Oakland Zoo For Families (Is Membership Worth It?) - 510 Families
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Oakland Zoo For Families (Is Membership Worth It?)

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!).

Oakland Zoo entrance
Oakland Zoo entrance | Photo: Oakland Zoo

Visiting the Oakland Zoo with little kids

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 newer 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.

oakland zoo insect playground
The newer insect play area in the Children’s Zoo is super fun and Insta gold | Photo: Julie Herson

Tips for families visiting the Oakland Zoo

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 riding them, skipping them, or limiting to two each? Let your kiddo know in advance. This strategy can limit the begging.

Once that conversation is out of the way (phew!), head to the Gondola. Take in the views, take pictures, and wave to the passing cars. Riding the Gondola is free.

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.

two kids looking out of gondola
The gondola ride is always a highlight, especially yelling “hi” to passing cabs | Photo: Julie Herson

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.

child talking to zoo staff
My five-year-old getting her “mission” at the Habitarium | Photo: Julie Herson

ProTip: Go directly to the front desk and ask for a “mission”. Then sit back and relax while your kiddos go on multiple scavenger hunts to earn animal trading cards. Every kid we saw there LOVED this.

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 snack.

child sliding head first down slide
The play area at the upper part of the zoo is a favorite. Just be prepared to wait in line for the zip line | Photo: Julie Herson

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?

little girl standing in front of water tank
The bear water-play area is hit-or-miss. This day the bears were lounging in the background | Photo: Julie Herson

Many 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 some newer insect 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.

two kids pointing at a yellow tree frog
The tiny frogs and cute turtles are always fun to find | Photo: Julie Herson

Tropical Rainforest

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.

two children watching a gibbon swing on trees
The lively gibbons are always our favorite, swinging in the trees and playing around | Photo: Julie Herson

African Savanna

Walking up from the Children’s Zoo keeping left, you’ll pass the bathroom before reaching baboons, warthogs, and 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, 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.

Children on carousel at Oakland Zoo
Ride the wildlife-based carousel at Oakland Zoo’s Adventure Landing | Photo: Stacy Avery via Facebook

Smaller rides cost 1 ticket; larger rides (train, jeep, and coaster) cost 2 tickets. You can buy a book of tickets and save them for your next visit (just don’t misplace them like I always do).

Is an Oakland Zoo membership worth it for families?

Regular admission prices to the Oakland Zoo:

There’s a new pricing system as of January 2024, called plan-ahead pricing ticketing system. Plan-ahead pricing allows you to book your zoo visit in advance while keeping your budget and schedule in mind.

Ticket prices may vary daily. The closer you book to the date of your visit, the higher the ticket price may be. To ensure that you get the best ticket price for your visit, we recommend that you book your tickets as far in advance as possible.

Under 2 and Over 75: FREE
Kids age 2 to 14 or seniors age 65 to 75: $14-20
Ages 15 to 64: $17-24
Car Parking: Another $12 if you pre-pay, $15 at the door.
For my family of two adults, three kids, and one vehicle, that’s over $110 per regular-priced visit, depending on when we go (it can vary more than $5 per ticket).

Perks of Membership at the Oakland Zoo:

As of January 2024, members do not need a reservation in advance. 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
  • No Reservation needed
  • 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 Glowfari events, birthday parties, or special events (except for special Member Mondays, which you should totally look for!)
  • Additional guest passes or ride passes
light up butterflies at oakland zoo
Illuminated butterfly garden at Glowfari | Photo: Annie Reid

Doing the math on the break-even point of an Oakland Zoo membership:

Though pricey at $194, a family membership entitles two adults and up to four children daytime admission all year. If your single visit is $110 (two adults, three kids and a parking spot) — or even more, like our writer Julie who has four kids — you would have to go to the Oakland Zoo less than twice to offset the cost of a visit. That savings, plus not having to bother with a reservation or parking, make a membership pretty much a slam dunk.

If you just have one little baby? Maybe wait on a membership! | Photo: Heather Flett

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.

Tips for families visiting the Oakland Zoo

  • Make your reservation early. Go ahead, do it now >>
  • Bring a stroller. You will want it, especially toward the end of your visit.
  • Pack a lunch. We always tote water bottles, sandwiches, and snacks. There are many shady places to sit down for a snack or lunch.
  • Hit the gondola early and often. It is included with admission price, and you don’t even need to disembark.
  • Consider a membership. Reference our calculations to figure out if an Oakland Zoo membership is worth the money.

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