Is the San Diego Zoo Worth It?


My family and I just returned from a visit to the San Diego Zoo. Since we’ve been to a lot of zoos and this one was, by far, the most expensive, afterward, we began to wonder is the San Diego Zoo worth it?

Here’s what we decided after much discussion:

A family of 4 can spend over $200 for a 1-day pass, making it one of the most expensive zoos in the US. The Atlanta Zoo, which is comparable in size and style, is roughly half the cost. The Safari Park has lots to do but could cost a family of 4 an additional $1,000. So overall, the San Diego Zoo may not be worth it.

But there’s a lot more to know about the San Diego Zoo, costs, animal habitats, and yes, whether the giant pandas are still there.

So we’ll get into all the details below, so let’s get started!

No matter where you’re traveling to, take a moment to check out my travel recommendations?

I take the frustration out of having to check multiple sites to be sure you’re getting the best deal. These sites are tested and proven by me and my family, and they always provide us with not only the best prices but also the best experiences.

So check out my Travel Resource Guide to learn more!

Why I’m not sure the San Diego Zoo is worth it for me and my family

I haven’t priced every single zoo in the US, nor have I been to every single zoo in the US.

I have, however, been to several zoos including some of these great ones:

  • Atlanta (where they still have pandas)
  • Oklahoma City
  • Waco
  • Ft. Worth
  • Dallas
  • San Antonio

Now not every one of those zoos is stellar. I’d also have to say that most are also not as large as the San Diego Zoo (and I’m not counting the San Diego Zoo Safari Park which is a totally separate facility).

BUT, all of those zoos are roughly half the price of the San Diego Zoo. So it shouldn’t go without mentioning that the San Diego zoo is pretty costly for a zoo.

Now in a recent list of the 30 Best Zoos in US News and World Report (one of those irritating posts that makes you click through each of the 30 listings), they did, of course, list San Diego. But they also listed Ft. Worth and Dallas (although odd considering how much better Waco is than Dallas).

USA Today also lists the top zoos in the US and unlike the previous article, USA Today actually ranks them.

They gave the top spot to someplace I’ve never been called The Living Desert in Palm Desert. And while they did list the Safari Park, they actually didn’t include the San Diego Zoo at all (or any of the others I listed).

But for me and my family, we enjoy wide open spaces for the animals to roam in a natural-ish habitat. We like minimal concrete and to experience the animals in a hopefully happy setting.

While San Diego delivered the goods in that area, so do all the other zoos I listed, at a fraction of the price. So make no mistake. The San Diego Zoo doesn’t charge what it does because it’s worth it; you’re paying for the high cost of California Real Estate and taxes.

How much does it cost to go to the San Diego Zoo?

We literally just went last week, so I can tell you for a family of 4 plus a baby, for a 1-day ticket, we spent about $200.

But here’s their specific breakdown of prices:

  1 DAY 1 DAY+ 2 DAY 3-FOR-1
ADULT (12+) $56. $62. $89.60 $149
CHILD (3-11) $46 $52. $79.60 $139

The 1 day and 2 day are obviously fairly explanatory. The 1 Day+, however, gets you everything included in the regular 1 day, plus you can pick one of their 4D theater experiences. So essentially for a family of 4, you’ll spend an extra $24 total to watch a movie.

Now I happen to like 4D movies, but if we’re already paying $200 bucks, surely they could have thrown that in already?

It’s also worth noting that with the 2 Day ticket you can choose one or both; the actual San Diego Zoo and/or the San Diego Zoo Safari. The Safari is a drive-thru safari (their vehicles, not yours) but also has zip line adventures, and high-wire obstacle courses and is NOT located near the zoo itself. But it is kind of cool that you could do the zoo one day and the safari the next.

You cannot, however, do both in 1 day on that ticket.

The 3 Day pass adds SeaWorld to the 2 Day pass. So you can choose between the zoo, safari, and SeaWorld. You can attend one per day, any 3 days total, over a 7 day period. So also not a bad deal.

But not that many families of 4 are going to want to shell out the almost $600 bucks it will take to do that (or maybe I’m just cheap).

Can I buy San Diego Zoo tickets at the gate?

Yes, while you can definitely buy tickets online, we bought ours at a self-serve kiosk right the front gate. As far as I can tell, there’s no benefit to buying your tickets online ahead of time.

How much is parking at the San Diego Zoo?

Parking, thankfully, is free at the San Diego Zoo. On the day we went (mid-August shortly before school started back), we were able to park pretty close to the entrance as well.

They also have some shaded parking spots and a limited number of charging spots for electric cars.

Do note, if you’re going to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, you’ll pay $15 per vehicle or $20 for RV parking.

