Santa Barbara Zoo: Top Things To Do with Kids for a Great Visit

Feeding a giraffe is not your every day zoo experience.
Feeding a giraffe is not your every day zoo experience.
7/24/23 - By Gina Ragland

The Santa Barbara Zoo will entertain kids of all ages with captivating attractions and unforgettable animal encounters. It’s also a picturesque outing not far from the waterfront. It’s so close to the waterfront that you can see the sandy shore and ocean when visiting the giraffes. 

My family and I recently went to this beloved “zoo with a view” for the first time, and we found it spectacular. It’s considered a smaller zoo, yet brims with extraordinary animal sightings. I loved that I didn’t have to walk miles between exhibits. They were close to one another, making it simple and pleasant to stroll around with a small child. Keep reading below for the not-to-miss sights and tips for the Santa Barbara Zoo. 

While in Santa Barbara, explore the best things to do in Santa Barbara with kids. If more zoos are in your future, discover the secrets of the LA Zoo, and our guide to Zoos and Gardens for Los Angeles Kids.


Amazing Attractions at the Santa Barbara Zoo

Santa Barbara zoo: giraffes and ocean views
Even the giraffes seem to be enjoying the ocean view at the zoo. 

Giraffe Feeding 

My favorite experience at the Santa Barbara Zoo was hand-feeding a Masai giraffe. What a memory! The zoo staff provides detailed instructions and sets out the food for the feedings. Then it’s up to you to feed the giraffes and snap those memorable photo-ops. 

Giraffe feedings take place at specific times throughout the day. It’s best to check the exact times at the giraffe deck. Be in the line at the deck right when the feedings are about to take place. This will best ensure you’ll get a chance at this unique encounter. It’s $8 per person for non-zoo member giraffe feedings, and payment is accepted on the spot while waiting in line.

Zoo Train 

After all the exciting animal encounters, climb aboard the adorable ten-minute train ride that circles the zoo. Kiddos will learn facts about the animals who call the Santa Barbara Zoo home and chug past some behind-the-scenes glimpses at select exhibits. 

Strollers are not allowed on the train and have to be parked across from the depot. The train depot is next to the children’s play area, making it easy to combine the two activities. Train tickets range from $5 to $7.

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Santa Barbara Zoo: Kallman Family Play Area
Surf or slide down an ant hill. Photo courtesy of Santa Barbara Zoo Facebook page

Kallman Family Play Area 

This interactive outdoor play area invites kids to play between stunning trees in the Santa Barbara Zoo. You'll find it across from the zoo train. Children will be engrossed as they slide down an ant hill, climb across a gigantic spider web rope ladder, and play hide and seek in dinosaur eggs. 

Picnic tables are nearby, as is The Buzz, a dining option, and a souvenir shop. The play area is a must-stop for any kid visiting the Santa Barbara Zoo and will provide parents with a nice rest for those walking feet. 

California Trails 

You’ll likely spend far longer than you might think in front of the darling Channel Island foxes at this exhibit, or at least this is what happened to our family. 

The California Trails exhibit showcases threatened and endangered native California animals and plants. The California condors have a commanding presence on the trail. You’ll see bald eagles and desert tortoises too. A souvenir store, barnyard, and mining camp are nearby as well.

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Santa Barbara Zoo: Australian Walkabout
The closest you might be able to get to kangaroos without actually being in Australia. 

Australian Walkabout 

Flights to Australia were definitely top of mind after walking through this wonderful exhibit. The Australian Walkabout allows you to get as close to kangaroos and wallabies as you possibly can without traveling “Down Under.” No fences separate you from these animals as you walk through, and momentarily share their environment. It was pretty surreal to have kangaroos hopping right in front of us. 

Strollers are not allowed in the Australian Walkabout, but there’s stroller parking right at the entrance of the exhibit.

Live Stage Shows 

I visited the Santa Barbara Zoo on a weekday, so I didn’t get to catch a performance, but if you plan to visit on a weekend, the zoo has live stage shows that feature dinosaurs and turtles. Audience participation might even be encouraged. The live stage shows occur on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 11:30am and 2pm.

Discovery Pavilion 

While there are no animals inside the Discovery Pavilion, there are other interesting things to explore. Get a peak at the animal kitchen, where you can see food prepared for the zoo animals. There's also rotating exhibits in the Volentine Family Gallery. 

