What’s the Best San Diego Zoo Tour? Prices Chart & Reviews


How do you pick the best San Diego Zoo tour? After the quick summary below, check the comparison chart for prices, tour durations, and age limits. Tour reviews and refund policies will make your decision easy.

Inside Look tours ($89+) are the best San Diego Zoo tours because they’re moderately priced with many options. But the free guided bus tour’s the most popular. The ultimate is the fully customizable 5-hour Exclusive VIP Experience ($675). All tours require a separate paid zoo admission for each person.

If you make purchases through the links in this post, I may be compensated. Read my Advertising Disclosure for more info. Thanks! ~ Nancy

Save with a secret San Diego Zoo promo code on each 1-Day Pass. Go any day. Go straight to the gate. Click HERE to get your code, instructions & discounted tickets by email.

*By clicking the link above you agree to receive an automated email message. Valid only at aRes Travel, San Diego’s local authorized ticket seller. Read my full privacy policy.

I have a San Diego Zoo tour confession…I’ve only been on two of them. But I want to see more. I’m also a careful shopper. So I asked 39 people returning from tours what they thought about their special experiences.

Woman trying to decide on the best San Diego Zoo tour. Surrounded by animal and cart chalk line drawings.

People Think That San Diego Zoo Tours Are Worth It

In my conversations with 39 tour attendees, I didn’t run into anyone who felt disappointed with their excursion. I was not able to talk with anyone who took the VIP Experience.

Eight wanted their excursions to be longer, but those were spread out between the 60 and 90-minute tours. It seemed to me that they were having a good time and just didn’t want their tours to end. I and my husband would have stayed with our guides all day if given the chance.

The cart tours are usually not crowded. We’ve been going to the zoo for years and have observed hundreds of carts loading and unloading on Front Street. Most have 6 to 9 people on a vehicle that could hold a maximum of 13. The larger vehicles have 4 rows of seats plus one next to the driver. Their padded benches easily seat two adults plus a child or an adult plus two kids.

I also talked to many zoo guides. Read on to find out what people think about each tour.

NOTE: I’ve been on more tours at Safari Park. Discover which ones are best HERE.

SAN DIEGO ZOO TOURS COMPAREDPriceDuration
SAN DIEGO ZOO GUIDED BUS TOUR – all ages welcome
FREE30 minutes
INSIDE LOOK TOURS – all ages welcome
– Surprise Tour $89+ (special peak discounts)90 minutes
– Giraffes & Friends $89+ (peak days discounts)90 minutes
– Polar Bears & Friends $89+ (peak days discounts)90 minutes
– Baboons & Friends $89+ (discount tickets)90 minutes
– Wild Canines & Friends $89+ (discount tickets)90 minutes
– Penguins & Friends $89+ (discount tickets)90 minutes
ANIMALS IN ACTION EXPERIENCE – ages 5+
$89+ (ticket deals)1 hour
CRAZY ABOUT CATS – ages 5+
$92+90 minutes
DISCOVERY CART TOUR – ages 5+
$55+1 hour
EARLY MORNING CHEETAH EXPERIENCE – ages 5+
$55+90 minutes
EARLY MORNING EXPLORERS – all ages welcome
$39+1 hour
EXCLUSIVE VIP EXPERIENCE – all ages welcome
$675+5 hours

Prices are given as a range because the San Diego Zoo charges extra for tours on peak days. Prices and availability can change without notice.

  • Least Expensive: non-holiday Mondays and Tuesdays thru Thursdays
  • Mid-priced: most Fridays
  • Peak prices: Some Fridays. Usually Saturdays, Sundays, and 3-day holidays (best time for aRes discount zoo tour deals)

You’ll need to purchase zoo admission in addition to your tour ticket. Take advantage of the best admission discount from aRes Travel, the San Diego-based authorized ticket seller. Click on the koala’s furry face below!

Photo of koala saying" Click on my cute furry face for Surprise Savings on 1-Day San Diego Zoo and Safari Park tickets. You'll be sent a one-time email with a promo code and a secret link for your discount online purchase."

Since San Diego Zoo’s so large it’s easy to get overwhelmed by your choices, here’s what you don’t want to miss . That’s a page that I wrote that covers the must-see exhibits and attractions. And if you’re wondering where to eat I’ve also written an article on where’s the zoo’s best food.

San Diego Zoo Guided Bus Tour

The San Diego Zoo Guided Bus Tour is free with admission. In this 30-minute tour, you’ll see about 70% of the park. Also, tour bus guides love to talk about recent zoo baby births and additions to the collection. Taking this tour helps you plan which exhibits you may want to return to later. 

