Where to begin? This zoo is HUGE. Not being an avid zoo-goer, I can’t compare this to anything but the Bronx Zoo, but I think I am on the money with my assessment, and it’s obviously one of the more well-known. It’s open every day except holidays from 9am until 4 or 5pm (depending on the season), and the grounds close at 6 or 7pm. Their "best-value" admission is $32 adult/$19.75 child, and that includes unlimited use of the express bus, guided bus, and the aerial tram. For just a ticket to get in, the cost is $21/$14, and then they offer two-park tickets, San Diego passports, group rates, etc. Obviously, the warmer the day, the more people there will be—same can be said for weekends versus weekdays. We went on a weekday morning and didn’t deal with any crowds or lines.
The park has many different paths that go throughout, enabling visitors to see everything in an organized fashion. The entire park, with breaks, stops, and lunch, will take less than half a day. With over 3,000 animals in and around 12 major exhibits, this is a stop not to be missed while in town. Exhibits include Ituri Forest, Scripps Aviary, Gorilla Tropics, Polar Bear Plunge, Giant Pandas, Children’s Zoo, Bonobos (chimps), Rain Forest Aviary, Tiger River, Sun Bear Forest, Absolutely Apes, and Reptile Mesa.
The Ituri Forest boasts an African jungle in the midst of San Diego. It includes buffalo, otters, okapi, hippopotami, Debrazza’s guenon, and Schmidt’s spot-nosed guenon. The Scripps Aviary is a lush African rain forest with exotic plants, waterfalls, and 200 native African birds. Located within "Gorilla Village", Gorilla Tropics is an 8,000-square-foot area, combined with the Scripps Aviary, that includes gorillas, bonobos, crowned eagles, and monkeys. The gorillas are huge, ah…hairy, and seem so loveable. They roll around, scratch themselves, and are very aware that you are watching them.
The Polar Bear Plunge is more then 2 acres large, with a 130,000-gallon pool. Complete with an underwater viewing area and a large sand area for the bears to lounge in, it is really an awesome sight. They glide through the water in an elegant manner, and they look so harmless. The giant pandas exhibit is probably the most popular, so my advice is to try to see this one first. There is a line, and later in the day, it is huge—so long that it almost makes you question whether or not you are willing to wait.
The Children’s Zoo was created especially for kids, but it’s interesting enough to maintain any adult’s attention. It includes special animal exhibits and children’s activities, like a petting zoo. There are also monkeys, rats, and wombats that are not found anywhere else in the park. Bonobos (chimps), located next to the Gorilla Tropics exhibit, is a 6,000-square-foot enclosure. Bonobos are considered the most intelligent primates on the earth, short of humans. The 4-million-dollar Rain Forest Aviary includes 60 species of birds, with simulated sights and sounds of the Southeast Asian jungle. The main focus are species from Southeast Asia and Australia, along with flowers and ferns of that region.
Walking along Cat Alley, you will see the Tiger River exhibit. Although under construction since 2003, it includes tigers, crocodiles, birds, and fishing cats. This exhibit is part of the "New Heart" of the zoo and is scheduled to be completed this year. The Sun Bear Forest has the smallest bear in the world, considered very agile and great tree-climbers with gold crescents on their chests. Absolutely Apes is covered by a 100-foot glass enclosure that has introduced a controlled-climate zone to allow the animals and plants to interact as they would in their natural home. This was the first phase completed for the New Heart part of the zoo. Reptile Mesa showcases cobras, boas, rattlesnakes, pythons, and tortoises. For no additional charge, there are three shows offered daily; the Sea Lions at 11am and 3pm, the "Wild Ones" at noon and 2pm, and the Dr. Zoolittle show (located in the Children’s Zoo). The Sea Lions show included swimming and tricks—a small-scale Sea World show, basically.
To me, the best way to see everything there is to buy the best-value ticket and take the guided bus around first. This gives you a birdseye view and an opportunity to get your bearings while making a mental note of what you’d like to go back and see. I mean, let’s be honest, not everything is going to be a bell-ringer. We sat on the top level, which was great but in the direct sun (there was a huge line for the top). We heard many people who sat inside, behind the driver, who said they were able to see everything as well.
The best-value ticket also gives you admittance to ride the aerial tram. This is a great ride! Although scary for some because you are literally riding on a wire, it gives you an unbelievable view of the city, the zoo, and nearby Balboa Park. It travels from one side of the zoo to the other, and you can ride it as often as you like, with the best-value or upgraded tickets. The park is a several miles’ up and downhill walk. That said, if you are not up for the task, it’s even more reason to buy the upgraded ticket and use the bus to your advantage. Sunscreen is a must here, since most of the zoo is uncovered. The food was overpriced and your typical theme-park fare, with about a half-dozen different locations and additional drink carts. Anyone who goes to these types of places and expects more is out of their mind. Pack ahead or suck it up when you get hungry.
The zoo is educational, beautiful, and a really fun day. Parking was in large supply and free. Balboa Park covers more then 1,400 acres of downtown San Diego. It includes the zoo, restaurants, museums, gardens, beautiful architecture, live music, plays, and historical buildings. Entrance to the actual park is free, but there is obviously a charge for the zoo and museums. Museums include Aerospace, International Aerospace Hall of Fame, Botanical, Museum of Art, Natural History, Automotive, Science (includes an IMAX theater), Museum of Man (illustrates the evolution of man and discusses the future), and the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater. There is also a Japanese garden and tea room. Highly Recommended.