Saturday, April 12, 2014

Toddler Favorites: San Francisco Zoo

The San Francisco Zoo was a childhood favorite of mine, so I was delighted to visit with Toddler X for the first time last summer and discover that I enjoy it as much as a parent as I did when I was a child. And, even better, he enjoys it too!

We visited again last month, bought a family membership, and have since been back twice more, so we're quickly approaching zoo expert status. :) It seems like a great time to share this wonderful place with you!

Zoo Basics
  • Hours: Open 365 days a year (yep, you read that right!) from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. in the spring and summer, and from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. in the fall and winter.
  • Admission: Kids 3 and under are FREE! (That's part of the reason this is such a great toddler spot!) Kids 4-14 are $11 and adults are $17. The Zoo has a reciprocal arrangement with Happy Hollow and the Oakland Zoo, so if you're a member at either of those, be sure to bring your membership card for a discount on zoo admission.
  • Parking: Parking in the zoo lot costs you $8 on weekdays and $10 on weekends. However, there is free parking, with no time limit, on Sloat Boulevard, and if you get there early in the day (particularly on weekdays), the walk from the free parking spots to the entrance to the zoo is only about 1/4 mile. (Specifics: You'll probably approach the zoo on Sloat heading west, downhill toward the ocean. You'll start to see angled parking spaces in the median, and these spaces fill up from the zoo entrance upwards, so as soon as you see them filling, grab one -- you're probably not going to get much closer. Keep an eye on the street signs for the cross-streets on your right -- if you park near 44th Avenue, close to the big Happy Hound dog-shaped sign in the median, you're about 1/3 mile from the zoo's entrance pavilion. Lower numbered streets are further away.)
  • Weather: The zoo is located in the Sunset District of SF, just steps from Ocean Beach. If you know SF weather patterns, you know that the Sunset is the area most likely to be covered with fog all day long and can be quite chilly. However, on the days when the fog burns off, it can get downright warm. My big advice here: wear/pack layers! Otherwise you may be one of the many people in the gift shop purchasing zoo sweatshirts for the whole family.
  • Strollers: Rather than strollers, the zoo sticks with the wild animal theme and rents little safari-like jeep wagons that seat two kids and have some storage room. As far as I could tell, these don't have canopies for shade and aren't equipped for kids who can't sit up by themselves. They're $10 to rent, plus a security deposit. The zoo is large enough that you'll probably want some form of transportation (besides your arms) for your toddler, especially if you have 1/3 mile or more walk back to your car at the end of the day.

Now onto the fun stuff: 

Things we love about the San Francisco Zoo!
  • One thing I love about this zoo is that it offers several totally distinct experiences -- you can do something different every time you're here, and regardless of your group composition, there really is something for everyone. Two fun rides, a petting zoo, an amazing playground, lots of space to play and roam, and of course, the zoo animals all combine to make it a perfect adventure for any family.
  • The playground! My oh my, the playground! They just opened this amazing play space this fall, and it is absolutely brilliant -- the single best playground I have ever visited. There are three distinct play areas, each modeled after a different ecosystem and each designed for a specific age group. Toddlers will enjoy both the age 0-2 play area (modeled after a river/marsh area, this includes a sand box, two baby swings, a few very short slides, some climbing structures, and a "spinny-thing" that will make many adults nauseous just to watch) and the age 2-5 play area (modeled after an arctic landscape, with tunnels, slides, climbing areas and more baby swings). There is also an age 5-12 area (modeled after a forest), with cool features for the more advanced set.

    The biggest drawback of the playground is that it does get very crowded, but that's the price you pay to play at the greatest spot ever! To get there, veer to the left as you enter the zoo, then take a left at the carousel.

    Two nice pluses of the playground: the cafe located on its edge, where you can get coffee drinks, snacks, little flatbread pizzas, and even beer and wine, and the large picnic lawn located next to it.

Furry Friends at the Petting Zoo
  • The Petting Zoo. The petting zoo is located at the rear of the Children's Zoo area -- veer to your left as you enter the zoo, take a left at the carousel and your first left into the Children's Zoo, then follow the path around to your right to get to the petting zoo. (You'll pass the meerkat and prairie dog exhibit to your right, which is another toddler favorite!).

The petting zoo is replete with goats, sheep, chickens and ducks (other animals are in pens around the perimeter, but are not for petting), and is spacious and well-maintained -- definitely my favorite petting zoo of the ones we regularly visit. There are zoo docents strolling about to inform the kids, brushes for grooming the goats and sheep (and for trying to groom the ducks -- something Toddler X can attest isn't as easy as it sounds), and food for sale for $.50 a handful (inflation, I swear).