San Diego Zoo guided bus tour double deck bus.
  • Duration: 30 minutes
  • Price: FREE. No extra fee in addition to your paid zoo admission.
  • Age restrictions: All ages are welcome. But toddlers must be held in a responsible adult’s lap. Baby strollers are not allowed on the bus. Park them in the pram lot at the bus tour entrance. 

San Diego Zoo Guided Bus Tour Highlights: We’ve been on this tour many times. That’s because there’s always something new to see. It also has the best views of the tigers and hippos. Sit on the upper deck for the best vantage points. Warning: there’s no shade there and it can get hot. I’ve written more tips on how to get the most out of the guided bus tour HERE.

Inside Look Tours

  • Duration: 90 minutes
  • Price: $89 – 105 per person. Admission is separate for each person and required.
  • Age restrictions: All ages are welcome. Maximum of two children per adult; children 15 years old and younger must be accompanied by a paid adult.
  • Deals: Check HERE for discounted Inside Look tours for SanDiegoing readers from aRes Travel — San Diego’s local authorized ticket source.
  • Click HERE to get a discount code for 1-day Zoo passes, instructions & discounted tickets by email.

There are 6 different types of Inside Look Special Experiences at the San Diego Zoo focusing on various specific animals. They’re all an hour and a half long. In each, you’ll ride in a motorized open cart for a behind-the-scenes peek at the zoo. It’s a relaxing way to learn more about your favorite animals, discover new ones and get your questions answered by your private guide/driver.

Each Inside Look tour is entertaining, but also an educational experience. You’ll learn about how different species are cared for at the zoo. Your guide is full of stories about different species’ adaptations and the weird quirks of some of the zoo’s residents. 

Feeding okapi on the Inside Look Surprise Tour at San Diego Zoo.

Surprise! – The Most Popular Inside Look Tour

What you’ll see on the Surprise special experience at the San Diego Zoo is…a surprise. No two tours are alike. Your guide/driver will direct your cart to two special close-up experiences with wildlife. You’ll go into areas not available to the general public. This tour’s best if you don’t have a favorite animal to see or you’ve been to this zoo before. 

There are usually at least 3 of these tours a day during the peak summer season. That makes it easy to fit into your schedule.

Early morning Surprise tours start at 8:30 AM. This excursion is often the best way to see crepuscular animals like cats and bears before they fall asleep for the day. 

  • Want to pay less? Check for Surprise! Inside Look tours discounts for SanDiegoing readers from aRes Travel — San Diego’s local authorized ticket source. Pick the number of tickets you want and a calendar will drop down. Click on the day that you’re going and that day’s tours will be revealed.
  • Click HERE to get a discount code for 1-day Zoo passes, instructions & discounted tickets by email.

Giraffes & Friends – What to Expect on this Inside Look Tour

The Giraffes & Friends Inside Look cart tour at the San Diego Zoo brings you within touching distance of these gentle savannah giants. You may get an opportunity to feed one. You’ll learn how the zoo keeps them healthy and happy and how you can help them thrive in the wild. Your guide/driver will also take you for several other close-up wildlife photo opportunities.

Feeding giraffes at Giraffes & Friends Inside Look Tour at San Diego Zoo.

Giraffe Tour Highlights: Kids love seeing ENORMOUS (4-foot long) heads close-up. You’ll get fabulously memorable photos.

Get giraffe tongue slobber on your hands! Not guaranteed, but a definite possibility. Yes, their saliva’s a thick mess. But it makes it possible for them to eat thorny acacia, their favorite food, without hurting their mouths. Don’t worry about the thorns. You’ll be feeding them lettuce or special recipe giraffe biscuits.

  • Want to pay less? Check for Giraffes & Friends Inside Look tours discounts for SanDiegoing readers from aRes Travel — San Diego’s local authorized ticket source. Pick the number of tickets you want and a calendar will drop down. Click on the day that you’re going and that day’s tours will be revealed.
  • Click HERE to get a discount code for 1-day Zoo passes, instructions & discounted tickets by email.

Polar Bears & Friends – What’s Best In This Inside Look tour

The Polar Bears & Friends Inside Look Tour at the San Diego Zoo is a 90-minute guided cart excursion focusing on one of the most popular exhibits at this zoo. It’s an early morning tour so that you can see them explore and find hidden treats before it gets too hot for them to ‘bear’ it and they all go to sleep. You’ll also see several other creatures on the way to and from the polar bear habitat.

People on this tour enjoyed hearing about how the zoo keeps these arctic clowns happy and healthy during San Diego hot spells. And how the bears love carrots but don’t get any calories from them. But the veggies make their teeth shine! And why these bears are not really white? Save that question for the tour, or you can cheat and get the answer here.

