Hello new friend. Photo by Jamie Pham
Hello new friend. Photo by Jamie Pham

Secrets of the LA Zoo: Top Tips for a Great Visit with Kids

My family loves spending a day at the zoo. There are so many zoos around Southern California but for us, nothing beats the good old Los Angeles Zoo. It’s close by, appeals to kids of all ages, has great exhibits and programs, and even has a petting zoo where kids can get hands-on experience with animals. The Zoo also hosts amazing holiday activities, camps, and sleepovers. Over the years we’ve picked up a ton of helpful tips and secrets that make spending a day with the wildlife an easy and memorable experience for your family.

Located in the middle of Griffith Park, there are so many other things nearby for kids to do! The Autry Museum of the American West is right across the street, Travel Town is around the corner, and Shane's Inspiration (one of the best playgrounds in LA) is just down the street. So when you visit the LA Zoo, plan on spending the rest of the day exploring Griffith Park.

What To See at the LA Zoo

It’s good to game-plan before visiting by looking at the park’s map ahead of time. The LA Zoo’s footprint isn’t excessively large, but the layout makes it difficult to travel from one side to the other without backtracking. Near the entrance of the zoo is a fork in the road; one path leads up a steep (but short!) hill towards Elephants of Asia, the other runs along the bottom of the hill towards The LAIR. Which path to choose simply comes down to what your kids want to see first.

Muriel’s Ranch and the Children’s Zoo

There are a few exhibits before the fork in the road. First up is The Sea Cliffs exhibit with sea lions and harbor seals. Stick around for a while and you can watch them getting a fishy snack from their trainer. Continuing up the hill you’ll find the locally famous Reggie the Alligator. My kids are always so excited to see the alligators until they remember that mostly all Reggie and his habitat-mate Tina do is sleep!

The Winnick Family Children’s Zoo is the first must-see of the park. There are exhibits like the Animal Care Nursery Center, where kids can occasionally catch a glimpse of the zoo’s newest members being cared for when their mothers cannot.

Secrets of the LA Zoo: Sea Cliffs exhibit with sea lions and harbor seals

Snack time for seals! Photo by Matt Matasci

The real draw for my children is Muriel’s Ranch Contact Yard. There, kids can (calmly, quietly, and gently) pet and brush friendly goats and sheep. Keep in mind the contact yard’s hours are from 10am–1pm and 1:30pm–4pm daily. It can get pretty busy towards the end of the first session and throughout the second session, so make the petting zoo one of your first stops at the zoo. And don’t worry, there’s lots of hand sanitizer available and the unique hand-washing fountain is a separate attraction on its own.

After heading back to the main path, you’ll spot the flamingos up ahead (or more likely, you’ll smell them!). The LA Zoo has two types of flamingo, the classic pink greater flamingos, as well as the white-colored Chilean flamingos.

Secrets of the LA Zoo: Tom-Mankiewicz-Conservation-Carousel

Will you ride Nemo or an adorable fox? Photo by Jamie Pham

Tom Mankiewicz Conservation Carousel

After the flamingos, there’s a fork in the road and you’re left with a choice. For my carousel-obsessed kids, it's an easy one. We hang right and trudge up the hill to the carousel, where kids can choose from dozens of different animals. The carousel can get crowded fast, so if getting the perfect animal (the pink pony!) to ride atop is a priority, get there early in the day. We’ve never had any issues getting on the carousel–other than during peak summer periods have we even had to wait in line for longer than a few minutes.

Elephants of Asia

After the carousel, we usually continue along the path to visit the Elephants of Asia. You’re most likely to see elephants in action from the viewing platform near the carousel. If you can get to the Thai Viewing Pavilion by 11am, the elephant trainers host a positive reinforcement training demonstration, giving visitors additional insight into how these creatures are cared for at the zoo.

The LAIR

Next stop for lizard-loving kids is the LAIR—the Living Amphibians, Invertebrates, and Reptiles house. With over 60 species, it’s one of the most popular parts of the zoo. Though these exhibits are housed inside, don’t be fooled into thinking this is some sort of air-conditioned reprieve. The climate in The LAIR must be appropriate for its residents–it might not be as hot as the LA sun, but it’s kept well above room temperature. It’s divided into six sections: Damp Forest, Betty’s Bite and Squeeze, Care and Conservation, Arroyo Lagarto, Crocodile Swamp, and the Desert LAIR. Fun fact: Betty’s Bite and Squeeze is named for Betty White, a longtime LA Zoo supporter.

