It’s almost October: that magical time of year in Southern California when the tourist high season has finally died down and the weather is at the peak of pleasant. It’s the perfect opportunity to pack up some sandwiches, gather up the youngsters, hop in the car, and head out from the Los Angeles area on a weekend road trip of reasonable distance … somewhere not too near, but not so far that you’ll start hearing the plaintive cries of “Are we there yet?!” from the back seat.
Allow us to suggest you chart a course to San Diego. With the kids in tow and family-friendly activities in mind, it might just be the perfect destination this time of year.
Why? Because the world-famous San Diego Zoo and its must-see Escondido-located wildlife sanctuary, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, are both open to adult-accompanied children 11 and under for free all month long during Kids Free October, when young visitors are invited to, simply put, “Go Wild.” The promotion is presented by long-standing local financial institution Mission Fed.
To complement the free admission, both the zoo and Safari Park have designed complimentary on-grounds, kid-focused programming on Saturdays and Sundays throughout October. This includes up-close-and-personal encounters with “animal ambassadors” — some of the planet’s most fascinating fauna — and limited-time exhibits, fall-themed special events and many interactive activities and experiences to help your young ones connect with wildlife and nature in exciting and fun ways.
A refuge for both the familiar and the fantastic
The San Diego Zoo, located at 2920 Zoo Drive in San Diego, is a city institution. An exotic oasis located just north of downtown in Balboa Park, it has long been one of the biggest tourist draws in “America’s Finest City,” and it’s a true treat for kids of all ages.
This zoo is an expansive 100-acre natural wonderland plopped down smack-dab in the middle of the urban locale. It features a botanical collection boasting more than 700,000 exotic plants and is populated with such beloved zoological mainstays as elephants, orangutans and giraffes, plus many more animals.
A trip to the San Diego Zoo is sure to beguile your kids — and take you back to your own youthful, magical encounters at whatever zoo you first visited when you were a wide-eyed whippersnapper. But this zoo is more than a traditional zoo; with its mission to help bring back species from the brink of extinction, it is, first and foremost, a nonprofit wildlife conservancy.
That means it’s home to not just the aforementioned hallmark animals but also to some very special rare and endangered wildlife that you and your kids aren’t likely to encounter anywhere else, from the African penguin and the bald eagle to the red panda and the giant panda (which the zoo is famous for successfully breeding), and many more.
This trip will be an educational one, too, as the San Diego Zoo emphasizes teaching kids how they can help animals through conservation.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park: Where fun happens
On your way back to L.A., a litany of fun activities and a menagerie of even more rare and fantastic fauna are waiting at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, located at 15500 San Pasqual Valley Road in Escondido (about 35 miles north of the zoo).
You could easily spend a whole day or two just exploring this massive park, and the kids can really stretch out and run off some energy. Safari Park is a wilder and more expansive environment than the San Diego Zoo, featuring zip-lining, play areas, overnight camping, an Africa-themed tram ride, eight different safari experiences, and much more.
But at heart, the park is a wildlife sanctuary. With its focus on African and Asian animals, it’s possibly the closest thing California has to the savannas of the Serengeti or the outback of the Land Down Under. Rhinoceroses, tigers, cheetahs and zebra are some of the 300 species that make up Safari Park’s rich zoological tapestry. The kids are sure to love their no-barrier interaction with kangaroos and wallabies in the new Walkabout Australia exhibit.
Perhaps the best part about Safari Park? With all of the excitement on offer, you can rest assured the kids will be properly conked out — and quiet — for the duration of the drive home.
The San Diego Zoo is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, and Safari Park is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. All children must be accompanied by a paid adult during their visits. More information about Kids Free October is available here.
—Alex Weber for San Diego Zoo