Zoos can play such a valuable role in instilling a love of wildlife in children, along with a desire to respect and protect their global habitats. San Diego Zoo is one of the nation’s best, with some amazing species that are rarely seen in the US. Although we usually sleep in on vacation… my family actually managed to arrive when the zoo opened! Here’s the great insider advice we received that day, on the best touring plan to beat the crowds. Plus where to sit on the tour bus, and other must-do recommendations.

San Diego Zoo Entrance

San Diego Zoo Entrance / Photo credit Tami Mittan, Outdoorsy TravelingMom

We so rarely pull it off.  Beating the tourist crowds, and getting ourselves to our destination-of-the-day when the place is just opening up.  A lazy vacationing crew, we are.

Of course I know that all the best advice for visiting a crowded tourist destination begins with “get there early.”  So I was excited to maximize this advantage, when we arrived at the San Diego Zoo only 5 minutes after they had opened for the day.

Animal Loving Volunteers

One of the first things I noticed was some retiree-aged zoo workers whom I speculate were animal loving volunteers. What better way to spend some of your time than sharing your animal expertise at a zoo, surrounded by sounds of nature and lush vegetation? They were helpful, too. Since I hadn’t visited San Diego Zoo since I was a teenager, I took a hint from the people I saw asking for directions and approached a friendly lady in uniform.

San Diego Zoo helper posted for directions

Zoo helper ready to help with directions or advice. / Photo credit Tami Mittan, Outdoorsy TravelingMom

“What would you recommend for the best zoo touring strategy today?” I inquired. A smile lit her face, conveying she was clearly pleased with being able to share such valuable information with me. She proceeded to outline some helpful tips on how to beat the lines that would surely form later in the busy day.

I appreciated having these trusty helpers and their maps available, ready to answer questions, offer advice, or give directions.  We spotted them at numerous locations throughout the San Diego Zoo.  The touring plan this kind employee outlined worked like a champ, and I felt it was an excellent thing to pass along to TravelingMom readers.

First tip:  Head straight for the pandas.

Head for the Pandas

San Diego Zoo sleeping panda

Sleepy giant panda / Photo credit Tami Mittan, Outdoorsy TravelingMom

As a child of the 70s, I distinctly remember what a big deal it was when Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing became the very first giant pandas to arrive in the US, at the National Zoo in Washington, DC. It’s still a pretty big deal to get to see a panda, and San Diego Zoo is the home to three of them.

The morning of our visit, we merely witnessed nap time. It was still very impressive and endearing to catch a real, live glimpse of such a wonderful creature. I’ve since checked in at the Giant Panda webcam on the zoo’s website, and caught some pretty entertaining bamboo eating sessions.

Next Up:  Guided Bus Tour, Before Heat and Lines

San Diego Zoo Guided Bus Tour

Double decker bus on the guided tour of the zoo. / Photo credit Tami Mittan, Outdoorsy TravelingMom

Another popular and worthwhile feature at the San Diego Zoo: taking the guided bus tour.  This busy zoo highlight is included with your base ticket, and often forms lines later in the day. Getting there early will pay off.

To get to the bus tour entrance from the Panda area, check your map.  Note the purple path, located right across from the Asian Passage. This is actually a one-way flat escalator, which will save you from hiking back up a big hill. It’s an excellent way to get back to the front of the park, where the bus tour begins.

San Diego Zoo escalator path

Going up… the easy way! / Photo credit Tami Mittan, Outdoorsy TravelingMom


We enjoyed the bus tour, and it helped cut down on some of our walking for the day. It gives you a nice overview of the entire zoo, and will give you an idea of which areas you want to head back on foot to explore more. During certain sections of the tour you won’t see much, but in others you’ll get a great view of some animals.

San Diego Zoo viewing from top of Tour Bus

Best seat in the house, if you can take the direct sun. / Photo credit Tami Mittan, Outdoorsy TravelingMom

It’s a double-decker bus, and you get to choose which level you’d like to sit on. The line to sit on the lower level is longer. We chose to sit on top, with no shade. The upper level provided some nice views, but on this 80+ degree day, the sun and heat were a bit intense by the end.

TravelingMom Tip:  Definitely try to sit on the right side of the bus. That’s where most of the action and best photo opps will be located.

Don’t Miss the Outback

San Diego Zoo koalas

So…. much…. cute. / Photo credit Tami Mittan, Outdoorsy TravelingMom

Hands-down, spending time viewing the koala bears was my favorite thing at San Diego Zoo. Their little pseudo eucalyptus tree habitat under a constant mister provides a cozy, relaxing spot for them. Some hung out solo, others cuddled two-to-a-tree. So very adorable.

When I visited more than 20 years ago, there were just a few koalas here, kept behind glass. Since then, the exhibit has blossomed. There now are several koalas, with a comfortable outdoor guest viewing area. With shade and benches provided, it’s a great spot to hang out and enjoy them awhile.

An educational station was manned by a zoo worker, offering some hands-on items to engage children. She had a kangaroo pelt for the kids to feel (I’m still fuzzy on the significance of that), and talked to them about the koala’s characteristics and lifestyle.

The koalas are located in the Outback area, which my entire family thoroughly enjoyed. I’d recommend you put it on your must-see list for the day. Better yet, schedule it around noon time and also eat lunch at Sydney’s Grill. It serves some tasty pulled pork sandwiches and nachos.

San Diego Zoo pork nachos in Outback

Pulled pork nacho lunch in the outback, mate! / Photo credit Tami Mittan, Outdoorsy TravelingMom

Balancing Love, Respect, and Advocacy for Animals

I often have mixed feelings about zoos, and seeing such magnificent creatures in captivity. But by most accounts, San Diego Zoo is one of the very best. So I’m OK with incorporating such visits into our family vacations, for the educational aspect and to remind my kids of how wonderful the natural world is.

Watching the zoo employees who so clearly love animals is inspiring. However, a couple of times I was surprised and disappointed at some of the information being conveyed. At both the koala and giant panda exhibits the message was clear: These animals are NOT soft, they are NOT cuddly, they are wild and dangerous to humans.

To my 11-year-old daughter and me, that message felt negative and left us both with an uneasy feeling. We had come to the zoo that day so excited and happy to see giant pandas and koalas… and we left both exhibits feeling like we’d just been told “you may love them – but they hate you back, and would attack given the opportunity.”

So what’s the motive behind the San Diego Zoo message? I reached out to zoo officials and received this helpful response:

“San Diego Zoo Global has a number of species recovery programs in the wild and one of the biggest challenges to our efforts to save species is human lack of understanding about the natural world and a general lack of respect for wildlife… We begin our efforts to teach respect for wildlife at our wildlife sanctuaries, the Zoo and the Safari Park, and we continue these efforts with educational programs, signs and brochures in our field efforts around the world.”

When I described our personal experience to the San Diego Zoo representative, she clarified that the intention is to create interest, not negative feeling. She reassured me officials would follow up with the staff. So it proved to be an interesting learning experience all around.

My hope is that together we can balance a respect for wildlife, with a love of animals and an accompanying resolve to protect their global habitats.

Best Touring Plan for San Diego Zoo