Australia House

After visiting The LAIR, head to the Australia House for a look at some of the most interesting animals from Down Under. Watch the kangaroos and see if you can spot a joey leg hanging out of his mamma’s pouch, or play spot-the-koala—these tree-loving animals can be pretty hard to find. Also impressive is the zoo's Komodo dragon.

Secrets of the LA Zoo: Play Park

Neil Papiano Play Park is a place where kids can play all day. Photo by Jamie Pham

Neil Papiano Play Park

No trip to the LA Zoo is complete without spending at least an hour at the Neil Papiano Play Park. There were many times it was literally the only thing my kids were interested in doing while at the zoo. One of the perks of membership is not being stressed if a trip to the zoo equates to a couple of hours at the play park. It's a pretty great playground too, with an obvious animal theme and plenty of unique statutes and climbing structures. It's also comforting that the playground is at the very top of the zoo, meaning there's little through traffic and only two small paths in and out of the area.

Rainforest of The Americas

This section of the park has quickly become a favorite with my family. The first thing that greets you is a lily-pad water fountain and kids can't resist hopping from pad to pad. The huge water tanks filled with piranhas and other fish will captivate them, and your entire zoo trip will be worth the cost of admission if you're lucky enough to catch a river otter zip down its water slide.

Secrets of the LA Zoo: Chimpanzees

The chimpanzees are always monkeying around. Photo by Jamie Pham

Chimpanzees of Mahale Mountains

The habitat at the LA Zoo's chimpanzee exhibit is one of the most well-designed at any zoo in the country. Praised by Jane Goodall as a "state-of-the-world" habitat for these highly intelligent animals, there's always some action at this exhibit. There are many different viewing areas, including stadium-style seating that gives you a better look. This is our favorite spot for a picnic.

What To Eat at the LA Zoo

Fork in the Road

My favorite place to grab a bite at the Zoo, the appropriately-named Fork in the Road specializes in fresh pizza by the slice and offers Golden Road beer on tap.

Café Pico

Second favorite place for a bite is Café Pico, where you can get tacos, burritos, and beer. The seating in the area isn't great, but it's one of the less-busy parts of the zoo, so you can usually find a quiet place to eat, even if it's not at a table. 

Mahale Café

This is the restaurant we end up eating at most due to its location. It's at the top of the park, so on a typical visit, this is when the kids need something more substantial to keep going. It is in a nice area next to the giraffe habitat, there are lots of tables, and it is well shaded. If you can't find a table, a good alternative is the stadium seating for the chimp exhibit from which the cafe gets its name. Mahale Café sells chicken tenders, pizza, burgers, and hot dogs, plus fountain sodas and bottled and canned beer.

Churro Factory

One of the highlights of a zoo trip has quickly become the churro sundae, which is sold at the Churro Factory. It’s worth braving the long lines for this delicious sweet treat, which is soft serve vanilla ice cream, a churro cut in half, and hot fudge sauce. The Churro Factory and Sweet Treat stands also sell cotton candy, popcorn, and sodas.

Reggie’s Bistro and Zoo Grill

We’ve never eaten at Reggie’s Bistro or the Zoo Grill because these restaurants are located right near the entrance of the park, and kids usually want to get in to see the animals. However, Reggie's has sit-down-style food with salads, burgers, sandwiches, craft beer, and California wines, so if you arrive hungry, there are good places to eat immediately.

Bring Your Own Snacks

The beauty of places like the LA Zoo is they don't try to keep you from bringing in your own food and snacks. This makes a trip to the zoo more economical, plus you're more likely to bring something more nutritious than most of what you can get at the zoo. There are benches and shaded areas throughout the park that are great for posting up and snacking, notably the area near the playground, the viewing area for the chimpanzee exhibit, and right near the Churro Factory. 

Secrets of the LA Zoo: LA Zoo Lights

Zoo Lights is a holiday tradition that just gets better every year. Photo by Jamie Pham

Special Events and Programs at the LA Zoo

Zoo Lights

The biggest special event of the year is Zoo Lights, which is held around the holidays in December. During this event, the zoo is illuminated with animal-inspired lights and decorations. The lighting decorations are displayed in a variety of unique techniques, from displays at the back of the animal enclosures, along the trees lining pathways, and built into open spaces. One warning–you probably won't be seeing many of the animals at the zoo as they're already asleep for the night. But you will get to see Santa and his reindeer! (And some very trippy elephants.)

