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My family and I just got back from a much anticipated trip to Southern California. Our favorite sunny beach is Manhattan Beach, CA and we also love visiting Coronado, CA. We decided to combine the two in one trip and our son had also requested a day at the San Diego Zoo. Both my husband and I had been just once in our lives (prior to when we met) and with our son’s love for animals, we thought it would be a worthwhile excursion. After hunting around for the best deal on tickets to the San Diego Zoo (hint: Golden One Credit Union members get the best pricing!) it was officially on our agenda.
How would our beloved Fresno Chaffee Zoo compare to the San Diego Zoo? Would our son love it as much, or much more? Could we see it in one day? These were the questions burning in our minds prior to our visit, and my guess is, if you’re considering a trip to the San Diego Zoo with your own family, you might be wondering the same thing. I thought sharing our feelings about the two zoos might help other families gain insight into both.
On our way home to Fresno, we had a discussion on the car about our feelings regarding both Zoos and here are our summarized thoughts:
San Diego Zoo Pros:
- HUGE. Grand. 99 acres of ground to cover!
- Awesome guided tours on double-decker buses.
- Wide variety of animal groupings from different continents around the world, including Australia and Asia.
- Kangaroo buses that transport you to stops throughout the property for when your feet get tired.
- Home to 3,700 animals.
- Has animals that we do not have in Fresno including crowd favorites, koalas and pandas
- Our son and his best friend’s favorite pro: Offers the Skyfari, a suspended cable car ride over the zoo that transports visitors across the Zoo and gives you a spectacular view above the treetops of Balboa Park.
- Wide variety of food choices scattered throughout the park.
- Multiple gift shops including a separate Kids Store (which as we jokingly pointed out to our unamused son and his friend, did not sell kids).
- Lush, purposeful foliage throughout the entire property offering shade and different environments for different parts of the zoo and also providing food for animals.
- Awesome exhibits, like the replica La Brea Tar Pit that fills and drains simulated tar to reveal a model fossil skeleton.
- Photo ops (with backdrops and giant animal statues) throughout the park and photographers who will take your photo (and offer it for purchase later).
- Free Zoo parking.
San Diego Zoo Cons:
- HUGE. So much to see. Feels overwhelming to take in in one day, you really need a solid plan and good walking shoes. Sometimes there are few exhibits along wide expanses of ground, or the exhibits that are there highlight more commonplace animals or animals that can be seen in multiple places around the Zoo.
- Tickets are not cheap. $48 for adults and $38 for kids for one-day passes.
- Expense inside the Zoo – food, face painting, photographs – all of these items come at a premium price* close to Disneyland levels. (Over $50 for our family of 4 to eat lunch) (Of note, both Zoos are non-profit organizations and a portion of proceeds goes right back to conserving animals, plants or adding to the Zoo. However, if $32 for a Zoo family picture package isn’t in your budget in addition to $200 in Zoo admission, charitable or not, it’s a budget breaker.)
- In the petting zoo, only goats were available to be pet. (May change day to day of course)
Chaffee Zoo Pros:
- Large Zoo that is currently expanding from 18 acres to 39 with the addition of “Africa”.
- Lush landscaping that provides a good amount of shade, despite Fresno’s hotter summers
- Affordable admission costs. Zoo CEO Scott Barton has been known to say he believes the Zoo should be accessible to all families and less expensive than going to a movie as a family.
- Affordable, tasty food. (At least 30-40% cheaper than what I saw in San Diego, though this is also likely affected by the comparative cost of living in Fresno vs. San Diego)
- Hundreds of animals to see, with over a hundred more (including large animals like hippos!) expected in the next several months. There is no shortage of animals or variety to observe and you don’t feel like you’re seeing numerous displays of the same type of animal.
- Sea Lion Cove is an award-winning one-of-a-kind home to sea lions that is just beautiful to view.
- Enclosures and habitats are close enough to one another that you can see all of the Zoo’s animals in a day, even without a strong game plan.
- The Reptile House is indoors and air conditioned.
- Awesome interactive exhibits including the Dinosaur Dig, Stingray Bay and the petting zoo.
Chaffee Zoo Cons:
- There are no koalas or pandas, and there are some other species like them that are crowd favorites not in any current plans for Fresno to bring in.
- Fewer souvenir shops/restaurants, less variety when it comes to these two things.
- Park entrance/parking is $5.
- No guided double-decker bus tours, in-zoo transportation or skyrail system.
We went to the San Diego Zoo with the slight fear that it would make our local Fresno Chaffee Zoo feel lackluster in comparison, however, we pleasantly discovered that in fact, our trip to the San Diego Zoo made us appreciate the Chaffee Zoo even more. It became apparent to our entire family that the Chaffee Zoo isn’t just a great zoo for Fresnans, it’s a great zoo by world standards and its exhibits stack up very well in comparison to the world famous San Diego Zoo. As far as convenience, the Chaffee Zoo’s location (for us locals at least!), affordable admission and refreshments, and wide variety of animals make it an absolute gem that we are incredibly lucky to have right here in the Central Valley.
Should you visit the San Diego Zoo if you get the chance? Absolutely! (And you should plan for two days in the Zoo if you can and want to see everything.) It’s a wonderful zoo with much to offer and explore and everyone should get to see an adorable snoozing koala once in their lifetime.