20 Best Things to Do at the San Diego Zoo for Kids and Toddlers
The sheer volume of fun and educational activities at the San Diego Zoo for kids and toddlers makes it the top San Diego family attraction. We’re active members and I strongly believe that arriving armed with some knowledge of what to do, time-saving tips, programming to plan around, and San Diego Zoo Global’s conservation initiatives will help you maximize your day.
The must-see kid-friendly activities are rated by me, my family, and readers that I work with to help plan San Diego family vacations. Keep in mind that I also have a list of general tips for visiting the San Diego Zoo and can also help you buy discount San Diego Zoo tickets.
Guided Tours/Upgraded Experiences
The top reason to consider upgrading your day with one of the San Diego Zoo tours is to minimize walking and maximize up-close animal viewing, which is incredibly helpful for kids.
Many of them have cart service which means that you’ll not only have a staff member with you to answer questions but you’ll zip around the Zoo feeling like kings of the jungle. Some of these tours start before the Zoo opens to the public which is great for early birds and those who are short on time.
You can also book a VIP interactive experience, with your own personal tour guide as most of the Inside Look and other tours are for small groups.
Skyfari Aerial Tram
Skyfari Aerial Tram also cuts down on walking by transporting you from near Reptile House uphill to Northern Frontier by Polar Bear Plunge and back. It’s a terrific shortcut and very relaxing. Mind your children but have your camera ready as the view from above is spectacular.
You’ll spot a few animals, see Balboa Park, and it does feel a little bit like a slow-moving theme park ride. The tram has been open since 1969 and is free to ride.
Polar Bear Plunge
My favorite San Diego Zoo exhibit is Polar Bear Plunge. Sure, they’re immense, graceful, and adorable creatures that can adapt to icy environments and San Diego sunshine, but the way that you view them here is unique.
From the main viewing area, which is nicely shaded and offers some bench seating, you can see both the polar bears on land and underwater because the glass windows here cover both view points.
If you are lucky, they will swim up to the window which is an event that I have seen many times but have never been able to take a decent photo of. As you might imagine people tend to crowd the area.
Even if you don’t see the polar bears plunge into the water, it’s still rewarding to see them. Nearby, kids can crawl into a faux polar bear den and explore the play area (more on this below). A docent is often on hand to answer questions like what does a polar bear eat.
Fun fact for kids: Did you know that polar bears do not hibernate? Their bodily functions slow down in winter but they can still have babies during this time. San Diego Zoo has studied the effects of noise pollution on the bear’s ability to communicate which they hope will support conservation laws to protect bears.
Koalas in the Outback
The highlight of the Outback is the Zoo’s koala colony which is the largest outside of Australia.
The first koala arrived in 1925 and each of the San Diego Zoo koalas has personality traits for which they are named. The deck from which you view the koalas is raised so that you don’t have to strain to look up to see where they are usually sleeping in the eucalyptus trees. Popping the kids on to your shoulders though still helps them get a better look.
You’ll see other marsupials here including wallabies and tree kangaroos in addition to Tasmanian devils, wombats and a variety of birds.
Keep an out for the group of aboriginal-style totem poles that are topped with an Australian species. Young kids love looking up to these to ramble off their animal knowledge.
Fun fact for kids: Did you know that koalas have two thumbs on each hand? They also have teeth in their cheeks that help them munch on tough leaves.
The San Diego Zoo is home to both river hippos and pygmy hippo and you can see them on Hippo Trail. These mammals spend much of their time out of the water, but their nostrils close so that they can spend around 5 minutes feeding underwater without coming up for air.
Hippopotamuses are actually very aggressive creatures, and currently hold the record for the world’s deadliest land animal. You and the kids will learn all about them on the hippo trail, seeing a hippo family from up close (but not dangerously close). As well as a truly adorable pygmy hippopotamus.
Fun facts for kids: Pygmy hippos weigh 350–600 pounds whereas river hippos can weigh up to 4 tons.
Reptile House + Other Friends
If you have young kids, this is one of the best places in the zoo to bring them. It’s the closest attraction to the entrance and while there are outdoor exhibits, the Reptile House is indoors so a nice place to shield from afternoon sun.
