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What You Need to Know About California Zoos and Aquariums

Many restrictions have lifted but a few protocols remain in place, depending on the location

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Get ready to reunite with the koalas and octopi: With the lifting of most state restrictions on June 15, zoos and aquariums across California are welcoming more visitors.

Granted, many zoos and aquariums have been at least partially open during the reopening phases of 2020 and earlier in 2021. Since outdoor spaces could generally be open, and many indoor spaces had to stay closed, zoos tended to have more open areas than indoor-oriented aquariums.

Some new changes will be obvious when you visit. The one-way paths winding through the Monterey Bay Aquarium have been removed, while previously closed features such as touch pools will be open again. At the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, presentations by zoo staffers are back.

“Keeper Chats and presentations at world-class exhibits like Sea Lion Cove are crucial to our mission of inspiring guests through engaging and educational experiences with animals,” says Jon Forrest Dohlin, the Fresno zoo’s chief executive officer. “We look forward to these opportunities to connect people with animals and conservation.”

While some safety protocols will no longer be needed, zoos and aquariums are keeping some measures that have proven to be crowd-pleasers. “We have found that timed ticketing and pre-purchased tickets help us provide a great guest experience throughout the day,” said Dohlin. “Understanding how many people will be visiting at any given time helps us manage lines and groups throughout the zoo so every guest can make the most of their visit.”

Still, since every facility has its own policies, check the web site before you visit and be sure to review Visit California’s Responsible Travel Hub. As you plan, keep these tips in mind:

You may still need to book tickets ahead of time.

Many zoos and aquariums still require that you book your spots before you arrive—though you will likely find more available spots as the summer goes on. That’s especially true at aquariums: The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, the Birch Aquarium in San Diego, San Francisco’s Aquarium of the Bay, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium still require that you book timed-entry admission online.

The San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, along with the Sacramento Zoo, no longer require reservations—but you can still buy your tickets ahead of time to streamline your arrival. At the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, you can buy a walk-up ticket again, but booking a timed-entry ticket online means you can walk past any lines at the gates. At the Santa Barbara Zoo, you can reserve parking and train tickets online too.

Bring your masks.

There’s a good chance you will still need a face covering at some point, especially if you are visiting an aquarium. Many outdoor zoos only ask that you wear a mask while indoors. Aquariums typically ask that you still wear them in general, regardless of vaccination status, to help protect staffers, guests with compromised immune systems, and a large segment of the marine life–loving community.

“Children make up a significant portion of our attendance and are not yet eligible to be vaccinated,” according to a statement from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. And don’t forget the critters: San Bernardino County’s Big Bear Alpine Zoo, a rehab facility for injured native wildlife, has urged the use of masks since early in the pandemic because there is evidence that big cats, such as the resident mountain lions, can potentially catch COVID-19 from humans.

Distancing markers may be gone, but cleaning policies remain.

Places like the Sequoia Park Zoo in Eureka, for instance, will still have hand-sanitizing stations, while Long Beach’s Aquarium of the Pacific will also keep touchless water-bottle filling stations and will be devoting plenty of time to cleaning surfaces around the aquarium. All zoos and aquariums still ask that you maintain distance from folks not in your group, and you should stay home if you feel ill.

Bring credit cards or your mobile wallet—and leave big bags at home.

Many zoos and aquariums still don’t accept cash, while lockers and bag-check stations may still be closed.

Not feeling ready? Consider private tours.

At Sonoma County’s expansive Safari West, jeeps can now hold up to 10 or 12 people. But a statement from the park points out that Private Encounters offer a nice alternative: “We recognize that everyone has different levels of comfort when it comes to how quickly the world emerges from the coronavirus pandemic.” Other zoos offer their own private tours and VIP-style adventures, such as the tours at Palm Desert’s Living Desert and the Roar & Snore overnight stays at the San Diego’s Safari Park.

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