Two polar bears at the Polar bears & Friends Inside Look Tour in the San Diego Zoo.

Polar Bear Tour Highlights: Diving polar bears! They love jumping off the rocks to chase carrots and other snacks. They might look slow and lumbering on land (although they can run 30 mph), but in the water they’re sleek and ballerina graceful. 

  • Find Polar Bears & Friends Inside Look tours discounts for SanDiegoing readers from aRes Travel — San Diego’s local authorized ticket source. Pick the number of tickets you want and a calendar will drop down. Click on the day that you’re going and that day’s tours will be revealed.
  • Click HERE to get a discount code for 1-day Zoo passes, instructions & discounted tickets by email.

Baboons & Friends – Inside Look Tour Monkey Madness

The Baboon & Friends Inside Look Tour at the San Diego Zoo is a 90-minute afternoon cart tour featuring the hamadryas baboon troop. This tour is usually offered from September thru May. You’ll be meeting a wildlife care specialist who’ll give you inside tips to understand what’s going on in the baboons’ complex social lives. You’ll also get to see some other critters up close as you journey to and from the baboons. 

Hamadryas baboon at San Diego Zoo. Screenshot from their YouTube video https://youtu.be/oh-bM1GJI60
Hamadryas baboon at San Diego Zoo. Screenshot from their YouTube video

Baboon Tour Highlights: People love monkeys. And Hamadryas baboon babies and youngsters are the cutest! And they’re always playing. Tour attendees said that the special viewing area in the back of the baboon exhibit gives a better perspective than the general public has from the sidewalks.

  • Discounted Baboons & Friends Inside Look tours for SanDiegoing readers from aRes Travel — San Diego’s local authorized ticket source. Pick the number of tickets you want and a calendar will drop down. Click on the day that you’re going and that day’s tours will be revealed.
  • Click HERE to get a discount code for 1-day Zoo passes, instructions & discounted tickets by email.

Wild Canines & Friends – Inside Look Tour for Dog Lovers

The Wild Canines & Friends Inside Look Tour at San Diego Zoo is fabulous if you fancy foxes or go wild for wolves. It’s 90 minutes long and is available in the early afternoons in the fall, winter, and spring months (click HERE to read about year-round wolf tours in Julian, CA). 

Your cart driver/guide will take you throughout the zoo where you’ll see wild canines of all kinds like maned or gray wolves, singing dogs, or fennec foxes. However, there are no guarantees on which ones you’ll see. 

Wolf howling at San Diego Zoo. Screenshot from YouTube video by azhennac. https://youtu.be/2ayOA63bdiY
Wolf howling at San Diego Zoo. Screenshot from YouTube video by azhennac.

Wild Canine Tour Highlights: You may get to meet “Shadow,” a male gray wolf who is an animal ambassador. He’s got such long legs! Or maybe seeing one of the big-eared, but incredibly cute fennec foxes up-close. 

  • Check out the discounts for Wild Canines & Friends Inside Look tours for SanDiegoing readers from aRes Travel — San Diego’s local authorized ticket source. Pick the number of tickets you want and a calendar will drop down. Click on the day that you’re going and that day’s tours will be revealed.
  • Click HERE to get a discount code for 1-day Zoo passes, instructions & discounted tickets by email.

Penguins & Friends – If It’s Available, Take This Tour

The Penguins & Friends Inside Look Tour at the San Diego Zoo is rarely offered. So if you see it on the calendar, schedule it immediately! This guided cart tour’s 90 minutes long. It takes you for a private back-stage look at the Prebys African Penguin beach and nesting areas. You’ll also see other critters on the way to and from the main attraction. 

Swimming African penguin. Penguins & Friends Inside Look Tour at the San Diego Zoo.

Penguin Tour Highlights: Tour guides said that penguins catching fish thrown by their wildlife care specialists is always popular with the kids. These birds may look slow and clumsy on land, but when there’s fish involved they are very spry. 

  • Check for discounts on Penguins & Friends Inside Look tours for SanDiegoing readers from aRes Travel — San Diego’s local authorized ticket source. Pick the number of tickets you want and a calendar will drop down. Click on the day that you’re going and that day’s tours will be revealed.
  • Click HERE to get a discount code for 1-day Zoo passes, instructions & discounted tickets by email.

