The first thing you should know about San Diego Zoo is that Anchorman wasn’t filmed here. That was some zoo in Los Angeles, two hours away. So if you’re planning on seeing the infamous bear pit I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. Believe me, I know.
The second thing you should know is that this place is incredibly, almost inconceivably big.
Admittedly big could mean a lot of things. It’s how I feel about myself after eating half a packet of McVitie’s plain chocolate digestives. It’s the person taking up 3/4 of two seats on the standing-room-only train to London. It’s Patrick Deuel, the half-tonne man who at one point, hadn’t left his bed for seven years and could only be weighed on a livestock scale.
San Diego zoo is the half-tonne man of zoos. It’s not quite the biggest in the world, but Patrick Deuel (somewhat disturbingly) is not the heaviest man to have lived either. He’s just one of the more famous thanks to the Channel 4 documentary.* Similarly, San Diego zoo is, according to Touropia, ‘just’ the sixth largest zoo (in terms of size + species numbers) in the World. But, like Deuel, it’s also one of the more better-known (probably). This is possibly because of its on-screen five minutes of Fame (Marcel’s home in Friends, Anchorman – allegedly, a mention in Madagascar), and possibly because it’s incredible. And unlike humans, where being (one of) the biggest isn’t necessarily a good thing, San Diego Zoo demonstrates where the phrase ‘bigger is better’ may have originated.
At 100 acres, San Diego Zoo is the same size as Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, and it does have something of an air of theme park about it. It’s 3,700+ animals across 650 species are housed in one of eight zones: Africa Rocks, Elephant Odyssey, Outback, Urban Jungle, Asian Passage, Panda Canyon, Polar Rim and Discovery Outpost. In these areas are further trails of animal ‘types’, including monkeys, bears and tigers. However that’s where the similarities end: unlike in a theme park, it doesn’t feel like people are putting on a slightly fake-feeling ‘show’ for you. The animals seem lively and happy (a nice change from so many zoos), the keepers around them experts in their field and happy to share that expertise.
Another thing that makes San Diego Zoo stand out from many others I’ve visited is how lush it is. Being such a tropical climate, it’s suited to growing a variety of plants – including a number of rare species (for example, 16 types of Eucalyptus plants to feed its koalas). As a result, the landscape feels a lot more natural – less theme-park-like – and many of the enclosures really are quite breathtaking. Similarly, the zoo – billed as one of the most progressive in the world – pioneered cageless enclosures. At the time, I don’t think this is something I picked up on exactly. But I know I felt closer to the animals than in many zoos I’ve visited, and I also felt less like they were hemmed in. The whole park felt more open and welcoming, both for guests and visitors, and the lack (though not complete lack, I don’t think) of wires almost certainly had something to do with that.
But is San Diego’s size a hindrance if you’re a one-time guest? After all, for the $42 entry fee you don’t want to either like you’re rushing round to make the most of it, or as if you can’t make the most of it at all.
Personally I’d say no. Aided with suncream, comfortable shoes and a day to take it all in, the zoo is manageable entirely on foot for most adults. If you’ve got children or less able-bodied companions (excuse the phrase), there is a cable car, though it only covers one route. You could also hop on the bus, whose route covers about 70% of the park and has five stops.
However if you can walk I’d recommend. Firstly, it enables you to enjoy the exhibits at your leisure, spending time taking in the animals which can lead to some unforgettable experiences. For example, we spent a long time at the monkey enclosure, watching a relatively newborn monkey. Still clearly intrigued by people he seemed to want to play and interact with us from the other side of the enclosure. He then went on to play with his baby toys, seemingly putting on a show. We were enamoured! He’ll be grown now but I can imagine his offspring would be well worth looking out for. For me, though, it’s these ‘up close’, ‘right time, right place’ experiences which make the really special and unique – and it’s easier to have these when you’re walking at your own pace and can get up close to the animals, rather than taking them in from a bus. (Though I don’t believe you can see the monkeys properly from a bus anyway – but you know what I mean!)
The second benefit of walking is that it makes the day feel less like a mission (or so I’d imagine – we avoided the buses). Instead you discover each exhibit as it creeps up on you. For similar reasons, I’d recommend avoiding the map unless you’re trying to find a particular exhibit or have less than a day to explore. The zoo may be big, but it’s not that big and, more importantly, it’s also well signposted. As a result even without a map to check constantly, you’re likely to stumble across everything eventually. I definitely felt more relaxed when we put the map away and just roamed where our feet took us.
My other top tip would be to invest in those ginormous refillable cups (and bring water if you want it). You may think that they’re a con, but we refilled ours at least once. The zoo is hot, walking is thirsty work, and you’re going to be here all day. They’re also a pretty cute souvenir. Having lugged ours back to the UK, they now make an excellent toothbrush and pen holder (one of each, not both at the same time).
If all the walking does get the better of you, the park has plenty of solutions. Firstly, there are the footsie-wootsies, contraptions which will ‘relax, rejuvenate and revive’ you for just 25 cents.
A slightly more expensive, but probably better long-term, solution are the numerous dining outlets around the zoo. Each has a unique theme, from Italian at the Treehouse Café to Pan Asian at Canyon Cafe. The ultimate experience is Albert’s. Named after one of the zoo’s most famous gorilla residents, this full-service restaurant offers alfresco (and not-afresco) fine dining with a view of the Lost Forest and a waterfall.
Being on more of a budget (in terms of time and money), we found ourselves at the Sabertooth Grill, which features ingredients sourced from local farms. OK, so it didn’t make my list of favourite San Diego meals (Those were all on Coronado), but my grilled chicken sandwich was still tasty, filling and much better than I would have expected from a zoo. Besides, being able to watch elephants play in the nearby enclosure makes up for any imperfections (or perhaps I should say lack-of-perfection, as there was nothing really wrong with it) in the food.
So, San Diego zoo is a perfectly pleasant day out. But when it costs $42pp ($32pp for 3-11 year olds) and a whole day of your holiday, is San Diego zoo really worth it? Is it really better than other zoos out there, or are you paying for a name?
In my opinion, it’s an absolute must from your time in San Diego, unless you hate all animals. I’ve not experienced a better-looking zoo with such a wide variety of species and animals before. The staff were also exceptional. This was undeniably one of the highlights of my trip to San Diego. When the terms ‘bigger is better’ and ‘big is beautiful’ were coined, the person speaking had probably experienced San Diego zoo.
*In case you’re interested, Patrick Deuel is just the seventh heaviest person to have lived. The heaviest according to Wikipedia, was Jon Brower Munich, who out-weighed Patrick by 21 stone, topping the scales at a cool 100.