The San Diego Zoo easily ranks as one of the finest zoos in the world and is considered by many to be the best there is. Gone are the days of chain link cubicles with overly stressed lions pacing back and forth, going mad from being trapped in not much more than a shoe box. Today, endangered animals from all over the world are showcased in more natural habitats, with space to roam, climb and play. The San Diego zoo sets the standard for this type of animal enclosure and is studied and emulated by other zoos across the globe.

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They actually run two parks, the classic zoo (in Balboa Park) and the Safari Park (which was once called Wild Animal Park). They are a global conservation institution with an incredible record of breeding endangered species like the Giant Panda, California Condor and Caribbean Iguanas.

Today we explore their newest exhibit, the Conrad Prebys Australian Outback, which contains the largest population of cute and cuddly Koala Bears outside of Australia.

My wife Diane and I were completely exhausted from being at Comic-Con for the previous 3 days, so we slept in and didn’t get to the zoo until early afternoon. Since we knew our time was a bit limited, we opted for the simple 1 day passes that were $44.00 each. They include the Bus Tour and Arial Tram (remember Disneyland’s Skyway?). There are also several different behind the scenes or up close and personal animal experiences to choose from.

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Money saving tip:

Look in your mail box for the “Buy 1 Get 1 Free” coupon booklet that arrives each week. If you live in Southern California, you might just find a $5.00 off coupon in it for the Zoo that is good for up to 6 people. Annual Memberships are also a great deal and very affordable, especially compared to Disneyland.

 As you follow the winding pathway of flowers and exotic plants to your right as you enter the zoo, you come upon a grouping of Aboriginal themed totem poles that represent famous animals from Australia. They are the official marker of the new exhibit and set the mood for the creatures you are about to see.

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First up is a large bird enclosure containing the Australian Kukaburra.

 
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Across from the Kukaburra is the Wombat. During my time, there was one sleeping in the outdoor enclosure and one sleeping in the small hideaway with a glass wall so you can get close to them. In case you are thinking “What’s so special about a Wombat?”, there’s a sign to tell you.

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It looks a lot like a R.O.U.S to me. (Princess Bride reference)

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Throughout the area there are informative signs giving information about the animals and what makes them unique.

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After the Wombat/ROUS, comes what looks to be just another large rodent, but is actually the cute little hopper called a Wallaby. When they do move around, they are kinda fun to watch.

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Now we get to the good stuff.

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Koala Crossing leads you across the way to the Queensland House with a myriad of elevated boardwalks that put you at eye level in a Eucalyptus forest filled with the “Aww” inducing little critters.

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One main thing to consider when visiting the Koala exhibit is that they are almost always asleep during the day. If you are there mid day, this is what you will see. These photos were taken at 1:45 pm.

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When all the animals are just cute gray gobs of fur wedged between tree branches napping, your kids are bound to get bored pretty quickly. To help them burn off some of that energy and get in touch with the life of a Koala Bear, there is a climbing tree with bronze Koalas in it for them to play in.

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The docent on staff told us lots of interesting facts about the Koalas and that early morning and right before sunset is when they become active, so that is the best time to view them. Now that we knew we had several hours to kill, we checked out the food and entertainment offerings that are part of the new Outback area.

Nearby is the Sydney Grill, a cafeteria style eatery.

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Being an Australian themed restaurant, they even serve Fosters Beer on top.

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As modern and forward thinking as the San Diego Zoo is, food service is sadly where they seem to be stuck in the 1970’s. Virtually every food establishment in the zoo has the same boring menu of horribly bland burgers, hot dogs, doughy pizza and the usual assortment of snacks and sodas prepared and served cafeteria style. There are a few locations with a slight variety but most of them look like this.

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It makes me appreciate the huge leaps Disneyland has made in their menus and variety of quality food offerings. After eating one of the afore mentioned baskets of blah, I can’t wait to get back to Disneyland and enjoy some good food. I also made the huge mistake of eating there before going on the 35 minute Guided Bus Tour. Let’s just say that the last 10 minutes of that tour was very uncomfortable.

Right behind the Sydney Grill is a seating area with entertainment provided by the Roo Crew, a team of people in Kangaroo costumes doing aerial acrobatics on a trampoline.

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In the distance, the mysterious and exotic sounds of the Didgeridoo will inexplicably draw you like mice following the Pied Piper to the Koalafornia Boardwalk.

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There is a lot of seating and several different acts that entertain the crowd throughout the day. The band plays beach inspired songs.

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As the “Didgeri Dude” plays his hypnotic melodies a couple of acrobats perform feats of balance and strength.

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Next up was a contortionist who squeezed his entire body through two unstrung squash rackets. It hurt my chest just looking at it.

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In a claustrophobia inducing move he crammed his whole body inside a two foot cube.

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He made sure I got a good picture before closing the lid.

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There was still time to kill before the Koalas woke up and we didn’t have the energy to hike up and down all the never ending mountains that the zoo has, so we decided to visit some of the other exhibits that are in the immediate area.

Right down the hill is the other must see attraction at the San Diego Zoo, the Giant Pandas. No visit to the zoo is complete with out a stop here.

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There is always a line to see the Pandas since people tend to linger a while, hoping they wake up and do something. Plan on about 30 minutes to go through the Panda Trek.

As with most animals at the zoo, they tend to sleep during the day. Very rarely have I seen the Pandas awake. Even the Red Pandas at the entrance know when it is time to take a nap.

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We got lucky and this little guy woke up right as we got beside him.

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As usual, she’s asleep.

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As if on cue, she woke up and gave the enthralled crowd a show on how to effortlessly shred and eat a large stalk of bamboo.

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Next door there is another enclosure inhabited by her son Yun Zi.

To the delight of all of us onlookers, he also woke up and showed off for a moment.

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And just like that, his show was over.

Also a short walk from the Outback are lots of wonderful animals.

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The light was starting to fade, so it was time to head back up to see the Koalas.

Right as dusk arrived, they began waking up, causing a minor frenzy of people whipping out their cell phones and taking pictures. These were taken at 6:00 pm.

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I mean really, how cute is this?!

Of course, no trip to see Koalafornia is complete without a stop at the gift shop to outfit your little Joey (the name for baby Koalas).

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At 8:00 pm there is the Front Street Finale Walkabout, a type of parade featuring many of the nighttime zoo performers. I wasn’t able to stay for it but it sounded like a nice way to finish off the day.

I know this is a bit off topic but I saw this vending machine filled with diapers and other baby supplies by the restroom and thought it was a fantastic idea. I’m surprised Disney doesn’t have some of them.

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I don’t know why, but every time we visit the San Diego Zoo it always seems like a bunch of birds put on a little parade near the exit. It’s as if they are giving the guests one last up close experience before leaving.  A mother duck with 2 adorable ducklings was walking through the crowd and being chased by little kids when a female peacock flew down and repeatedly put herself between anyone who got close to the ducks. She protected them until they were completely out of harms way. It was a pretty neat look at animal behavior and motherly protection instincts.

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I highly recommend spending a day at the San Diego Zoo and a portion of that time would be wisely spent enjoying the new Australian Outback area. Just eat a good meal before you go.