Adventure Vacations

The Best Animal Encounters in San Diego, California

Last updated 4th February 2019

Giving kids an opportunity to interact with animals can bring excitement in the moment — and memories for a lifetime. The San Diego area is full of attractions that offer an array of up close and personal encounters with beloved animals. Here, we round up the best animal attractions in this Southern California city.

San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo was voted the #1 zoo in the world by TripAdvisor in 2015. A day here isn’t just a day at a zoo, but a gateway to some truly amazing animal experiences. There are a variety of different packages available at this zoo that take you beyond just the viewing experience. Older kids can be zookeepers for the day, where they shadow either a koala keeper or a giraffe keeper. Special VIP experiences can be custom-designed with specific animal encounters and access to areas of the zoo that are not open to the public.

Zoo Admission: (1 Day Pass): Adult $54, Children (3-11) $44

2920 Zoo Drive, San Diego

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, there are different safari tour options that give visitors an opportunity to get closer to their favorite animals — and even feed some of them. The Roar and Snore Safari gives visitors the chance to stay overnight in a luxury safari tent. Packages include nighttime animal viewing, a chance to gather around a giant campfire with other guests, dinner and breakfast, guided walks as well as other camping activities.

Admission for the Safari park is included with your zoo day pass. Prices of safari experiences vary.

15500 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido

Sea World San Diego

Sea World is an amusement park and an aquarium all in one. There are thrill rides as well as gentler rides for smaller children. The aquarium part of the park has many interesting and unique species of sea life. There are touch tanks for kids to gently explore docile sea creatures. Several animal encounters allow families to get an even closer look and savor once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Special packages allow children to interact with penguins, dolphins or beluga whales. The dolphin and beluga interactions require children to be at least 10 years old and no less than 48” tall. Sea World also offers a VIP tour that takes visitors to behind-the-scenes areas that are normally closed to the public.

Admission: $59.99/person

500 Sea World Drive, San Diego

The Living Coast, Chula Vista

This non-profit aquarium’s mission is to provide education to promote conservation for all plants and animals that live in and around the ocean. Ocean life is not the only focus of this facility; Visitors can view various species of coastal birds and raptors, like owls and eagles, as well as reptiles, including a variety of snakes, turtles and tortoises. There are several VIP animal encounters at this facility: feeding the rays, meeting a shark, feeding sea turtles, meeting a raptor of your choice (choose from a variety of owls, a falcon or a kestrel) and meeting some of the facility’s reptiles. Each encounter is $50, in addition to the entrance fee, for a group of 6 people.

Admission: Adults $16, Youth (3-12) $11, Children (2 and Under) Free

1000 Gunpowder Point Drive, Chula Vista

Nurtured by Nature Animal Encounters, Valley Center

Otters are fun-loving, playful animals, and watching them swim and splash is great entertainment. This facility is famous for its otter swim encounter, however the minimum age for that encounter is 18. The otter encounter, called Otterz Only Playland, allows visitors (10 years and older) to have limited interaction with the otters as they frolic and play. This encounter is $300/person.

PO Box 1675, Valley Center

Butterfly Farms, Encinitas

Butterfly Farms is an entrancing place to visit. This butterfly facility is concerned with the declining butterfly populations and has been working through research, education and conservation efforts to bring up the dwindling numbers. Visitors can spend time wandering through the 3,000 square foot Vivarium. Children will find a world of enchantment as they explore the Vivarium where the free-flying butterflies just might land on them. Parents need to pay close attention to their children to ensure that the butterflies aren’t harmed or trampled. In addition to seeing butterflies, families can witness the entire butterfly life cycle before their very eyes.

Admission: $5/person, children (3 and under) Free

441 Saxony Road, Encinitas

Children’s Nature Retreat, Alpine

This is a vast petting zoo and animal sanctuary dedicated to education, conservation and the ethical treatment of animals. There are over 120 different animals who call the Children’s Nature Retreat home. There are several different areas to visit such as the Big Farm, the Mini Farm (which has all miniature animal residents), Africa, Camel Oasis, Barnyard Alley and Tortoises. The facility only allows a maximum of 100 visitors per day, so reservations are necessary. The retreat will provide the food that visitors can feed to the animals. In addition to feeding, there are other encounters that allow guests to get close to the animals: be a keeper for the day, take a guided tour, enter a habitat with a keeper and learn about the care and upkeep of the animals there. Each experience is an additional fee to the admission.

Admission: Adults $25, Children $15, Seniors $20

5178 Japatul Spur, Alpine

By Kimberly Crawford