As you know from the sticky post, I’m not a big advocate of bringing kids to Las Vegas for the fun of it–the whole premise behind this site is that it’s not promoting toddler travel to Las Vegas, but that it’s a resource for parents who, for one reason or another, find themselves having to bring their small kids to Las Vegas.
That being said, in my travels around the region, there are always some attractions that I think other parents would like to know about, or would like another parent’s perspective on. And that brings us to today’s review of the San Diego Zoo.
We’ve visited the zoo before. This time around, we were in San Diego while I gave a series of lectures at SDSU, and we scheduled it so that we had a morning to hit a museum (which ended up being the San Diego Air and Space Museum, hopefully the subject of a future post), and a whole day to spend at the Zoo.
- Tip 1: Parking is free, but if you’re staying in the area, you can use the trolley service that runs through Balboa Park. It gets you over the overpass, but leaves you off quite a distance from the zoo entrance (and, if you’ve got a screaming toddler trying desperately to escape the stroller, you will count every step of the way). Which leads to…
- Tip 2: Bring your stroller. The zoo is big–about 100 acres. By design, it’s in a hilly part of town that allows the zoo to host animals in discrete microclimates. This is great news for the bonobos, but it also means you’re going to be doing a lot of walking with your little one(s). Sure, a non-umbrella stroller can be bulky and inconvenient, but for me it’s well worth not having to carry 20-60 pounds of kids around the park. Which leads to…
- Tip 3: This is going to be exhausting for everyone. Fun, but exhausting. When planning for your visit, you need to ask yourself: do you want to be the reason your kid(s) don’t get to see all the animals? In other words, what can you do to make sure that they tire out before you do? For me, that meant bringing the stroller, and you probably have a few other strategies to keep yourself from tapping out and heading for the exit before seeing the elephants.
Did I mention how big the park is? We got there just after opening, around 10 AM, and left just before closing at 5PM. We saw just about everything there was to see, but could have spent much more time there. And it was a great experience, mostly because we didn’t have a schedule to keep or list of things we had to see in a certain order. It was basically show up and see where our feet took us until either the kids bailed or they threw us out. It ended up (nearly) being the latter, but due to time, not bad behavior. You know it’s time to leave when the zoo employees start walking with a certain purpose and intensity level.
You might be wondering about price: for two paying adults, one paying child, and one non-paying (under 2) child, the tickets came to over $100, with AAA discount. That seems like a lot of money, but I think it’s well worth it: we spent almost 7 hours in the zoo, which boils down to $3.57 per hour per household member–a pretty good bang for the buck, all things considered. The key, of course, it to make sure you can have a long stay, which goes back to Tip 3 above, although a lot of it is based on sheer chance: you never know when your kid(s) will stage a spectacular Category 5 meltdown 45 minutes into your day.
There’s not too much else to say about the zoo attractions themselves: you walk around and look at a lot of animals. We didn’t spring for the Backstage Pass or catch any of the scheduled shows, so it really was just a lot of looking at animals. Which, for a 4 year-old (and, to a lesser extent, an 18 month-old) is fun enough. But I will share another valuable tip:
- Tip 4: No matter what rare and beautiful natural wonders you see, or what valuable scientific information you or zoo personnel share with your kids, the one thing they will remember after you leave is the animal that they saw defecating and/or urinating.
Sure, you might say, funny joke. But I’ve got empirical proof. Prima had her mind made up when she got to the zoo. “I’ve got one thing on my mind,” she said quite seriously, “and it’s pandas.” And yet, when we got home, it wasn’t the pandas that were the highlight of the day. Instead, it was the giraffes. Because we saw a giraffe pee, and pee, and pee (those things must have bladders that are bigger on the inside than the outside). Which would be amusing enough, but then, just as the peeing giraffe finished peeing, a baby giraffe walked up and smelled the (now finished) peeing giraffe’s nether region, resulting in guffaws all around and a memory that none of us will ever forget.
Speaking of the other end, one of the worst things about going to theme parks/zoos/other kids attractions is the awful, overpriced food. This is one of those cases where I can deal with one of the two, but not both at the same time. How many times have you had to choke down a cold, tasteless burger that cost $12 while your kid picks at some underdone chicken nuggets? Well, I think that the San Diego Zoo’s solved this problem, and the answer is Albert’s.
How to describe the restaurant? The Zoo website says “Dine in style in the heart of the San Diego Zoo,” and they’re not far off the mark. I only learned about Albert’s by trying to find a nice place to have lunch in Balboa Park the day before–I think that Yelp gave a hit for the place. The menu seemed better than the usual, and we were in the area, so we decided to check it out.
To get to Albert’s, you have to take an elevator down three stories from the Monkey Trail. And when you get down there, it’s like you’re stepping into another world. There are a few strollers parked in front, but nothing near the teeming masses feel of the feed line at the grills and cafes upstairs. And you’re not eating off a picnic table: Albert’s is a full-service restaurant, the kind of place where you’d go out for a nice dinner without the kids.
And that was the weird thing: I think most of the people in Albert’s weren’t there to look at animals. There were a few tables filled with Ladies Who Lunch drinking mimosas and a few more with guys in business suits who looked like they were entertaining clients/visitors. They didn’t seem to mind plebians like us begging our kids not to paint the windows with ketchup or crawl under other peoples’ tables–in fact, they acted like it gave the place character. So instead of us watching the animals in cages, we kind of had other people watching us. Turnabout’s fair play, I guess.
The menu might seem pricey–$16 for a roast beef sandwich–but when you factor in that you’re paying a premium of $5 or so over truly dreadful park fare, it’s actually a good investment. And you get to recharge your batteries away from the zoo for a while–this is really like being out of the zoo for 45 minutes while you eat.
You can also, apparently, get sauced there–two moms next to us were drinking martinis, and I really think we were the only adults in the whole place who weren’t drinking. The whole tab ended up coming to somewhere near $50, tip included, which isn’t that much worse than what you’d pay for tasteless microwaved food upstairs. Therefore:
- Tip 5: Eat at Albert’s.
If we’d have been at all methodical about our visit, we probably could have gotten more out of it, but sometimes it’s better to just see where the day takes you. Near the end, we learned that our tickets gave us access to the Guided Bus Tour, a 40-minute or so jaunt around the park in a double-decker bus. We took it, taking one of the attendant’s advice to sit on the bottom level (better view, he insisted), and had a total treat. Our driver, who went by the nickname “Zoo Man,” was a font of knowledge about animals in general and the zoo in particular, and kept the ride fun for parents and kids with his humor. He was able to make seeing the animals special, particularly when we caught them awake or, in the case of a polar bear, playing with an inflatable ball in the water. Zoo Man really made that a fun part of the day.
So we really got doubly lucky that day–we could have settled for the first food we saw and gotten the usual theme park stuff, or kept on walking around without taking the tour and learning a lot more about the zoo. But there’s one more thing…
- Tip 6: Visit the children’s zoo.
This is a little section of the zoo, to the left of the entrance as you walk in, with a playground, a petting zoo, and a few other things that weren’t running when we visited. It’s a great place to take a break and let your kids run around, so I’d suggest visiting this area after the initial excitement has died down and kids are starting to lose their fascination with the animals. The petting zoo is pretty great, too: I met a goat that I really hit it off with, at the very least, and I think the kids liked it almost as much as me.
Like I’ve said above, I didn’t do nearly as good a job of researching and planning the visit as I could have, but we all had a great day, so maybe that’s the best approach.