When we were there yesterday, the docent explained that a certain group of goats -- the brown ones with horns -- were juveniles and were a little bit testy (read: will head-butt you in a heartbeat), so we avoided them, but every other animal we've ever met there has been docile and sweet.

Be sure to check out the hatchery building at the rear of the yard, where eggs are in the incubator and tiny, days-old chicks are romping around. Super super cute.

There are toddler (and adult) sized sinks outside the petting zoo entrance, with soap and paper towels. While there's also hand sanitizer, I've heard from doctor friends that a good soap and water scrub is more effective, so that's what we do...and then put on sanitizer for good measure. :) 

A word of warning: there are signs telling you to hide food and squirrel-proof your stroller if you leave it in the stroller parking area outside the petting zoo gate (which I always do -- you don't want goat poop on your stroller wheels), and those signs are no joke. When we were there last summer, I returned to my stroller and actually put my hands on the handlebar before I realized that there was a squirrel sitting two inches away from me on the sunshade, munching on Toddler X's apple.

(Also in the Children's Zoo, if you continue on the path from the petting zoo: a large sand feature with a rope "spiderweb" over it, and with a circular bench around the perimeter -- a perfect place to stop for a snack.)

  • The Rides. There are only two rides at the SF Zoo, but Toddler X loves both of them, so they're definitely a plus for us. The first is the carousel, located not far from the entrance, on the way to the playground and Children's Zoo. It's $2 for every rider, but you're free if you're standing with your toddler. And you will want to stand with your toddler, as the carousel doesn't have straps on the horses and it's actually pretty fast -- definitely faster than Happy Hollow's. Note that the horses on the outer ring don't go up and down.

    The other ride is the train, called the "Little Puffer". The entrance is about halfway through the park on the left side, close to the sea lions and polar bears. The Little Puffer is $4 per person, but kids 2 and under are free. It's a fun ride, two times around a curved track that takes you past bald eagles, ostriches and other animals and through a dark tunnel. We noticed that when the weather is chilly, the steam sent out from the engine actually turns into water droplets and hits the passengers up through about the middle of the car. If it's a foggy day and you don't want to get wet at all, sit in the back. Overall, it's definitely a worthwhile ride.

  • The lion fountain: A big fountain in the middle of the zoo, right past the penguins, this is a toddler favorite. Bring some pennies for throwing and watch your toddler closely -- Toddler X almost heaved himself in on our last two visits.
  • The Food. All four times we've been, we've been really impressed with the food -- for "zoo food", it's actually pretty good. We've had hot chocolates (they give you tons of whipped cream!), scones (a little dry), and, um, "adult beverages" (they have Coors Light, Anchor Steam and Heineken, as well as a chardonnay and cab) at the playground cafe, and real food -- chicken fingers, hamburgers, garlic fries, etc. -- at the cafe next to the train station, and we've been pleased with everything. The chicken fingers, in particular, are surprisingly good, and Toddler X was delighted to find that they have dispensers for five different "dips", which he'd gladly eat on their own -- no actual food necessary. The main restaurant near the flamingos is much larger and has a wide variety -- I can't recall what I got there during my visit last summer, but I remember being happy with it.

    You are also welcome to bring food to the zoo, and there are plenty of nice areas to picnic -- the lawn by the playground probably being the best.

And last, but not least...the animals! Toddler X's interest in the animals themselves is totally unpredictable -- sometimes he'll be fascinated with a given animal, and other times he only wants to check out the souvenir penny-making machine next to the animal exhibit. The ones he's enjoyed most consistently are:

  • The monkeys. The monkeys are awesome -- everyone loves them. The central area at the monkey house has the smaller monkeys, including the ridiculously active (and loud!) squirrel monkeys and the really cool black moneys (langurs, I believe) that swing all over their jungle gyms (you can see where that term -- and the term "monkey bars" -- came from). If you can, get there for one of the monkey feedings -- we saw the langurs get fed at a recent visit, and the squirrel monkeys yesterday, and it's fun to watch them have to figure out the tricks to release the food.

