NOTE: This article was published in March, 2021.
It’s a good time to commune with wildlife in California: Zoos and aquariums are welcoming more visitors with every passing day.
Granted, many zoos and aquariums were partially open during the reopening phases of 2020 and earlier in 2021. But since many indoor spaces had to stay closed, zoos tended to have more open areas and therefore were more accessible than indoor-oriented aquariums. Now, that distinction is no longer a factor.
While some safety protocols are no longer 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 Jon Forrest Dohlin, the Fresno Chaffee Zoo’s chief executive officer. “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 website 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. That’s especially true at aquariums: The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, the Birch Aquarium in San Diego, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium still require that you book timed-entry admission online. (Ed. note: As of September 2023, the Aquarium of the Pacific requires advance tickets only for holidays and weekends.)
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, but booking a timed-entry ticket online means you can walk past any lines at the gates. However, at the Santa Barbara Zoo, reservations are required (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.
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 Safaris 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.