How long does it take to go through the San Diego Zoo?

Having done a good portion of the zoo in about 5 hours, I can definitely say to really see everything and experience everything, 6 hours or a 2-day pass would be the most ideal given how much there is to see and do.

Plus, while not as hot as my native Texas, San Diego can still get warm. And that heat takes its toll on parents and kids alike.

So unless you want to rush through, if money is no object, get the 2-day pass.

That will allow you to see all the animals and exhibits. Plus you can ride the park on the double-decker tour bus when you need a break. You can also ride the Kangaroo Express Bus and the Skyfari Aerial Tram (which is one of those ski-lift-type cable cars that ride way high over the park (the kind my wife won’t set anywhere near!)

I will say that the San Diego Zoo is a great place for families with tweens. Since my wife and I have 2 tween daughters, its important to find places that tweens love to visit. After all, tweens can be pretty fickle and picky!

Check out ALL my top picks for vacation spots with tweens in a recent article. Just click the link to read it now. Philadelphia made the list and the reasons we chose it will really surprise you!

What’s the difference between the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Safari Park?

Ultimately, they are 2 totally different things, so it’s hard to compare.  The Zoo is somewhat typical of many zoos but larger, and the habitats are bigger. But if you’ve seen a bunch of zoos like my family has, it’s not likely to blow you away.

The Safari, on the other hand, features a safari tour of an African and Asian-style outback. But it also has a cheetah safari, a high-ropes obstacle course, zip lines, and even allows you to camp out.

Here’s the complete list of options and features at both:

San Diego Zoo Cost per person San Diego Safari Park Cost per person
1 Day Pass $56/46 1 Day Pass $56/46
4-D Theater  $8 Caravan Safari $171+
2 Day Pass $89.60/79.60 Cheetah Safari $57+
3-for-1 $149/139 Cart Safari $53+
    Jungle Ropes Safari $53+
    Flightline Safari (Zip Line) $77+

Is San Diego Zoo or Safari Park better?

The zoo is basically just one price plus a couple of upgrade options, whereas the safari is priced per event in addition to the entrance fee.

By that I mean if you just do the Caravan Safari, that’s a minimum of $121 each for ages 6 and up in addition to the 1-day pass price of $56 for adults and $46 for kids. The 1-day pass includes the Africa Tram, Cheetah Run, and all regularly scheduled shows.

Add the zip line, and that’s an additional $77 or more for ages 8 and up.

Ultimately, for a family of 4, you could easily spend $1,000 just doing the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. So from that standpoint, this isn’t a casual choice as we’re talking almost as much money as you might spend at Disneyland to get a whole lot more.

For that reason, if I have to choose between the Zoo or Safari, I’m definitely going with the zoo.

What is the best way to see the San Diego Zoo?

The San Diego Zoo is quite large; 100 acres to be exact.

So while you can get around on foot, the guided bus tours are a great way to see it as well. What I recommend is starting off on foot and then jumping on and off the guided bus tours as needed. 

The guided bus is an open-air double-decker bus (the top row has no roof, so be prepared for a lot of sun). It drives throughout the zoo and has multiple stops. There are several buses that run concurrently, so it’s pretty convenient to hop on or off one as you wish.

If you have your own stroller, just be prepared to fold it up when you board. 

But if you rented a stroller at the zoo, you’ll have to abandon it when you board since they don’t fold up (they are OK with you ditching them in an out-of-the-way area). If you save your receipt for the stroller, you can get another one when you are back near the front entrance.

It would be great if they offered multiple rental locations throughout the zoo.

When your family is trying to decide where to go for vacation, it’s tough. After all, most of the places you want to see are also places a millon other people want to see.

So for that reason, I compiled a list of the 17 Most Overlooked Summer Family Vacation Destinations. These are destinations (and San Diego is on there) that often fly under the radar compared to Disneyland, NYC, and other big tourist spots.

What really surprised me in researching it was just how (relatively) inexpensive Beaches Turks & Caicos Resort Villages & Spa is!

Do they still have Pandas at the San Diego Zoo?

Sadly no!

My family and I were all excited to see the pandas on our recent visit and saw no signs or information on the website or at the zoo informing us they were no longer there.  Even their map shows the panda area (there are still red pandas there, but those are basically red raccoons).

Even the current Google listing still shows they have pandas. See it here.

In the end, while frantically searching for them in the zoo, we had to resort to Googling the question only to find out they lost the pandas, Bai Yun and her 6-year-old cub Xiao Liwu.

China had them on loan to the San Diego Zoo since 1996 but required their return in May 2019.