Animals in Action Experience

  • Duration: 1 hour
  • Price: $89 – 105 per person. Admission is separate for each person and required.
  • Age restrictions: Children ages 5 – 15. Maximum 2 children per paid adult.
  • Deals: Check for discounted Animals in Action tours for SanDiegoing readers from aRes Travel — San Diego’s local authorized ticket source. Pick the number of tickets you want and a calendar will drop down. Click on the day that you’re going and that day’s tours will be revealed.
  • Click HERE to get a discount code for 1-day Zoo passes, instructions & discounted tickets by email.
Clouded leopard jumping in the Animals in Action tour at San Diego Zoo. Screenshot from their video https://youtu.be/NmVJfoV4Nxs
Clouded leopard jumping in the Animals in Action tour at San Diego Zoo. Screenshot from their video

The Animals in Action tour at the San Diego Zoo takes place in the Urban Jungle in the afternoons. You’ll get behind-the-scenes looks at some of the zoo’s animal ambassadors. You may also get a chance to feed or interact with them. There’s little or no walking on this tour. It takes place in a stage setting with audience seating.

Animals in Action Tour Highlights: People commenting on this tour talked to me about how close they got to the clouded leopard and the great photos they got. What you’ll see on this tour is dependent upon which animals are available. Guides tell me that sometimes you can feed rhinos on this tour (click this link for another rhino snacking opportunity). But the clouded leopards are frequent guests. And sloths have been known to put in a slow-motion appearance too.

Crazy About Cats

  • Duration: 90 minutes
  • Price: $92 – 104 per person. Admission is separate for each person and required.
  • Age restrictions: Children 5+. Maximum 3 children per adult. Kids 15 and younger must be accompanied by a paid adult.
  • Tickets: Available at the zoo’s website
  • Click HERE to get a discount code for 1-day Zoo passes, instructions & discounted tickets by email.

The early morning Crazy About Cats tour takes you by cart and feet to visit some of the San Diego Zoo’s finest felines. This special guided experience begins at 8:30 AM, which allows you to see the cats before they start their naps. You’ll also meet one special cat ambassador up close. 

Roaring lion on the Crazy About Cats Inside Look Tour at San Diego Zoo. Photo by Bob Ulrich.
Great view of roaring lion from Crazy About Cats tour cart at San Diego Zoo. Photo by Bob Ulrich.

You’ll be taken into areas not usually available to the public. There are no guarantees about which cats you’ll see. Hey, they’re cats, they do what they like. But jaguar, lion, tiger, mountain lion, fishing cat, leopard, ocelot, serval, or cheetahs are all possibilities. 

Wear comfortable shoes. You’ll be walking a bit. And there are some stairs to navigate.

Crazy About Cats Tour Highlights: 

This is one of the tours that my husband and I have taken. We got lucky and they brought out a cheetah as the climax of our tour.

The spotted sprinter was brought to us in the Wedgeworth Bowl with her dog companion. We were sitting about 3 feet behind the fence in the photo above. So we were about 6 feet from the cheetah and got some great shots.

The long-legged feline beauty spent almost half an hour snacking, exploring the stage and water feature while purring constantly. It was gratifying to see that she was so happy.

Discovery Cart Tour

  • Duration: 60 minutes
  • Price: $55 – 65 per person. Admission is separate for each person and required.
  • Age restrictions: All ages are welcome. A maximum of 2 children per paid adult. Children younger than age 15 must be accompanied by a paid adult. Ages 0-2 are free and do not require a ticket, but must sit on an adult’s lap. No more than 2 infants ages 0-2 are permitted per ticket, per cart
  • Tickets: Available at the zoo’s website
  • Click HERE to get a discount code for 1-day Zoo passes, instructions & discounted tickets by email.

The 60-minute Discovery Cart Tour is the least expensive guided cart experience at the San Diego Zoo. It covers not only the animals but also the park’s extensive plant collection. It’s the best option for families with younger, fidgety kids. That’s because it’s cheaper, and allows you to see much more of the zoo in a shorter period of time. 

Questions are encouraged. And if you see a favorite animal (or eye-catching plant), you can hop off to take photos. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees about which species you’ll be able to see. 

Discovery Cart Tour Highlights: These experiences vary depending upon what animals are active and where you choose to stop and take photos. But people getting off this tour have shown me terrific photos of the jaguars and lions taken from the back of the exhibits where the general public is not allowed to go.

Spanish language-only tours are available too. Call 619-718-3000

Early Morning Cheetah Experience

  • Duration: 90 minutes
  • Price: $97 – 104 per person. Admission is separate for each person and required.
  • Age restrictions: Ages 5 and older. Ages 5-15 must be accompanied by a paid adult. Maximum of 2 children per adult.
  • Tickets: Available at the zoo’s website
  • Click HERE to get a discount code for 1-day Zoo passes, instructions & discounted tickets by email.