The Reptile Houses have snakes, lizards and bugs, while the petting zoo has a number of cute and fluffy creatures that will make this stop a delight. Sometimes the bigger animals, like elephants and lions, can be a rather daunting thing to start with. So spending time acclimatizing to these smaller creatures is the perfect way to ease in.
Fun fact for kids: Some of the Galapagos turtles have been at the Zoo since 1928 which means that they are over 100 years old. Males have white painted numbers on their shells while females have red painted numbers on their shells. See if you can count how many of each there are!
San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey has both African and Asian elephants, so you can see the distinct differences between the two mighty creatures, from their ears to their trunks (with the help of some signage around the exhibit).
What creature in the world can compare to the elephant? So immense, with lovely intelligent eyes and skin that makes you feel good about your heels, even on your worst days.
You could even watch a training session, used to exercise the elephant’s big brains and bodies. It’s a great deal of fun. And be sure to learn about the amazing creatures while you all marvel at their hulking figures.
Fun facts for kids: Elephants have about 40,000 muscles in their trunks which is more than humans have in their entire bodies.
Africa Rocks: Baboons, Meerkats, More
Africa does rock. The continent has such a wealth of biodiversity, with animals and plants found naturally nowhere else in the world. This exhibit celebrates that, with six different habitats you can immerse yourself in and discover.
There are a lot of highlights here. The meerkats are usually active and will be easy for kids to see as the viewpoint isn’t too far from where they burrow.
Several clans of hamadryas baboons live here and their antics can be quite funny when they’re all out and active in the exhibit which is quite large.
In the Cape Fynbos habitat, you’ll see African penguins burrowing into the soil and frolicking in the water. In the Madagascar Forest, spot lemurs swinging from the trees.
You’ll also get to see the leopard one of the most magnificent predators in the world as well as dwarf crocodiles and baboons.
Fun fact for kids: Baboons don’t yawn because they are tired. They yawn to show off their teeth as a symbol of dominance.
Rhinos and Big Animals in Urban Jungle
Rhinos are some of the most important animals that you can see at San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park due to San Diego Zoo Global’s extraordinary rhino conservation work.
The San Diego Zoo is home to Greater One-Horned Asian Rhinos (also known as Indian Rhinos) which you can see in Urban Jungle. San Diego Zoo Global provides funding and research to help save these giants in India, Nepal, and Sumatra. More than 60 Indian rhinos have been born and bred at San Diego Zoo Safari Park including the first baby ever to be born in a zoo or wildlife park.
There is a Frozen Zoo (really) at the Nikita Khan Rhino Rescue Center at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park where scientists are working to bring the northern white rhino back from the edge of extinction. There are only two left in the world and they can’t not breed.
Incredibly long story (and timeline) short, they are creating northern white rhino embryos using stem cell technology that will eventually be artificially inserted into female southern white rhinos to hopefully save the species.
Back to the Zoo, Urban Jungle is home to other incredible big and fast animals like the giraffes and cheetahs.
Fun fact for kids: A rhino’s horn is made from keratin and can be safely cut just like your fingernails.
Fact for parents: This means that rhino poaching to cut off horns for medicinal use, of which the Zoo believes there are none, is entirely unnecessary.
Kangaroo Express Bus
When the kids get tired of walking or if you’d like to preserve their energy take advantage of the Kangaroo Express Bus, another fun and quick way to get around.
The Kangaroo Express Bus arrives every fifteen minutes. You can hop on and off at four different stops around the zoo, making it easy to get around and see the exhibits your family is most excited about.
The bus (it’s more like a small cart) is included in your entrance fee. There are no tickets required, you just get on. One thing to note is that it can handle small fold-up strollers so anything bigger than that won’t work.
Keeper Talks and Animal Encounters
One of the best things about visiting the zoo is that it is both super exciting, and truly educational for your kids. They can learn so much about the world and the animals in it, just spending one day here.
