Written by guest reviewer and photographer – Anna Ferrett
The World Famous San Diego Zoo is celebrating its Centenary this year, and the entire property, and sister San Diego Zoo Wildlife Park, are having a party. This theme is reflected in everything from the entryway to the maps and merchandising. Don’t be fooled by the zoo map provided just inside the entry – it is not to scale and the Zoo is much larger than it appears here! We thought we’d get the whole place knocked over in one morning. How wrong we were! We spent an entire day there from 9am to 4.30 and still had only seen about two thirds of the park.
San Diego Zoo is located within Balboa Park, an enormous 1200 acre sprawling park right at the top of San Diego CBD and itself home to dozens of museums, gardens and performing arts attractions. The Zoo is just one of many things to do here in this city; do allow time to enjoy Balboa Park itself and get to some museums if you can while here.
If you lived locally it would be well worth buying a Zoo membership with an annual pass and taking the kids there every weekend. This was self-evident by the number obvious locals with children in attendance, mums (and dads) chatting about things with their prams while the kids stared wide-eyed at the zoo occupants. Depending on level, members also receive discounts for their guests that range from free entry coupons (which we used) to discounts off food and rides. Entry can be purchased as one or two day passes, a full week pass or as part of a 3 for 1 Pass or ‘Go San Diego’ pass giving entry to a range of parks. Either way starting at just $50 for a one day entry this zoo is good value and competitively priced as attractions go. Patrons with passes or pre-purchased tickets also go through an expedited line which helps speed things up.
It is hard to know where to start in reviewing the Zoo, just as it was hard to know where to start in exploring the place. As soon as we entered the fun began with a keeper showing an owl on stage to the delight of children present (and the big kids). There was almost a carnival atmosphere here contributed to by the number of people and the constant passing of buses and trams and the dotting of food and merchandise stations throughout the Zoo. Though enormous, the Zoo is mostly intuitively laid out and if you follow the map you can walk off and make your way around most of it without doubling back. The signage can be confusing so pay some attention to where you are going.
At almost every large display there is a store, snack stand and rest rooms; it is impossible to be caught short here in any fashion and not find a facility. Having said this food and drink was fairly ordinary in taste and selection and very expensive as should have perhaps been expected for a ‘captive’ audience ($10 for a refillable soft drink with souvenir cup and $1 for refills, giant pretzels $5), but the range of souvenir merchandise was excellent and varied across all of the outlets and not as expensive as I expected so we did make a few purchases. Take water with you and have lunch in one of the sit-down onsite restaurants if not taking it yourself. There are plenty of opportunities here to spend more money if you wish almost everywhere you look, from photo opportunities to interactive shows and many smaller tours and rides around the zoo area that focus on individual themes. You can also purchase activities such as a ‘Backstage Pass’, ‘Inside Look’ or ‘VIP Experience’ to enhance your day, although I don’t know where you would fit these in unless you had a multi-day pass to start with. If you wanted to and had it you could easily spend hundreds of dollars, or you could stick to your entry fee and packed lunch.
The Zoo has a large range of creatures both big and small as you would expect from a Zoo of this class and age, everything from reptiles to insects, otters, meercats, monkeys, polar bears, pandas, hippos, other African animals like grazing antelope species, elephants, rhinos, giraffes and big cats.
There is an incredible display of Californian Condors (a must see) and an extensive display of Australian animals.
The walk-in aviary containing African birds is wonderful and we had an amazing interaction with a curious weaver bird there, who came to sit and chat with us for a bit.
You don’t even need to go to the exhibits to find animals – we noted hummingbirds feasting on the botanical displays, lizards hiding in foliage, an un-named bird of prey up a gum tree eating a mouse and local ducks and water birds helping themselves to the accommodations and food. The aquatic displays were mostly glass-fronted allowing a unique view of swimming and diving wildlife and birds.
The Zoo also has quite a stunning display of plant life from around the world including native Hawaiian species and a large range of Australian grevilleas, all in great bloom and obviously enjoying the cool air and crisp sunshine.
There is a focus on conservation and education here especially in relation to endangered species, and it is good to remind oneself, no matter what you think about animals in captivity, that without zoos such as this one striving to save species we would have many more going into extinction. Around the zoo are dotted reminders about these things and displays that talk about different world problems related to dropping species numbers such as clearing and aquatic rubbish and conservation efforts in relation to particular species.
Most of the zoo can be seen without queueing except the Panda Canyon, but areas such as the Conrad Prebys Polar Bear Plunge and Hippopotamus enclosure were constantly packed with visitors, albeit worth the wait. Expect to wait a long time to see the Polar Bears enter the water.
The Zoo general areas were largely manned by volunteers who seemed to be everywhere and ever-present, ready to answer any question we could come up with. One volunteer at the Panda enclosure said she had been working there watching the Pandas for 20 years. The sense of community here is strong, as I have found reflected in the whole San Diego community; the people here are proud of their city and not afraid to have that pride on display. This is also reflected in some sections being named after their major donors and the dotting of plaques around the zoo listing others who donated to certain areas.
The Zoo has expanded dramatically in recent times largely due to the generous multi-million dollar gifts of philanthropist Conrad Prebys, after whom quite a few of the new Zoo displays are named including the Australian Outback section, Polar Bear Plunge and Africa Rocks which is still under construction. Without every dollar including those of Conrad Prebys, our dollars and every other entrant and donor here this zoo would not exist and they display their awareness of and gratitude for this clearly.
The Zoo is easily accessible by public transport as our most areas of the city; we bought a $5 day pass and caught the bus easily from the outer suburbs but there is plenty of easy parking right at the Zoo itself and there is a tourist trolley that runs a loop around the city including a stop at the Zoo and Balboa Park. Before you visit check out the Zoo’s first class website for an intricate run down of facilities and experiences and to pre-purchase tickets. Doing so will very much enhance your enjoyment of the day.
All in all an excellent experience and one we will not forget in a hurry, especially the thrill of getting up close and personal with African song birds and polar bears and the happiest ducks on the planet. While in San Diego do find the time to get to the Zoo’s sister establishment San Diego Zoo Safari Park for a different experience, and also just enjoy Balboa Park and its museums and all the city of San Diego in general has to offer.
If you enjoyed Anna’s great photo’s, visit ferrettography.com for more.