This trip took place from June 30th to July 15th of 2018. The Knutson family numbered three as James was joining Beth and myself on his first major vacation!
Day 8; San Diego Zoo: Everybody took cold showers when we got up having survived a July San Diego night without air conditioning. A ceiling fan over each bed and open windows was all we had. If I had known how uncomfortable it was going to be I would have happily taken out a second mortgage to book a hotel instead of our A/C-less Airbnb apartment. That’s what I get for trying to save a few bucks, I guess. In addition to the cost savings compared to hotels I also thought having a kitchen and living room would be nice so James could go to sleep earlier than the rest of us without disrupting our evenings. All of that did come in handy but next time I’ll pony up for A/C!
The four of us, Beth, James, Beth’s Aunt Debbie, and myself shared a quick breakfast and loaded up in the car. Our destination for the day, the San Diego Zoo, was a quick fifteen minute drive away. We took the scenic route through Balboa Park, of which the zoo is a part. The zoo took most of our time that day but in the future I hope to get a chance to visit more of the awesome attractions Balboa has to offer. I parked under a shade structure at the zoo but stepping out of the air conditioning was quite unpleasant, even at 9am. We loaded James into his stroller and the four of us began the sweaty (but fun) trek.
The San Diego Zoo is considered to be one of, if not the best zoo in the world so we were really looking forward to our visit. James, while a little young to fully appreciate the experience, enjoys running around the Minnesota Zoo back home so we were hopeful he would have fun. He enjoys the animals, of course, but he also likes to run around and play with other kids. Sometimes that’s all he wants to do but when your toddler is having fun you do what you can to make it last.
A giant, golden statue of a lion greets visitors by the entrance. It balances on its front paws as though landing from a leap, a beautiful sight. We used a touchscreen terminal to buy our tickets, because that line was shorter, and got inside without much delay. An older employee inside the entrance offered to give us a tip on how to best enjoy our day at the zoo. She informed us that the path to the right was the sunniest and hottest and might be best seen during the morning. It was already so hot I couldn’t imagine it getting worse so you bet your butt we went right!
The first animal exhibit we saw was the koalas, the first of many animals available in San Diego that we don’t have back home. Growing up, koalas were one of those animals you knew existed but you could only see when they were clinging to a late night talk show host or featured on an informational kids program. Even though they didn’t really move, it was still really exciting to see them. They really did not move, at all, though. Every one of them, the males in one section and the females in another, were just sleeping under misters in their trees. Too hot to blame them.
From the koala habitat we checked out the ‘Urban Jungle’ area. I don’t remember why it’s called that but the animal population consisted of cheetahs, a (huge) rhinoceros, flamingos, gazelles, and giraffes. The two cheetahs also had a puppy friend sharing their habitat. Apparently, the zoo pairs animals up with other species sometimes to help them adapt to life at the zoo (or something like that, I forget the exact reason). The cheetahs were possibly the most active of all the animals we saw all day. They ran back and forth and even licked the fence just a few feet from us. Further down the path a zookeeper was holding one of the flamingos and giving a chat about their species. The one flamingo was being held because he had leg surgery and needed to rest it periodically.
In the next area we saw meerkats, vultures, camels, llamas, and a big snake (specific type un-remembered because snakes are kind of gross). There were several tasmanian devils as well. One of them was named Debbie. The elephant enclosure was next. They have four of them but only a one and half were outside at the time (we could only see the butt of one). There wasn’t much shade or trees in the aforementioned sunniest area so I couldn’t blame them for wanting to be somewhere else. We had only been there for 45 minutes and already my scalp felt like it was aflame. We happened upon a merchandise stand (perfectly placed, it appears) selling hats. Debbie, the Californian, came prepared but Beth and I both had to buy something to protect our precious noggins. I spent like $40 on my hat and it didn’t even say ‘San Diego Zoo’ on it! Beth also bought a t-shirt with a panda on it (I also re-applied sunblock).
After the elephants we thankfully reached better shade and saw the leopards and lion. Like the cheatahs, the leopards were also fairly active. One was pacing against the glass. The lions were fast asleep, however. We came upon a bridge over a canyon (term used quite loosely) and the breeze up there was the coolest we felt all day. We took an elevator down to the pandas, possibly the most famous inhabitants of the SDZ, and got in line. They regulate people passing by their enclosure for some reason. There were two pandas outside that day.