There have been several pandas at the San Diego zoo over the years, so this isn’t the first time China has asked for one or more to be returned.

It is, however, the first time in over 20 years that the San Diego Zoo has not had ANY pandas.

Supposedly the San Diego Zoo is trying to negotiate with China for their return, but for now, if you’re in the US and want to see a panda bear, you’ll have to visit the zoos in Atlanta, Washington DC, or Memphis.

What animals are at the San Diego Zoo?

Well, as we’ve discussed, the giant pandas are sadly no longer there.

But there are a lot of other animals to see. In fact, they boast over 4000 species on animals, so there’s no way for me to list them here. I will, however, share the highlights with you.

  • Bonobo (primates similar to chimpanzies)
  • Camels
  • Polar Bears
  • Leopards and Cheetahs
  • Elephants
  • Giant Gal├ípagos tortoises
  • Gorillas
  • King Cobras
  • Koala Bears
  • Two-Toed Sloths
  • Komodo Dragons
  • Pygmy Hippos
  • Rhinos
  • Reindeer (they didn’t respond when I called out “Swen!”)

See the complete list on the zoo website.

Is the San Diego Zoo good for animals?

Good, of course, is a subjective question.

Certainly, an organization like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) doesn’t condone ANY zoos. But their points of view will also seem pretty extreme to many as well, so it’s not a black and white issue like they might have us believe.

Now, you could argue that holding animals in captivity against their will is cruel and inhumane, and you could make a good argument for that. But if we assume for a moment, that all zoos are that way to a degree, then we have to look at each zoo and their mission, beliefs, practices, and how they treat the animals.

The San Diego Zoo is a non-profit organization.

While that doesn’t mean no one gets paid and that some people aren’t getting paid really well, it does tell us that, unlike SeaWorld, their sole motive isn’t profit.

They also claim that one of their missions is to breed endangered species to prevent extinction which is a noble cause. As an example of their work, I see:

  • 44 animals from the zoo have eventually been released back into the wild
  • 180 rhinos have been born at the San Diego Safari Park
  • The Zoo works with 45 different countries on animal conservation
  • They have over 1,000 species DNA on file in what they call the frozen zoo
  • The San Diego Zoo conducts education outreach on animal welfare and extinction on 3 continents

I can also tell you that from an animal habitat standpoint, most of the animals in the San Diego Zoo have larger than normal habitats than you would find in many other zoos. By that I mean they aren’t just in small concrete cells. Instead, they typically have large areas that are more like their natural habitats.

So within the confines of being a zoo where animals are kept, I do think that the San Diego Zoo does a good job of caring for the animals and doing good work on animal conservation around the globe.

Do veterans get in free at San Diego Zoo?

Yes is the short answer.

Active duty U.S. Armed Forces personnel get in for FREE on a 1-day pass upon presenting a Common Access Card (CAC) or Uniformed Services ID Card at the gate. For this reason, you should not try to purchase tickets online.

Military spouses and any eligible dependents get a 10% discount off the 1-Day Pass at both the Zoo and Safari Park. And this is valid even if the military service parent or spouse is not present.  Just show the  valid dependent ID card at the gate. Again, you cannot get this discount online.

Military veterans do not receive a discount at the Zoo or on the Zoo’s website. However, some local military bases do sell tickets at a 10% discount, so check with the base nearest the zoo to inquire.

Is there a AAA discount for the San Diego Zoo?

Yes is the answer here as well!

You must have a valid AAA membership card and present it at the gate to take advantage. You will receive a 10% discount off a 1-day pass. This discount will apply for the cardholder and up to 5 additional guests.

As with the Active Military discount, you will need to purchase tickets at the gate to take advantage of this as you cannot get this discount online.

You also can not combine this discount with any other offers or coupons.

 

Did I cover everything you wanted to know about whether the San Diego Zoo was worth it?

In this article, we took a look at the world-famous San Diego Zoo.

We explored why some consider it to be the greatest zoo in the world. But we also looked at it with a critical eye as well as it’s also one of the most expensive zoos too.

Ultimately, we answered the question of “is the San Diego Zoo worth it?” with the answer of probably not. But you should decide for yourself.

Have you been to the San Diego Zoo?

No matter where you’re traveling to, take a moment to check out my travel recommendations?

I take the frustration out of having to check multiple sites to be sure you’re getting the best deal. These sites are tested and proven by me and my family, and they always provide us with not only the best prices but also the best experiences.

So check out my Travel Resource Guide to learn more!

Jeff Campbell

Jeff Campbell is a husband, father, martial artist, budget-master, Disney-addict, musician, and recovering foodie having spent over 2 decades as a leader for Whole Foods Market. Click to learn more about me

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