Sunday, September 9, 2012

From Pandas to Polar Bears: The San Diego Zoo

We have a winner: Trekaroo just announced that the photo I took of Juliana at the San Diego Zoo won first prize in it's summer photo competition. They asked if I'd be willing to write a review of the Zoo to accompany the photo, so here it is:

By Kevin

“What kinds of outings work well with not-quite-two-year-olds?” my wife and I wondered. We often bring our daughter to parks or take her to play with friends. And Juliana loves those things. But we figured it was high time for her first visit to one of Southern California's many attractions.

Juliana plays some peekaboo near the Hippo exhibit
Disneyland will undoubtedly be fun, but the price-to-enjoyability-over-other activities-ratio seemed like it wouldn't make it worthwhile for another year or two. She'd probably have just as much fun digging in the sandbox and going on the slide at the local park. Same with just about any other amusement park we conjured up. Our then 20-month-old daughter just isn't old enough to maximize the fun factor.

But we knew she loves animals. After all, she had recently entered the phase of life in which she is grabbing hold of every opportunity to name her world, particularly, every giraffe, horse or cat that pops up in her picture books.

So when our friends and their three daughters mentioned that they had a San Diego Zoo membership and were planning to make a trip, it didn't take us long to figure out where we should go.

The 100-acre zoo was fantastic. It's easy to see why the San Diego Zoo is generally considered one of the best zoos in the world. Although it is home to more than 4,000 animals and 6,500 plant species, the habitats are spacious. The animals are easy to spot and well-cared for.

Giant Panda Bai Yun gnaws on some bamboo
One of the highlights – given our connection to China – were the panda exhibits – one of the few exhibits at the zoo you have to wait in line to see because of their popularity. As we entered the line, I was excited that one year of Chinese studies meant I could actually read the Chinese characters for the panda's names, written at the entrance. Of the zoo's now four Giant Pandas (a baby was born just after we visited in July), we were able to see two: 白云 (Bai Yun or White Cloud) and 高高 (Gao Gao or Tall Tall). Unfortunately, we arrived while Gao Gao's cage was being cleaned, so we had to wait about ten minutes for him to arrive back in his cage. Then we only had a few minutes to snap a few photos before being urged on to make more room for other visitors to get a glimpse of the black-and-white bear as he lazily gnawed on sticks of bamboo.

Juliana gazes at an orangutan
Our daughter also loved other exhibits. She gazed adoringly at the orangutans. She eagerly pointed out the giant elephants. She giggled at how much bigger the giraffes are in person than in her picture books. She smiled as colorful birds whizzed past in the spacious aviaries, then picked up the tropical leaves that had fallen onto the walkway.

Orangutan rests between swings
She particularly enjoyed the polar bear and hippo exhibits, which allow you to look at the animals from multiple vantage points – both below the surface, through a giant aquarium-like window and above it. There's also a small play area which a hippo statue outside the hippo exhibit, which Juliana eagerly explored, popping her head from behind a tree in a game of peekaboo.

It didn't hurt that the polar bear exhibit was also surrounded by faux-ice caves for kids to play in. Juliana followed her older friends in and soon was emulating them as they popped their heads out of “holes” in the “ice.”
Juliana pops her head through the "ice" at the polar bear exhibit

Previously, every time she saw a bear in a picture book, she called it a dog. On the ride home, she was identifying them correctly, also adding words like “snake,” “rhino,” “panda” and “zebra” to her vocabulary.

I can't find much to fault about the San Diego Zoo. One slight negative, however, is that it is a bit tricky to navigate the hilly terrain with a stroller. Thankfully, the zoo has installed moving sidewalks that weave up and down along the hills, making it a breeze to climb them if planned out correctly. The Skyfari aerial tram is also helpful for seeing the polar bears. However, since we couldn't bring strollers on the aerial tram, we didn't explore much further than the zebra exhibit in that section of the park.

Families planning a trip to the zoo can save money by purchasing zoo memberships. Members are entitled not only to unlimited entrances to both the zoo and the San Diego Safari Park (formerly known as the Wild Animal Park) for a year, but they also receive a pair of “Super Discount Admission Coupons” to use on guests (which reduce the gate price to $15, making them worth $27 if used on adults or $17 for kids). They also get a subscription to the ZOONEWZ magazine and several other discounts. Through a deal available to California residents, we bought a dual membership, which covers two adults from the same household for $109 (a single membership is $88). Since my parents were also along for the trip, buying the membership was a no-brainer.

Regularly, adult tickets are $42 apiece. Children ages 3-11 are $32. Admission for younger kids is free, so when you factor in the discount passes, buying a dual membership is much less expensive if four or more adults are going together. Since four $42 tickets would cost $168 and the total cost of a dual membership plus two $15 “Super Discount Admissions” comes to a grand total of $139, it saves money from the getgo (for two adults and two kids it would actually cost $148 – making it slightly more expensive to buy the membership). And, on top of that, we can go back again for free. Additionally, parking is always free at the zoo.

However, a potentially even better deal is on the horizon: Kid's Free Days. In honor of the Zoo's founding, from Oct. 1 through 31, 2012, kids ages 3-11 will get free admission when accompanied by an adult. However, tickets to use the guided bus tour and Skyfari Aerial Tram (which are included with other ticket fees) cost extra.

Another way to save a few bucks is to bring your own food and water. Yes, the San Diego Zoo is one of the few amusement parks that actually allows you to bring your own food. And when you're pushing kiddos around in strollers, it's easy to pack meals for the whole family.

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