Having been regular visitors to the Auckland Zoo, even before the twin tornados were born, it was natural that we’d gravitate to animal activity on our first family weekend expedition – to the San Diego Zoo.San Diego Zoo Elephant Jandals and Jet Planes

I’ve seen the horrors of a concrete cage zoo, having to leave a Croatian Zoo in tears 7 years ago. So, in start contrast, it’s easy to see why the San Diego Zoo was voted #1 Zoo in the world by Trip Advisor.

Lion spray, San Diego ZooIt’s not just the impressive scale of the complex (40 hectares) or the number of animals (3,700, representing 650, often rare and endangered, species) on display, but also the way the natural environment of the Zoo has been created and just how close a visitor can get to observe these wild animals.

You sometimes forget that there is actually a barrier between them and you, and that is awe inspiring (or in the case of the Lion enclosure, a little worrying – see pic).

Here are the ten highlights of our first family visit:

How many people can say they went back to back with a Gorilla, even if it was through glass? Me, me, me!Gorilla, San Diego Zoo

This was my personal highlight of our visit. Seeing his back muscles up close – the strength, the beauty (and I’m not usually a fan of a hairy back). It truly made me appreciate the magnificence and power of these animals, and I’m looking forward to visiting their enclosure again on our next trip.Gorilla San Diego Zoo Jandals and Jet Planes

I also enjoyed meeting Otis, the Hippo, and watching him play. Well, I guess that was what he was doing … playing. When the keeper sprayed water into his pool, Otis would chase the water spout with his mouth, then trot off on a quick swim around the pool, before returning to repeat the fun.

The glass viewing windows, incorporated into many of the zoo enclosures, allowed us to watch two tigers cavorting together, while only an arms length away. The twin tornados obviously enjoyed it too. Much to the amusement of other zoo-goers, the kids joined in the fun, roaring in the faces of these two playful tigers. Brave much?Tigers, San Diego Zoo

The Northern Frontier area of the zoo is currently gearing up for December’s festivities. The kids were fascinated by the Reindeer (of course we told them they belonged to Santa), who were having a lay down, resting up for some serious sleigh pulling next month. Please tell me we aren’t the only parents who make up such entertaining stories. Mr E was also impressed by the real helicopter to play in.

Growing up, I had a life size poster on my bedroom wall of one of Auckland Zoo’s Polar Bears. There haven’t been any Polar Bears in Auckland since 1995, so being able to see one in real life again was another highlight for me. For other PB fans out there, you can even check them out on a live web camPolar Bear, San Diego Zoo

Once again the glass provided us with entertainment and discovery, this time at the Capybara enclosure. When you think of the largest rodent in the world, I immediately think of the scary ROUS (rodents of unusual size) from  the movie ‘The Princess Bride’. In fact, the Capybara (who hold the ‘largest rodent’ title) are pretty cute, with giant guinea pig features. The twin tornados wanted to take one home. Thankfully, we convinced them that there wouldn’t be room in the car.Capybara San Diego Zoo

Capybara & Tapir Enclosure
Capybara (drinking) and Tapir Enclosure

San Diego Zoo has a cable car that runs high up in the sky from one side of the park to the other. The twin tornados had been catching excited glimpses of the Skyfari all day, so we saved our ride until late afternoon, using it as a bribe for good behaviour. See, we are slowly learning all this parenting stuff. What an incredible way to view the zoo! I may have held onto the centre pole for dear life, as the kids scrambled around the seats for the best angles (under the watchful eye of the Hubby, of course), but it certainly gives perspective to the size of the zoo property, and surrounding area.Skyfari San Diego Zoo

If you build it, they will climb. And climb they did. Had we not even seen a single animal on our visit to the zoo, Mr E and Miss H would still have had an enjoyable day. There were a huge array of animal statues to climb over, interactive displays and things to play on, in, or with, scattered around the zoo grounds. And we didn’t even visit the children’s area of the zoo.

We loved (and were thankful for) the car park signage system, featuring numbers and animals. Although we left the car for over 5 hours, even the kids remembered the number ‘2’ and ‘Flamingo’ at the end of the day. This made it easy to remember where we’d parked. Top tip: if you don’t have three year old twins to remember your car park area, take a photo of the signage with your phone.San Diego Zoo Car Park Signage

As the sun began to fade around the park, we were delighted to see  a number of squirrels, darting around the paths, hoping to collect the morsels of food left behind by the crowds of daily visitors. This was very entertaining for us, as we don’t get squirrels in New Zealand. A real ‘wild’  animal encounter for the sheltered Kiwis.

The twin tornados are currently obsessed with Dora The Explorer and Go, Diego, Go. So, when we first told them we were going to visit the San Diego Zoo, all they heard was ‘Diego’s Zoo’, which made for a very entertaining day. They looked for Dora and Diego everywhere, were excited to see the jaguars (Baby Jaguar is Diego’s side kick). Even as a sleepy Miss H settled into her car seat for the drive home, she still expressed her disappointment at not physically seeing Diego. “Maybe next time, sweetheart”, as this is bound to be our family ‘inside’ joke for a while.

Note: As a marketer by trade, I find it hard to believe that Nickelodeon aren’t all over the Diego angle. It’d be a perfect partnership of advertising.

My extra highlight of the day was the people watching. It’s kind of cool to be a ‘local’ but also a tourist, at the same time. The accents, the fashion (who in their right mind wears high heels to a Zoo?), the family politics, the drama, the ‘knowing’ and ‘supportive’ looks from other parents when your child decides to misbehave or have a melt down.

Now, you know me, I always find at least something small to grumble about. On the flip side to my highlights list, there were only three little things…

I was glad to have Hubby on hand to push the twin tornados up the steep hills in our stroller. I don’t know if we’d have made it to see the Polar Bear without him.

One of the first gifts I was given in my twin pregnancy was two stuffed panda bears, which the kids now adore. They’d also seen an episode of Go, Diego, Go that morning which featured Pandas, so expectations were high. With only one sleeping Panda on display, we had to suffice with the view of a black and white fluffy bum sticking out of a tree. Better luck next time.Sleepping Panda San Diego Zoo

I was more than slightly disturbed by the sheer size and ugliness of the Condor. But then, my bird phobia also had me performing an interesting side step/dance routine around a roaming peacock. I don’t judge. If it has wings, I’m probably not going to be a fan. I just try not to let the twin tornados see my fear.  No offence to the Zoo, I still appreciated the awesome spectacle of a solid, evil looking, 1m high, flesh eating bird taking off in front of me. Thank goodness for that glass window!Condor, San Diego Zoo

With the twin toddlers in tow, we knew we wouldn’t get a chance to see everything on show, so we’ve purchased a yearly membership. We’ll definitely be back, to monkey around!Monkey treetops walk San Diego Zoo

If you have any inside tips on enjoying the San Diego Zoo please feel free to share.