Big Bunny's Spring Fling

Meet the Easter Bunny at the LA Zoo during Big Bunny's Spring Fling. In addition to photo ops with the Big Bunny, kids can pet real bunnies, get their faces painted, take part in crafts and Easter egg coloring, and more. 

Boo at the Zoo

Every year around Halloween parts of the LA Zoo undergo a spooky transformation. With a pumpkin patch, hay maze, trick-or-treating, photo ops, interactive shows, and activities for kids all included with the price of admission, this is a great time of the year to plan a visit. Be sure to keep your eyes out for animals munching on pumpkins—or even carcasses for the carnivores.

Zoo Camp

In the summer kids can experience the zoo on a much more personal level with Zoo Camp. Zoo Camp is broken down by age group into week-long camps throughout the summer, each with a unique theme like Big Cats & Wild Dogs, Artistic Animals, Rainforest of the Americas, Rebel Raptors, and more. Register for these camps early as they are very popular and fill up fast.

Family Camping Nights

Did you know you can camp at the LA Zoo? Families are able to stay the night at the zoo after all of the guests have left with the Creature Camp Out program. You'll be able to tour the zoo after hours and get a look at some of the animals after the crowds have disappeared—and even get a chance to see some of them enjoying their evening meal. 

Secrets of the LA Zoo: flamingos la zoo

You can smell these guys long before you can see them. (The flamingos, not the kids!) Photo by Matt Matasci

Know Before You Go

  • Because of the mild weather in Southern California, the best time to go to the LA Zoo is during the winter and fall. The summertime is when the park is the busiest, and ironically, it's also probably the worst time to see the animals because they move to the back of their habitats to escape the heat. 
  • If you can, plan to arrive at the park right when it opens at 10am. The weather is usually more temperate in the mornings, so the animals are more active. Plus, you'll be missing the busloads of kids that arrive after the park's been open a few hours. 
  • My family has had a zoo membership for years and I’d highly recommend it and not only because a couple of visits a year pays for the membership cost. Other benefits include discounts on food, free tickets for the carousel and tram, the ability to bring friends with you (how many depends on what membership level you purchase), and reciprocity with other parks across the country. You can get as much as 50% off entry fees to many zoos around the country, plus free admission to the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, the OC Zoo in Orange, and other California parks.
  • While very well shaded with lush greenery (it's a botanical garden, after all!), the LA Zoo is basically built on the foothills of a mountain. If you have smaller children, I would highly recommend bringing your own stroller because towards the end of the day, especially if it's hot, the last thing you want to do is carry them back down the hill. The zoo offers stroller rentals on a first come, first served basis.
  • Speaking of parking, that's need-to-know info for Angelenos. The good news is that there's ample parking around the zoo, the bad news is that it fills up fast. The shady area directly east of the entrance is free during the off-season (yet another reason to time your visit for the fall or spring) but during peak periods shifts to cash-only preferred parking. If you forget your card, I have a tip for you—head across Western Heritage Way to the Gene Autry museum because they have an ATM. If you're not looking to pay for parking and it looks like finding a spot in the north lot will be a Mad Max-style battle royale, there's a simpler solution. I may regret giving this little secret out, but if you drive south on Western Heritage Way, on the left there's a little driveway that looks like a maintenance access road (though there's usually a little blue sign that says "Zoo Parking Only") that leads to a nice-sized parking lot that I've never seen more than half-full. 
  • The International Marketplace is the gift shop for the LA Zoo. It has great apparel, animal-themed books, music, plush animals, and lots of toys. It's hard to get kids to leave.
  • You can get free admission to the LA Zoo if you have an EBT card!
  • The park is in a corner of Griffith Park and as such, data cell reception can be iffy in certain areas. It might be tough to look up info on Google about the leopard in the Rainforests of America exhibit, but luckily the zoo is packed full of informative signage about the animals.

2021 Note: You must make an advanced, timed-entry reservation to visit. Unfortunately, most of the programs and shows are currently closed. These include the Tom Mankiewicz Conservation Carousel, behind-the-scenes experiences,  and Muriel’s Ranch. Daily talks and presentations are currently unavailable, and some exhibits remain closed.  The zoo’s map makes it clear what is and isn’t closed on the day you visit. Weekend reservations fill up quickly so be sure to plan ahead. Please make sure to check directly with the zoo before your visit for the most up-to-date information.

The Los Angeles Zoo is located at 5333 Zoo Drive in Los Angeles. It is open seven days a week year-round, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Check the zoo's website for details on hours and admission.

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