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What You Need to Know About California Zoos and Aquariums

Streamline your next visit by making reservations ahead of time, checking local resources, and following safety protocols

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With the loosening of restrictions tied to the last year’s stay-at-home order, communities across California continue to open up. Provided certain benchmarks are met, plans for a statewide reopening are in place for June 15. Keep in mind, though, that for now, some parks, businesses, and attractions may still be closed or have protocols in place.

While California’s zoos and aquariums have been quiet for much of 2020 due to the COVID-19 crisis, many have reopened, with a variety of new protocols such as required advance reservations in place for safety. They all must adhere to their respective county and local guidelines and regulations, which may include the continued closure of indoor spaces.

While most zoos have an abundance of outdoor enclosures, restrictions on indoor spaces will likely have a considerable impact on aquariums such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which remains closed but will be reopened for members on May 1 and to the general public May 15. As of press time, La Jolla’s Birch Aquarium and the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach have both fully reopened. In Vallejo, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom and its zoo and aquarium area Marine World Experience are open; theme park admission is currently for California residents only, and ticketed reservations are required.

No matter where you’re heading, it’s crucial to check local resources, and each zoo or aquarium’s website, before you go. While you’re at it, review the CDC's guide for visiting parks and recreational facilities and Visit California’s Responsible Travel Hub.

“Now that we are open again, we love being able to inspire and educate the people in our community in person,” says Brandy Gamoning, marketing director for the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. The popular destination has lowered its maximum capacity, based on the zoo’s square footage, to allow for appropriate physical distancing.

“We hear a lot of appreciation for all of the changes we have made,” she says, noting the hand-washing and sanitizing stations as well as the social distancing markers. “And people are definitely enjoying the smaller crowds.”  

What to Expect

Most of the biggest zoos and aquariums in California are offering similar protocols: reduced maximum capacity to avoid crowds; online reservations required; temperature checks for guests entering the park; lots of hand washing/hand sanitizer stations, and increased cleaning of park surfaces throughout the day. Zoos and aquariums also ask that guests to do their part: Bring a face covering (per the state mandate for masks in public places), be mindful of the six-foot physical distancing guidelines, and stay away if you feel sick.

To foster plenty of that physical distancing, zoos and aquariums are setting limits on daily admission. Similar to the measures the Fresno Chaffee Zoo is taking, the San Diego Zoo and its sister property, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, are both operating with limited attendance, and to facilitate as prompt admittance as possible, all visitors over 3 years old to both attractions will be required to have advance reservations. Even so, expect wait times to enter the park during busy peak periods.

The Sacramento Zoo is also requiring reservations, and attendance is limited. Palm Desert’s Living Desert is employing timed ticketing to pace the number of guests entering, and certain indoor spaces and experiences remain closed.

To help regulate the number of visitors, many zoos and aquariums won’t be selling admission tickets at the gates. Instead, you buy tickets online in advance, and reserve your entrance time; you can stay as long as you want once you arrive. (Zoo and aquarium members, meanwhile, don’t need to buy tickets ahead of time, but they do need to reserve entrance times.) There’s a chance, according to the San Diego Zoo website, that the zoo could be at capacity when you arrive for your time slot—and if that’s the case, you can either wait until some guests leave, or just use your ticket on another day or time. To help with planning, its website includes a helpful chart highlighting peak times.

Once inside, look for directional signs on the ground—one-way traffic helps encourage good distancing. Some experiences may still be suspended for now, such as up-close encounters, shows, or tours. At Sonoma’s massive Safari West, tours are an integral part of the experience, so the park has added space and plexiglass partitions between rows on tour vehicles, and advance reservations are required for entry. Sit-down restaurants will likely be closed or have limited indoor seating at most zoos and aquariums, but keep an eye out for grab-and-go meals and snacks. For any add-on purchases, expect to pay by credit or debit card for everything while you’re there—cash payments may not be an option.

Before You Go

Start by booking your ticket and making your required advance reservation online—and see if there’s anything else you can book early. At the Santa Barbara Zoo, you can reserve parking and train tickets online too. Check out the attraction’s map on the website, and either save it to your phone or make a printout, since paper maps likely won’t be available onsite. Bring along your own stroller or wheelchair, if you would otherwise rent one, since such rentals may not be available right now.

And of course, bring a face covering. Not only can masking up help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among people, it can reportedly help protect critters, too. (You’ll likely notice some mask-only zones, and that the staffers and animal caregivers are more suited up than usual, for the same reason.) San Bernardino County’s Big Bear Alpine Zoo, a rehab facility for injured native wildlife, urges the use of masks in part because there is evidence that big cats, such as the resident mountain lions, can potentially catch COVID-19 from humans (though there is no evidence that humans can catch it from animals).

Zoos are taking all these precautions, says Gamoning, “to provide a safe and healthy visit for guests, while also protecting our staff and animals.”

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