The Discovery Pavilion is free to go inside with admission. Restrooms are available here, among many other places throughout the zoo. 

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Santa Barbara Zoo: The Humboldt Penguins
The Humboldt Penguins entertain above and below the water. 

The Animals 

Before my family visited the Santa Barbara Zoo, my husband made it a point to mention that whenever he visited zoos, the big animals were never out in their habitats to see. Boy, did the Santa Barbara Zoo prove him wrong! While it seems obvious to mention the animals, I have to acknowledge just how incredibly active the animals at this zoo were, which really elevated our experience. 

In addition to the animal encounters above, seeing the Western Lowland Gorillas during a feeding was another memorable moment. The Humboldt Penguins were entertaining as they swam underwater, right next to the glass, and an Amur Leopard was actively pacing around its habitat. These were just a few of the many stand-out zoo moments we enjoyed. 

Eating and Restaurants at the Santa Barbara Zoo

Ridley-Tree House Restaurant 

This restaurant probably has the most food selections from the zoo dining options, serving sandwiches, burgers, salads, and other options. The restaurant is located in the courtyard near the zoo entrance and is open daily. 

The Wave 

If you’re craving something different than a burger or sandwich, The Wave has tacos, quesadillas, and kid-friendly meals. Treat the kids to ice cream or light snacks while overlooking the ocean and mountains from atop this hilltop eatery. The Wave is open Wednesday through Sunday.

The Buzz 

If a play area, train, and souvenir shop weren’t enticing enough for a kid in one location, there’s also a restaurant called The Buzz in the Kallman Family Play Area. Though with smoothies, and lattes with locally Santa Barbara-grown coffee beans, this one might be more enticing for parents. If ever there was a time for a quick caffeine fix at the zoo, this would be the spot while the kiddos are busy sliding down the ant hill. The Buzz is open daily. 

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Santa Barbara Zoo: pack a picnic
Pack a picnic and bring it with you to the Santa Barbara Zoo. 

Bring Your Own Food 

The Santa Barbara Zoo allows you to bring in food and beverages, which is what our family did. We stayed at the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort while visiting Santa Barbara, and the hotel had ready-made picnics available for purchase, packed in an insulated cooler. 

The cooler fit in the bottom of our stroller, and we had ourselves a delicious picnic at a table near the Kallman Family Play Area. We were impressed with the thought-out details of the picnic, which included a kids’ meal, a milk carton, a cheese plate, a tasty turkey sandwich, a broccolini and golden raisin salad, and even chocolate-covered strawberries. It was quite the spread!

Speciality Food Carts and Vending Machines 

Throughout the Santa Barbara Zoo, there are specialty food carts, some of which are seasonal, as well as many vending machines. There are a few vending machines right at the giraffe deck, making it convenient to grab a cold drink while you might be waiting in line for a one-of-kind giraffe feeding encounter.

Sensory Backpacks 

Something I love that the Santa Barbara Zoo offers are sensory backpacks for children who are sensory sensitive. The backpacks enable a child with sensory sensitivity to have an enjoyable experience on their visit and help combat overstimulation. 

Each kit in a sensory backpack includes noise-canceling headphones, an animal squeeze toy, a fidget cube, a zoo car, squeeze balls, and a scavenger hunt. Sensory backpack rentals are available at the admissions window on a first-come, first-served basis and are available for use for free.

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Santa Barbara Zoo: enjoy tons of zoo animals and even ducks
So many interesting animals at the zoo and yet ducks are always the favorite. 

Know Before You Go 

  • The Santa Barbara Zoo is open daily from 9:30am to 5pm. 
  • Zoo admission tickets range from $15 to $25 per person. Children under two years old are free. 
  • Timed reservations are required for zoo admission. 
  • There is an additional $11 parking fee per vehicle. 
  • If you plan on a zoo visit later in the day, some animals have early bedtimes and won’t be out past 4:30pm. 
  • Several animal exhibits have multiple viewing areas to see the animals from different perspectives. 
  • When the zoo gets busy, Palm Garden, Cabrillo Lawn, and Raven’s Garden tend to be quieter spaces for rest. 

All photos courtesy of the author, Gina Ragland, unless otherwise noted. 

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