Like many of the animals in that 90-plus degree heat, the pandas were asleep under misters. Author’s note: The whole zoo should be under a bunch of misters so the visitors can be comfortable. A zookeeper told us all about the two pandas, mother and son, over a sound system (I bet that job gets really boring). The mom, Bai Yun, had birthed six other pandas that had been at the San Diego Zoo over the years. Xiao Liwu, the son, was labeled ‘the youngster’ on his informational sign but he wasn’t exhibiting any of his youthful energy on this humid day. I’ve seen plenty of cute panda videos on the internet to tell me they can be quite active and even playful. I’m assuming it was mostly heat-related but those particular pandas were lethargic.
From the famous pandas we passed through the Africa Rocks section of the zoo. James chose an inopportune time to fall asleep in his stroller because the first exhibit was penguins, one of his usual favorite species. The Minnesota Zoo also has penguins but this tank was way more impressive (and the water looked very refreshing!). We watched the penguins swim while in the cool cave around their tank and then watched two or three penguins preen themselves in the shade from the top side of their habitat. The penguins also share a tank with non-predatory sharks but the remaining animals along this path were mostly hidden, sadly. They were probably chilling behind the scenes laughing at all the dumb humans roasting in the sun staring at empty habitats. Even the bornean sun bears were hiding away and they have ‘sun’ in their name!
There was a mesh-covered bird enclosure complete with raised platform paths that was reminiscent of Jurassic Park 3 but there weren’t that many birds to be seen. The baboons were next and their red butts were on full display. A couple of them were active, at least. We saw red pandas, turtles, lemurs, clawless otters, francois’ langurs, and something called southern gerenuks (basically deer with longer legs and necks). The polar bears were next; another animal that is well known but not available in just any zoo. Like the penguins there was a big tank where you could watch the polar bears swim and plenty of above ground space for them to roam around. A snow machine in the middle was attempting to keep up with the heat and failing miserably. I’d like to think most of the time it produces a decent pile of white fluff to help cool them down but the pile right then was no bigger than a few snow-cones.
Despite the heat, the polar bear was fairly relaxed. I am not certain if it was a female bear or a male bear but either way it was a photogenic. It posed while facing us and it almost looked like it was smiling. It moved from one perfect pose to another one sitting on a log. It made we want a photogenic polar bear. I know that’s not reasonable but I still want one. One of the viewing locations of their habitat was enclosed/shaded and there was a big fan that felt really nice. We sat there for a while, and it was hard to leave, but hunger eventually drove us out.
We stopped at the nearest eating establishment but all they had was Chinese Food (and it was hot as balls) so I filled up our water bottles and we kept walking. I was getting especially famished so I’m glad we found another place quickly. It was near the bridge we had crossed earlier so it was up high and overlooking the canyon (term used quite loosely, once again). Debbie and I waited in line while Beth and James went to find us a table. The food, like the clothing, was overpriced but it did taste alright. James barely touched his pepperoni pizza, though, and I, the usual leftover disposal, had already eaten plenty. Not wanting it to go to waste I walked around until I found a family with two kids sitting across the way. I offered them the untouched pizza and they seemed pleased for the freebie. It might have been weird to offer strangers food but I hate wasting food.
Continuing on our path we ran into a couple zebras, an ox-looking thing, and a pond full of waterfowl. I’m assuming their wings are clipped because it was an uncovered area. Having passed on his pizza, he happily chowed down on a bunch of crackers and cookies. Kids, am I right? He wanted to get out of his stroller right around the time we arrived at the gorilla area. The biggest gorilla appeared to be fast asleep right up near the glass. A smaller one in back was hanging on a log in a photogenic way reminiscent of the polar bears before lunch. Like any other vacation I’ve ever taken I was taking a ton of pictures. I stopped taking photos briefly and then a gorilla walked right up to the glass by Beth and James and looked right at them! I can’t believe I missed it. I took thousands of photos on this trip and I missed an amazing one. Huge bummer.
James was determined to walk back the way we had come so he had a bit of tantrum when I told him that wasn’t the way we were going. He was good 97% of the day but everybody is allowed some weak moments. Once I picked him up and brought him thirty feet to the next exhibit, however, he didn’t want to leave it so I guess dad was right! It contained alligators (or crocodiles, I don’t know the difference), pygmy hippos, and a bunch of fish in a tank. Some of the fish were the tiny kind that feed off of larger species’ butts, cleaning them in the process. Our little one was fascinated by those hippos and fish and he wasn’t alone; the area was packed to the point of being unnavigable. It had gotten really busy as the day went on.
