The Oakland Zoo is a perfect balance of animals, play areas, and (dare I say it?) rides for kids. In fact, there is so much other fun stuff going on, sometimes it's a challenge to remember to see the animals. The nice thing about an Oakland Zoo membership is that you can go, see an animal or two, have a meltdown, and leave without stressing about the price of admission (and parking!).
Here's our recommendation for a route through the Oakland Zoo. For first-timers, I urge you to park at the Children's Zoo entrance then veer left to check out the top of the Gondola (California Trail) before looping back around to the Children's Zoo with its petting zoo, bug building, giant tortoises, perky otters, and aging play area. You'll enjoy the scenic ride up into the hills, close-up views on the grizzly bears, engaging learning activities, and a creative play structure before the kiddos even notice the rides area.
Tips for families visiting the Oakland Zoo
- Bring a stroller. You will want it, especially toward the end of your visit.
- Pack a picnic lunch. We always tote water bottles, sandwiches, and snacks. There are many shady places to sit down for a snack or lunch.
- Negotiate the rides ahead of time. The Oakland Zoo rides are adorable miniature amusement rides that can take the better part of a day. Are you doing them, skipping them, or limiting to two each? Let your kiddo know in advance. This strategy can limit the begging.
- Hit the gondola early and often. It is included with admission price, and you don't even need to disembark.
- Consider a membership. To see our calculations, jump down to find out if an Oakland Zoo membership is worth the money.
Up high, California Trail at the Oakland Zoo
Hop on the gondola just past the giraffes for sweeping views of The Bay and a visit to the newest zoo expansion, California Trail. Watch airplanes land from Oakland's airport, view the cityscape, bridges, and spy on animals down below. You can ride the gondola up to the cafe for lunch. The ride up the gondola to the top part of the zoo is about 4 minutes long, and each gondola holds 8 people. We rode it more than once throughout the day, and didn't even have to hop off. Anna's boys loved watching life move down below.
The best part of the ride – it's FREE with zoo admission. The downside? Your kid is sure to spot Adventure Landing – the ride area which IS NOT free. Ha!
Once you're to the upper part of the zoo, you can enjoy new bear and condor habitats along with a super cool play structure. During my visit, there were also wolf pups, but I couldn't find them among the trees.
Check out the Conservation Habitarium
While you're in the “upstairs” part of the zoo, stop by the habitarium, across the courtyard from the Visitor Center/Cafe. The habitarium includes a very interactive exhibit of animal habitats, a scavenger hunt for mixed ages, and a gorgeous viewing window to watch the grizzly bears up close.
Play at the California Wilds! Playground
The SF Bay Overlook is pretty spectacular on a clear day. But, if I were a small child, I'd want to spend all my time at the playground! I would recommend planning extra time for the kids to explore all it has to offer. Themed after the five different ecological zones that the California Trail animals call home, play structures are creative and in perfect shape. Kids can slide down a turf hill on a leaf “sled”, zipline, hide, spin, build, hop, and run. Plenty of shade and benches make it a nice spot for a picnic snack.
Circle the upper area on the walking path
A counter-clockwise loop along the walking path is rewarding. Walk the path above the wolves — no howling! — before you see the condors and a bald eagle up close. Can you spot the mountain lions, black bears, and jaguars?
More animals to meet at the Oakland Zoo
The Oakland Zoo is 100 acres in size and some pathways feel pretty steep to push a stroller up. Download map >>
Wayne & Gladys Valley Children's Zoo
Near the lower entrance, you'll find the original climbing structures; playful river otters; giant tortoises; a petting zoo with goats to brush; and the somewhat creepy crawly House of Bugs. Past the petting yard, find the fruit bat pavillion; reptile and amphibian room; and some usually lazy alligators before seeing the adorable lemurs swinging around.
Walking up from the Children's Zoo keeping right, animals include all my many favorite monkeys, birds, and tigers. Remind children to be quiet while giggling at the many silly things the squirrel monkeys do. If you make it past the train tracks and to the flamingos, congrats, you've also found the gift shop and stroller rental.
Walking up from the Children's Zoo keeping left, you'll pass the bathroom before reaching baboons, warthogs, and the gorgeous giraffes. Once you see the giraffes, you can walk straight to the gondola or loop around to your left and see more African animals like lions, camels, elephants, and zebras. Say “hey” to the meerkats – Carol's kids called them the “security guards” because of the way they move and look at everything.
Adventure landing – the rides at the Oakland Zoo
The rides at the Oakland Zoo are perfectly preschooler-size and a lot of fun, but they do cost extra than the price of admission, so you'll want to plan accordingly. Though I love to groan about it, my children have talked me into springing for the extra cash to buy tickets to ride many, many times. You'll find a wonderful train that circles through the Australian Outback area as well as jeeps to drive, a carousel, small tiger roller coaster, and a pilot training ride.
Smaller rides cost 1 ticket, Larger rides (train, jeep, and coaster) cost 2. Becoming a member nets you a batch of ride tickets as well as the other perks.
Find a discount to the Oakland Zoo
Before you head out to the Zoo, look for a deal. We recommend checking out LivingSocial for zoo discounts.
Regular admission prices to the Oakland Zoo:
Under 2 and Over 75: FREE
Kids age 2 to 14 or seniors age 65 to 75: $20
Ages 15 to 64: $24
Car Parking: Another $10
For my family of two adults, three kids, and one vehicle, that's $118 per regular-priced visit
Perks of Membership at the Oakland Zoo:
In addition to the savings of regular admission, it is worth considering whether you will use any or all of these extra benefits. Since my family lives near one of the reciprocal zoos, we get a little boost when we go see grandma, too.
- FREE admission 362 days of the year at The Oakland Zoo
- FREE parking at The Oakland Zoo
- DISCOUNTS at the Gift Shop, for ZooCamp, Birthday Parties, and special events such as Walk in the Wild and ZooLights
- DISCOUNTED or FREE admission to over 125 zoos and aquariums nationwide
- When a kid gets snoozy or worse falls into the frog pond (like my kid did TODAY!), you can leave and not curse the entrance price (priceless)!
What Membership to the Oakland Zoo doesn't get you:
- FREE admission to annual ZooLights events, birthday parties, special events (except for special Member Mondays, which you should totally look for!)
- Additional guest passes or ride passes
Doing the math on the break-even point of an Oakland Zoo membership:
Though pricey at $174 my family of five (two adults and up to four children between 2 and 17 allowed) would have to go to to the Oakland Zoo less than twice to offset the ~$118 (gulp!) of a visit. That's not factoring in guests passes or ride tickets, but I think it's a slam dunk.
Two visits per year is very easy to meet. However, being members means we should go as often as we feel the urge to visit the gondola, new play structure, kangaroos, monkeys, giraffes, lazy lions, and zoo train. Membership also means discounted admission to local attractions, we also get half off when visiting the grandparents at the Cleveland Zoo (no, I don't mean to imply my parents live at the Zoo!).
Pro tip: I like to purchase a membership in the middle of December in order to get two ZooLights discounted member visits out of one calendar year. We go once in the second half of December for this year and can go once at the start of December next year before it expires.
When Zoo membership is not worth it
If your children are under age two, it may not be worth it yet; they're still free. Can you glom onto a friends' membership? Do the math on your own family and let us know if it's worth it for you.
Other membership levels:
There are many other zoo membership levels depending on the size of your family and whether you want to include other caregivers or frequent guests.
Special events & activities at the Oakland Zoo for families
[All photos 510families unless noted; rate information updated 7/19]