops of capuchin monkeys, black-crested mangabeys, and even red-tailed swamp monkeys, all sharing the same habitat.
Perhaps the animal in the Lost Forest that is responsible for the most double-takes is the baribusa. Native to the wetlands and swamps of tiny Indonesian islands—and only those tiny islands—they are sometimes called “pig deer” because of their elongated snouts and the tusks that grow right through them, which can resemble antlers.
In the Northern Frontier area (fittingly situated at the north side of the park), you’ll find enormous polar bears, but also the beautiful arctic fox, which has special adaptions for living in a wintry world, like hair on the bottoms of its paws to help grip on ice. And if the only reindeer you’ve ever seen are the animated kind, prepare for a treat as you spy them right across from the Marsh Aviary, where white-collared kingfishers and storks stand watch over the water. There’s also an exhibit on the rare, nocturnal fishing cat (that’s right, a cat that fishes), native to South and Southeast Asia.
Like a journey to Africa, a day at this spectacular park lets you see some of the world’s most magnificent—and endangered—animals at close range and in expansive naturalized enclosures. A cart safari ride leads you past roaming groups of rhinos, gazelles, giraffes, and other species ranging freely through savannah-like expanses. African lions wrestle with their cubs in specially designed enclosures that look like part of the whole, but are safely contained from other animals. There’s plenty to see on foot too: the amazing Tiger Trail exhibit lets you get remarkable underwater views of Sumatran tigers swimming in the exhibit.
For even more up-close looks at the park’s animals, book a premium behind-the-scenes tour, or take advantage of unique experiences offered such as the Cheetah Safari, where you can watch as these amazing cats reach speeds of up to 70 mph, or the special Jungle Ropes Safaris, which are a great way for your little monkeys to burn off some steam. In the spring, at the Butterfly Jungle you can stand amidst 10,000 butterflies flitting and floating inside a tropical greenhouse during the roughly 3-week-long event in March and April. To see it all from a different perspective, static-line hot-air balloon rides and a long, long zip-line ride offer great views of the park and surrounding region. And for a California-style hint of what sleeping in the African bush might be like, Roar & Snore Safaris let you spend the night in large tents (some even have beds and electricity) at a campground overlooking the African Plains exhibit.
Come for the animals; then take time to see the plants. The park has extraordinary landscaped areas, all worth strolling. Especially beautiful in spring is the Nativescapes Gardens, focusing on drought-tolerant species adapted to the region’s sunny, dry climate. Free, guided tours are offered at 10 a.m. the second Saturday in April and May (allow about 30 minutes to get to the Nativescapes Garden entrance from the park’s entrance; find your way with this map).
Useful info: The park’s hours are Mondays and Tuesdays, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Individual safari tickets range in price from $50 to $150. Download the San Diego Zoo app to plan your trip and to better enjoy it once you’re there.