Private Tours of the San Diego Zoo

Keeping Distance at the Zoo? It’s Possible!

aerial view of the San Diego Zoo in California USA

By Sherri Telenko

I grew up hearing about the San Diego Zoo on television and watching zoo experts parade interesting species across talk show stages. “World Renowned” were words usually proceeding mention of the zoo, and I visualized it just that: worlds’ away. From my living room in Ontario, Canada, California seemed a galaxy away–until I started travelling.

As an adult, I like going to zoos: well-landscaped, ethical zoos with conservation and education at the forefront. Yes, I know it’s controversial, but first-hand exposure to world wildlife might lead to the appreciation needed to protect it.

And yes, for some reason zoo visits are classic family affairs, and you’ll likely have to sidestep some screaming meltdowns–these days, just another great reason to social distance.

elephant at the San Diego Zoo in California USA

Want to be sure to keep your distance from others? The San Diego Zoo has a solution: private tours. That’s right! You can book one of three tram tours and ride around the 40-hectare park that’s home to more than 3,500 rare and endangered animals. Highlights include the African Rock exhibit and extensive elephant enclosures full of enhancement activities that can be viewed from overhead walkways, if you’re on the Discovery Tour.

Private tours come with a price tag. First, you’ll have to purchase a regular admission to the zoo (which obviously allows you to walk around on your own), then select your tour. The basic VIP tour is a 60-minute, $318 guided tour in your own shuttle for up to 6 people from the same household. This ‘Discovery Tour’ includes parts of the zoo (like the overhead walkways in the elephant enclosure) not accessible on the regular guided bus tour. Questions are easily answered.

Love cats? Of course, you do. The two-hour $525 Wild Cat Tour takes groups of six or fewer from the same household by foot and cart on an early morning adventure involving feeding and a close-up encounter with one of the most iconic creates at the zoo: big wild cats like lions, tigers, and leopards. (Which cats are featured does vary per tour.) Imagine the Instagram-able moments.

It’s possible to view the zoo like a celebrity: The Exclusive VIP Experience takes you on a customizable, five-hour private tram tour tailored to your interests. Select the critters in the zoo you really want to learn about, enjoy the lunch that’s included, and get a lot of personalized attention. True to name, the VIP Experience comes with a VIP price tag: $675 per person and requires at least 72-hour notice.

black and white penguins on gravel at the San Diego Zoo in California USA

Whether or not you go the private tour route, there are some zoo highlights worth weaving through crowds to see. The African Rocks exhibit is one of the newest; it’s filled with penguins, which are guaranteed amusement. The dapper black and white birds frolic with each other over rock faces and swim with harmless Leopard Sharks in a deep, windowed aquarium.

Speaking of captivating, watching the troop of baboons (originally housed within concrete walls of a German zoo) enjoying a new more natural home is mesmerizing. Complex social hierarchies unfold among trees and rocky hills as mischievous baby baboons scurry between adults engaging in ‘enhancement’ activities.

monkey in a tree at the San Diego Zoo in California USA

Like any zoo that’s about giving the animals expansive enclosures, the park is big. An aerial tram with an escalator connecting two continents and a Kangaroo Express bus winding through the exhibits provide some short-cuts. Remember, there’s always the private tour, which might be the best value after all. Certainly, it’s the safest during the coronavirus pandemic.

The San Diego Zoo is a major feature of Balboa Park, which is likely a mandatory stop for first-time San Diego visitors. It has a weird history considering is was supposed to be temporary. First built for the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition commemorating the opening of the Panama Canal, Balboa Park was later used as the site of the 1935-36 California-Pacific International Exposition. Thanks to the ornate Spanish-Renaissance buildings created for the original expo, this site evolved into a popular visitor destination. Replica permanent structures gradually replaced temporary ones then filled with museums and cafes surrounded by walkways and public gardens.

Balboa Park is so large is has its own pass valid for seven days that gets you into five of the 17 museums (yes, 17) including The San Diego Museum of Art, intermingled with eight themed gardens, include the Japanese Friendship Gardens, and yes, the San Diego Zoo.

– Photos courtesy Sherri Telenko

Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.

Sherri TelenkoSherri Telenko is a freelance writer who spent years travelling with the perfect road-trip companion: her dog Victor at

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