    There are two levels from which you can watch the monkeys, and Toddler X prefers upstairs. From upstairs, if you take the wooden path to the left of the monkey house, you end up in the lemur forest, which is equally cool. The monkeys/lemurs are a must-see for every visit, and are pretty centrally-located and close to the entrance. (The chimps are also really cool, and are housed in another area, but they seems to be pretty lazy most of the time, offering a lot less to hold a toddler's attention.)
  • The gorillas. The gorillas get their own category because they're housed separately from the monkeys (turn to your right as you enter the zoo, and pass the giraffes to get to them), and because they're just awesome. It's amazing how human-like they can be. There is currently a baby who so totally resembles a toddler in his playful behavior and his attachment to his mom. There are three viewing areas for the gorillas, so if you're not getting a good sight-line from one, try another.
  • The bears: The zoo has two polar bears and two grizzly bears, and all are located along the left/rear of the zoo (facing in from the entrance). How much your toddler is interested will probably depend on how active the bears are at the time of your visit, and, with the grizzlies, how close they are to the viewing area. At least one of the polar bears is usually moving around, but the grizzlies are unpredictable. When we visited yesterday, they were both sleeping, but they were sleeping right up against the viewing window (which is toddler-high), just a few feet from the visitors, so that was pretty cool. We haven't been there for a grizzly feeding yet, but they have them on the schedule and I bet it's pretty cool.
  • The big cats: Like with the bears, your toddler's interest level in the big cats will probably depend on how active they are that day -- their habitats are farther from the visitors than many of the other animals, so if they're just lion around (haha, get it? "Lion around"?), they might be hard for toddlers to spot.

    If the Lion House is open, definitely stick your head in there for a much more close-up visit. They alternate which tigers are in the outdoor exhibits, so you may catch one inside, and they're a sight to behold. You also might truly luck out, as we did yesterday, and witness a tiger feeding -- they're generally fed before the zoo opens, and the feedings are not on any schedule, but one huge male refused breakfast yesterday morning and the feeder instead fed him in the afternoon while we were there. It was awesome.

  • The birds. Toddler X really likes the flamingos (they're bright, they're silly with their one-legged stance, and they're close and toddler-high for easy viewing) and the penguins (also super close for toddler-viewing, and fun to watch swim). We attended the penguin feeding once and that was fun, but no need to get there early -- there was about 5 minutes of talking/explanation before the lady started handing out the fish, and our toddlers were wiggling away with boredom before the excitement even started. And the free-roaming peacocks are awesome! You'll see them all over the zoo, often fanning out their tails in their trademark show -- they'll come within a few feet of you, and it's a delight to see!
  • The hippo, the rhinos, the anteater -- all super cool, but they get kind of buried toward the rear of the zoo, so many toddlers are approaching their breaking point by the time you get back there. If those are important to you, go there first.

  • The giraffes. The giraffes are beautiful, and are the easiest animals to see at the zoo -- in fact, you can see them from the entrance plaza before you even pay to go in. When you do go in, if you turn to your right, the giraffe/ostrich/zebra area is immediately on your right, and there are lots of viewing spots. There are multiple young giraffes right now, and they're beautiful and so much fun to watch.

  • The peccaries. I didn't even know what a peccary was until yesterday, when we discovered two tiny, 4 day old peccary babies and fell in love. They look kind of like boars or pigs, and the little ones were the cutest things imaginable. While the toddlers weren't all that enthused, us moms could've hung out there cooing over them all day long.
  • One note: the SF Zoo does not have elephants anymore. Not sure why, but if it's elephants you must see, head to Oakland instead.

Overall, my favorite thing about the San Francisco Zoo for toddlers is its accessibility. There are very few exhibits or animals that you actually have to lift your toddler up to see -- almost everything can be seen from toddler-height, and many things even from stroller-height. We visited the San Diego Zoo last spring, and I was constantly getting Toddler X in and out of his stroller -- you can imagine how pleased he was about that. Here, your toddler can stand at the window or fence of almost every exhibit and see the animals on his or her own -- a huge plus for their own sense of independence, and for their parents' tired arms.

Finally, my biggest piece of advice: Do not try to do everything in one trip. You will finish the day stressed out, with a melting down toddler. While the zoo is a manageable size -- far smaller than the San Diego Zoo, for example -- we enjoy ourselves so much more when we don't put any expectations on what we will see. One day, Toddler X and I just hit the carousel, the petting zoo, the playground and the monkeys -- that's all -- and we had a blast. On other days, we've traveled along the left-hand edge of the zoo (carousel, petting zoo, train, bears, lion fountain, penguins, home), or the right-hand side (giraffes, gorillas, big cats, rhino, hippo). Throw in the monkeys in the middle, and you have yourself a great day.

And don't worry -- everything else will be there to greet you on your next visit!

Happy toddling!

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