Going to the San Diego Zoo? Congratulations! No, seriously—seeing this zoo is cause for actual celebration. There's a good reason why it always tops lists of things to do in San Diego: inside its lush expanses are more than 650 animal species and subspecies worth gawking at, and its location inside the picturesque Balboa Park means it's a beautiful park within another beautiful park. So yeah, there's a lot of awesome stuff to see here. And that raises a question: how do you squeeze all that awesome into one day? To find out, I spoke with San Diego Zoo Ambassador Rick Schwartz, who dished out these tips for getting the most out of your day.
Yes, San Diego's immaculate climate means it'll be really nice when you visit the zoo, no matter when that is. "The animals are out all year long," says Rick, but almost more importantly, "Being in San Diego allows us to grow plant species from all over." That makes the zoo one of the most biodiverse and flexible wildlife attractions in the world.
Arriving early is key not just for skipping crowds, but for catching animals doing adorable, funny animal things. "Most animals are gonna be active in the morning or evening," Rick says, explaining that "activities are highest first thing in the morning because we have usually just finished feeding and cleaning the areas, just in time for the 9 o'clock opening." So if you want to see animals playing instead of snoozing, make it an early start.
But the answer is a question! "Well, what's your favorite animal?" was Rick's response when I asked which critter was the zoo's best inhabitant. "And that's the honest truth," he adds, advising to go and see your favorite's exhibit first thing when entering the park. "If I tell you the top-three can't-miss species [are ones] you don't care about, then we've just ruined your whole day. Because later on you'll go see the animals you want to see, and they'll be napping."
"Being that we are the San Diego Zoo, though, not too many zoos have giant pandas," Rick admits. "I would recommend giant pandas as your first stop simply because so many people do want to see them. As the day progresses, a line does develop to see them."
Most zoo exhibits feature animals in what looks like their natural environment—flora, fauna, and other stuff you'd expect to see wherever they live. "With elephant odyssey, they took a completely different approach," Rick tells me. Species—even extinct ones in the form of life-size statues—native to multiple continents populate the huge space. "And the reason is, those animals that are alive today from around the world are all descendents from species that once lived in southern California 16,000 years ago," Rick explains. "So what you're doing is you're kind of walking through time. You're walking through southern California 12–16,000 years ago."
Comfortable shoes and sunscreen: bring 'em. "It's a 100-acre zoo with a lot of ups and downs—comfortable shoes are a must," Rick advises, adding that the comfy sea breezes that roll through the area also make sunscreen a must-pack item that many people forget. "And because we're close to the ocean, it's so cool—people forget that they're getting sunburnt.
By heading to the zoo's website and using your Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ ID to log in, you can add animal exhibits, activities, and other attractions to a digital, sharable itinerary. Considering the almost overwhelming amount of San Diego Zoo animals you'll want to see when you're there, it's a step Rick considers pretty crucial. "We recommend people scoping that out before they show up because you're just going to waste time walking around if you don't plan your day first," he says.