Take your family to see the zoo’s keeper talks and animal encounters. These daily shows are incredibly educational and interactive. You can learn all about giraffes – like their natural habitat and why their necks are so long. Or about polar bears, lemurs and meerkats.
There’s a lot going on every day, so be sure to check out which presentations are happening when, and don’t miss out on your favorites.
San Diego Zoo isn’t confined to the ground. It also has an incredible array of bright feathered birds. Just prepare for things to get a little loud. The aviaries are lush with diverse plant life, and have a great many birds flying all about. They’re constantly communicating, and you’ll find they can get louder and more boisterous than the kids.
The Owens Rain Forest Aviary is the main aviary in the zoo. It’s an impressive structure enclosing everything while remaining light and wild-feeling. You can stroll along the walkway above the trees, spotting birds and listening to their mating calls.
Another fun attraction for kids of all ages is the Monkey Trails and there is also some shade here on this elevated walkway which is helpful on sunny days. Here you can see adorable capuchin monkeys, spot-nosed monkeys, and colobus monkeys, among others.
These lively creatures are extremely social. Watch them interact, and see how many different species you can all spot, noting their different behaviors.
The trails move through multiple exhibits since monkeys come from all over the world and have varying habitats and social behaviors.
Fun fact for kids: The Wolf’s monkeys share the same exhibit as the pygmy hippos. One of the monkeys likes to ride on the back of one of the hippos.
Aside from the amazing animals, San Diego Zoo toddlers have plenty of fun working off some energy at the three fantastic playgrounds:
- Elephant Play Yard: This open-air playground offers puzzles, a play fossil dig, and plenty of space to explore and play. It’s opposite of Elephant Odyssey, so you’ll hear some fun toots and bellows.
- Koala Klimber: You have to see the koalas, so while you’re in the Australian Outback let the kids climb like a koala at this fun playground. You can also take photos with koala replicas in their natural habitat.
- Polar Play Area: Do your children love storybooks or polar bears? This impressive play area takes the cake, with supersized illustrated storybooks, life-size statues of polar bears you can awe the kids with, and a polar bear den to crawl into.
One place to take a break during the day is at the 4D theater in Northern Frontier not too far from Polar Bear Plunge.
This 4D theater brings imagination to life, bringing the physical effects of the film to your experience. That could include temperature changes, vibrations, and wind so that you can better experience what you’re watching on-screen.
An additional fee of $7 per guest applies and it’s easy to check movie times and titles on the San Diego Zoo app.
San Diego Zoo Kids Store
A treat after a day at the Zoo for children is a visit to this fun San Diego Zoo Kids Store. You will walk by it as you visit exhibits but try to keep it as your last stop as a positive way to end the day, if a souvenir is on your itinerary. You can pick up plush toys of favorite animals, T-shirts, games, educational activities, and more.
My favorite thing about the San Diego Zoo Kids Store though is the Nestle Toll House cookie and ice cream stand inside! You can grab a gourmet coffee and reset sad faces with tasty treats. The treats are delicious and I haven’t seen anything like it in my travels.
San Diego Zoo Children’s Zoo (Coming Soon)
The San Diego Zoo Children’s Zoo is under a very exciting renovation in part thanks to local philanthropist Denny Sanford. It will soon be even more child-friendly to include even more interactive learning, close-up encounters, and modern technology mesh fun, animals, and education together. Marshlands, desert, woodland, and rain forest make up the four distinct environments of this zoo in a zoo.
Do not worry as the construction happening in this part of the zoo doesn’t impact your visit at all. Note that the petting zoo was in the Children’s Zoo area and many of those animals have been relocated to San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
Balboa Park Railroad Miniature Train
Just outside of the exit at San Diego Zoo, you’ll find this cool miniature train replica of a real diesel locomotive. It operates on weekends and holidays only between 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. and runs on a small loop that takes about 3 minutes.
It’s short, but terrific, with a friendly train conductor and lots of excited kids enjoying the ride. This is a great way to close off an adventure-packed day. Or start it. Children under 1-year-old ride free and tickets are $3 for kids ages 1 and older.
If you leave the Zoo to ride it and would like to return to see more animals, be sure to get a hand stamp which allows you to reenter for free.