The Early Morning Cheetah Experience at the San Diego Zoo is a  90-minute cart tour where you’ll get a chance to see cheetahs running, playing, and interacting with their handlers and dog buddies. You’ll also visit many of the zoo’s other African exhibits. It’s a fun way to learn about how their animals are cared for and the organization’s conservation initiatives. 

The cheetah tour starts at 8:30 AM. It’s only available on Fridays and Saturdays. 

Cheetah close-up at the Early Morning Cheetah Experience tour at the San Diego Zoo.
Cute cheetah with her tongue hanging out at Early Morning Cheetah Experience. Photo by Bob Ulrich.

Cheetah Tour Highlights: The people I talked to who took this tour loved hearing the cheetah purr. the kids said that it was loud. Parents were surprised by the agility of a cheetah chasing after its ‘prey’ (a tossed stuffed animal).

Early Morning Explorers

  • Duration: 60 minutes
  • Price: $39 – 49 per person. Admission is separate for each person and required. There is no charge for children less than 2 years old.
  • Age restrictions: Recommended for children ages 3 – 12. Maximum of 2 children per adult;  kids under 15 must be accompanied by a paid adult
  • Tickets: Available at the zoo’s website
  • Click HERE to get a discount code for 1-day Zoo passes, instructions & discounted tickets by email.

The Early Morning Explorers experience at the San Diego Zoo allows you and your kids to discover Wildlife Explorers Basecamp before the zoo opens. Enjoy family-friendly guided activities and have exclusive access to the new exhibits and playgrounds. This is a wonderful opportunity for special needs kids.

Early Morning Explorers Experience on rope bridge in Wildlife Explorers Basecamp at San Diego Zoo
Rope bridge in Wildlife Explorers Basecamp at San Diego Zoo

This event usually takes place only on the first two Saturdays of the month. 

Tour Highlights: People liked that the entire Wildlife Explorers Basecamp was almost empty of people. They didn’t have to worry that some big kid was going to accidentally knock over their little toddler. One parent said that her little girl finally had the confidence to walk the rope bridge because she wasn’t scared by other kids swinging it. 

Exclusive VIP Experience

  • Duration: 5 hours
  • Age restrictions: All ages are welcome. Ages 15 and younger must be accompanied by a paid adult.
  • Price: $675+ per person. Admission is separate for each person and required. Call 619-718-3000 to arrange and customize your tour
  • Click HERE to get a discount code for 1-day Zoo passes, instructions & discounted tickets by email.
Exclusive VIP Experience San Diego Zoo name tag with cheetah, giraffe and koala. Photo collage.

The Exclusive VIP Experience is the very best San Diego Zoo tour because you create your own 5-hour San Diego Zoo adventure with your own personal tour guide. Get out your must-see bucket list and start checking off your animal wishes. 

Tour Tip: Zoo tour guides have told me to ask if there are new zoo babies you can see when you book this experience. Often VIP Experience participants are permitted to see and sometimes interact with animals that are not on exhibit to the general public yet. For instance, when Xena the sloth gave birth in 2022, the only zoo visitors allowed to get close to mom and baby were VIP participants. 

Change and Cancellation Policies For San Diego Zoo Tours

If you need to make changes to any tour arrangements at the zoo, check the instructions on your email ticket confirmation. You can also look at the Special Experiences page on the zoo’s website for each tour. I’ve summarized the policies below:

Tour Changes

  • 5 or more days before reservation – changes allowed but a $15 Administrative Change Fee will be charged.
  • Less than 5 days before reservation – changes not permitted

Cancellations

  • 5 or more days before reservation – changes allowed but a $25 Cancellation Fee will be charged.
  • Less than 5 days before reservation – payment not refundable.
  • The tours are outdoor events. The zoo reserves the right to cancel or change the program due to weather, animal welfare, and guest safety concerns. If any event is canceled, the zoo will try to reschedule you for a future time. 
Bob and Nancy Ulrich after their Crazy About Cats tour at the San Diego Zoo.
Bob and I after the Crazy About Cats tour.

San Diego Zoo Best Tours Closing Thoughts

I hope that between my San Diego Zoo tours chart and the detailed explanations of each option, you’ve found your ideal special experience. If you have further questions or want to tell me about your experiences, you can find my contact information HERE. Now go and enjoy the best ever San Diego Zoo tour!

Nancy Ulrich

I'm nuts...about animals, polymer clay, mixed media art & husband Bob. Happily planted in San Diego among good friends, family that I would have chosen if given the choice and optimism for a bountiful future for us all.

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