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What You Need to Know About California Zoos and Aquariums

Streamline your next visit by planning ahead, checking local resources, and following safety protocols

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While California’s zoos & aquariums have been quiet for much of 2020 due to the COVID-19 crisis, many have re-opened, with a variety of new protocols in place for safety. They all must adhere to their respective county and local guidelines and regulations, which may include the continued closure of indoor spaces.

While most zoos have an abundance of outdoor enclosures, restrictions on indoor spaces will likely have a considerable impact on aquariums—such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium and La Jolla’s Birch Aquarium. As of press time, the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach has only opened its outdoor exhibits; admission prices have been reduced to reflect this pivot. The gradual reopening has allowed Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, in Vallejo, to go back to its original roots as a zoo and aquarium: the park’s Marine World Experience is open on select days, also with reduced admission.

No matter where you’re heading, it’s crucial to check local resources, and each zoo or aquarium’s website, before you go. While you’re at it, review the CDC's guide for visiting parks and recreational facilities and Visit California’s Responsible Travel Hub.

“Now that we are open again, we love being able to inspire and educate the people in our community in person,” says Brandy Gamoning, marketing director for the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. The popular destination has lowered its maximum capacity, based on the zoo’s square footage, to allow for appropriate physical distancing.

“We hear a lot of appreciation for all of the changes we have made,” she says, noting the hand-washing and sanitizing stations as well as the social distancing markers. “And people are definitely enjoying the smaller crowds.”  

What to Expect

Most of the biggest zoos and aquariums in California are offering similar protocols: reduced maximum capacity to avoid crowds; online ticket sales; temperature checks for guests entering the park; lots of hand washing/hand sanitizer stations, and increased cleaning of park surfaces throughout the day. Zoos and aquariums also ask that guests to do their part: bring a face covering (per the state mandate for masks in public places), be mindful of the six-foot physical distancing guidelines, and stay away if you feel sick.

To foster plenty of that physical distancing, zoos and aquariums are setting limits on daily admission. Similar to the measures the Fresno Chaffee Zoo is taking, the San Diego Zoo and its sister property, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, will both cap attendance each day at less than 50 percent of usual capacity. The Sacramento Zoo will admit only 1,500 visitors per day, well below the usual peak-season totals of up to 5,000 per day. Palm Desert’s Living Desert, now operating on its shorter-day summer schedule, will only allow up to 200 visitors per hour, capping attendance at 1,000 each day.

To help regulate the number of visitors, most zoos and aquariums won’t be selling admission tickets at the gates. Instead, you buy tickets online in advance, and reserve your entrance time; you can stay as long as you want once you arrive. (Zoo and aquarium members, meanwhile, don’t need to buy tickets ahead of time, but they do need to reserve entrance times.) There’s a chance, according to the San Diego Zoo website, that the zoo could be at capacity when you arrive for your time slot—and if that’s the case, you can either wait until some guests leave, or just use your ticket on another day or time. To help with planning, its website includes a helpful chart highlighting peak times.

Once inside, look for directional signs on the ground—one-way traffic helps encourage good distancing. Some experiences may still be suspended for now, such as up-close encounters, shows, or tours. At Sonoma’s massive Safari West, tours are an integral part of the experience, so the park has added space and plexiglass partitions between rows on tour vehicles. Sit-down restaurants will likely be closed at most zoos and aquariums, but keep an eye out for grab-and-go meals and snacks. At the San Francisco Zoo, the regular gift shops will be replaced with outdoor, pop-up shops. For any add-on purchases, expect to pay by credit or debit card for everything while you’re there—cash payments may not be an option.

Before You Go

Start by booking your ticket and reserving your entrance time online—and see if there’s anything else you can book early. At the Santa Barbara Zoo, you can reserve parking and train tickets online too. Check out the attraction’s map on the website, and either save it to your phone or make a printout, since paper maps likely won’t be available onsite. Bring along your own stroller or wheelchair, if you would otherwise rent one, since such rentals may not be available right now.

And of course, bring a face covering. Not only can masking up help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among people, it can reportedly help protect critters, too. (You’ll likely notice some mask-only zones, and that the staffers and animal caregivers are more suited up than usual, for the same reason.) San Bernardino County’s Big Bear Alpine Zoo, a rehab facility for injured native wildlife, urges the use of masks in part because there is evidence that big cats, such as the resident mountain lions, can potentially catch COVID-19 from humans (though there is no evidence that humans can catch it from animals).

Zoos are taking all these precautions, says Gamoning, “to provide a safe and healthy visit for guests, while also protecting our staff and animals.”

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