Balboa Park Carousel
Another attraction that’s technically outside of the zoo is this beautiful 1910 carousel. It feels rather magical, with all but two of the menagerie of animals still the original hand-carved pieces.
It’s well maintained and lovely, an enjoyable ride for all ages. Go for a ride with the kids, and take a few photos. After all, it’s not often you get to ride on the same carousel generations of families have enjoyed.
The kids can choose their favorite animal after seeing the real deal at the zoo. Pick your racer: horse, camel, lion, or zebra?
San Diego Zoo Kids’ Programming
Other San Diego Zoo kids’ activities extend far beyond a day at the park and I encourage locals especially to take a look at them.
The zoo offers an amazing variety of Summer Camps for children of all ages. These camps will have your little ones spending most of their time outdoors. Learning about and interacting with animals, engaging in arts and crafts, and playing games.
Campers can be Pre-K to Grade 12, with each grade catering to their age bracket.
Kinderzoo is a special experience for your young child between the ages of 3 and 5. One adult will join them on an adventure around the zoo before it opens for the day. It includes an up-close animal encounter, a take-home craft, and an opportunity to meet the zookeepers that keep the animals healthy and happy.
Kid’s Wild Night Out
No grown-ups allowed. This exciting evening at the zoo is for kindergarteners through Grade 5. They’ll meet animals, play and learn, and come back with a fresh adoration for all things natural.
Aussie Outback Birthday Bash
Can there be a better place for a child’s birthday party than at the zoo? At the Australian Outback, you can have your own animal presentations, along with zoo-themed birthday activities and decoration. It’s a riot for young kids, and a perfect chance for you to enjoy their birthday too, without stressing or planning.
Zoo Corps is for teens from ages 13 to 17. It’s a really cool opportunity for your teens to learn about animals and spend time with them. But also to experience a little responsibility and learn public speaking skills, teaching zoo guests about wildlife conservation and animal care, among other topics.
Taking it up a notch, Zoo Internquest allows participating teens to discover careers in wildlife conservation. The internship focuses on collaborative writing, critical thinking, and teamwork. It’s a brilliant opportunity for anyone interested in animals.
Tips for Visiting the San Diego Zoo with Toddlers and Babies
Having a baby or toddler on your visit to San Diego Zoo won’t be an issue. With years of experience, I’ve put together a few tips to make things easy.
- If you did not bring a stroller on your San Diego vacation, you can rent one on a first-come-first-served basis for $14.
- Lockers can be rented at the entrance so that you can leave everything you don’t need there. They range in size so you pay for the space you need. These are also first-come-first-served.
- You can bring your own food into the zoo which is helpful for saving money and families with dietary restrictions. Large food containers like coolers are prohibited.
- Glass, alcohol, and straws are all not permitted to be brought in. Straws are unavailable at park concession stands as they are not safe for animals should they blow away.
- Sadly, the giant pandas have returned to China so they are not on display anymore so let the kids know not to expect them.
- If the kids feel sad that their favorite animal isn’t in view, let them know that the exhibits were created to mimic their natural habits, which includes hiding spaces that help them feel safe.
San Diego Zoo Children’s Tickets and Annual Passes
Children ages 2 and under always receive free admission to San Diego Zoo!
Children ages 3–11 are eligible for child’s tickets. 1-Day child tickets currently retail for $48 and 1-Day adult tickets are $58 for ages 12 and older. Though you can save by using my promo code lajollamom for $6 off at San Diego based aRes Travel who is an authorized San Diego Zoo ticket seller. They charge a $2 per ticket fee but you will still come out ahead with my discount.
October is one of the best times to visit San Diego because of our annual Kids Free San Diego promotion. Details are usually announced the summer prior.
San Diego County residents in zip codes 91900–92899 should take a look at the San Diego Zoo Kids Club for ages 3–17. The cost is $58 per child per year and they will receive free admission to San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park in addition to other perks. This is a great deal!
If you have questions about what to do at San Diego Zoo for kids, please leave a comment and I’m happy to answer them.