At the end of the ‘Hippo Trail’ we switched to the ‘Tiger Trail’. The star of that trail was (can you guess?) a couple of Malayan Tigers. Man, those cats were big! Both were asleep. I guess zoo animals are used to sleeping a lot regardless of the temperature but I’m sure the heat in San Diego doesn’t help. One of the tigers was sleeping on top of a perch but we could still see its head and front paws. The second one was sleeping right up against the glass! After the tigers we saw a couple of exotic deer (or a close enough relative to a deer) and some more primates of unremembered species. My feet were so tired at that point that I was happy to find a bench.
We all planted our butts for a couple minutes and it became evident that we were all pretty much ready to leave the zoo soon. Unfortunately for our tired feet, we found ourselves at the back of the park. I didn’t want to back-track along paths we had already seen if possible and we had just walked downhill down the Tiger Path. Those factors helped us decide to find a bus stop and take the shuttle back to the front of the zoo (that’s right, the zoo is big enough to have a rotating shuttle). One shuttle ride is complementary with each zoo admission anyway so we figured it would be the easiest way. Although we did have to hike a different steep hill to catch the bus it was a shorter distance.
James, like most places, was absolutely precious while on the bus. He sat with Beth in the row in front of me and mugged it up for my camera the whole ride. He also tried on my new hat which, shockingly, was far too large for him. The shuttle was nice because it paused next to animal enclosures so you could see another angle that wasn’t available from the walking path. Before leaving the zoo we stopped in the souvenir shop and loaded up. Now that I look at the zoo’s map online I think we saw maybe 80% of the San Diego Zoo on our first trip. We never even had the time (or remaining energy) to explore the children’s zoo area or the Discovery Outpost section. I’m sure Beth is just fine having missed the reptile house but I hope to see the rest on our next trip to San Diego! I raced out to the car and drove up to pick up the rest of our party. It was magnificent being in the car with the air conditioning blasting.
Our evening activity was dinner with the Longs again but we had forty-five minutes to kill. I steered us for the waterfront to check out the scenery. We couldn’t find any open parking down there so Debbie drove around while I got out to take pictures. There are a bunch of big ships moored there from old, wooden sailing ships up to aircraft carriers. The USS Midway is a decommissioned aircraft carrier that now houses a naval museum. That’s definitely on my list for our next visit! Just from the park along the shore, Tuna Harbor Park, I could see several helicopters and jets on the deck above. In addition to the ships there a number of monuments along the waterfront including one for Bob Hope, sailors lost at sea, and another depicting the famous V-J Day kiss.
It was time for dinner so we headed to a place a couple blocks East of Balboa Park. Station Tavern & Burgers serves burgers, sandwiches, and a variety of adult beverages. We arrived before Brian, Casey, and their boys so we waited for a table. It’s a small restaurant where most of the seating is outdoors (it is San Diego, after all) so we waited until a table in the shade opened up before we sat down. There is a dirt play area for kids in the corner with a train car to climb on. The Longs arrived, minus fifteen year-old Mitchell (he had a date), and we ordered food. I had the cheeseburger and we shared a massive plate of tater tots AND another massive plate of garlic fries (which we did not finish due to volume). Everything was delicious and I’m really glad we waited for the shaded table.
I spent much of the time we were at the restaurant supervising James’ play so Beth could chat with her childhood friend (Casey was in the same grade as Beth’s twin sisters). There were four or five other kids playing too but James was the youngest so I was hovering. I also read Facebook most of the time so I was trying to be chill about my helicopter parenting. It was another beautiful evening in San Diego. I know the days can be scorching but I would move there for those evenings alone (if I could afford the high cost of living). Brian and Casey paid for our dinner so another giant thank you to them for their hospitality and excellent dining recommendations. Everybody had a great time and your family really made our short visit to San Diego wonderful!
Back at our rental apartment everybody took cold showers in the tiny bathroom before retreating to bed. It was another long night of sweaty, uncomfortable half-sleep. Even with all the bedding on the floor, the windows wide open, and the ceiling fan on high, I probably got five hours, which not ideal on vacation. End of day nine.
Coming Soon: Trip #14 – California [Day 10] –>