The Backstage Pass is the flagship of the Zoo's Special Tours and Animal Interactions. It's a 90-minute experience that begins in an outdoor auditorium, transitions into petting and feeding rhinos, moves back into the auditorium, transitions again into petting and feeding more animals, and then ends up with an up-close cheetah encounter. There are all kinds of added perks, like unlimited nonalcoholic beverages, a 10% discount at the Zoo's gift store, priority tour bus loading the rest of the day, special seating at the shows around the park, and more, but those are tangential to, you know, petting and feeding cute things. Which is awesome.
This is probably where we should point out that, in sharp contrast to several zoos, to some circuses, and to far too many country fairs, if the Backstage Pass animals don't want to deal with your nonsense they don't have to. If they get spooked, they walk off stage. It's a testament to the competence of the trainers and handlers at the San Diego Zoo that their animals feel as comfortable in public as they do.
The auditorium parts of the Backstage Pass show that we saw included a wolf (which they got to howl), an exotic bird (which they got to cluck), a clouded leopard, two servals, and the cheetah/puppy pair. In between, guests got to feed flamingos, a kangaroo, and the pair of rhino brothers in the center of the Zoo's Urban Jungle section. Check out our first gallery for all of that and more. Additionally, check out this video posted last year by CNN iReporter Chris Morrow, which is a more than fair representation of the animal interaction. You more or less get to pet any animal that is willing to let you pet it, with the exception of the big cats.
The Backstage Pass experience is $99/person and available every day.
Inside Look Tour
This tour is technically a rung below the Backstage Pass programit's $30 cheaper at $69/personbut honestly we're not sure which we recommend more. For one thing the Inside Look Tour lasts 30 minutes longer, clocking in at a full two hours. For another, you get to see more of the Zoo and the group you travel around with is limited to the 7 guests who can fit into the tour cart. While you see slightly fewer animals and get many fewer perks, the experience takes you to places on the grounds that you would simply never even glimpse otherwise.
The tour is built around a series of exhibits to which your tour guide takes you. At each exhibit you get off the cart and go physically and literally behind the exhibit, into where the trainers and keepers care for the animals. Our tour took us to the tiger exhibit, and then from there into the Elephant Care Center at the new Elephant Odyssey. If you check out the second picture gallery, you'll see a specially-built "boot" that they put on the bull of the herd whenever his feet require some padding. Again, give us a 100 years and it would never have occurred to us to help an elephant out by putting boots on him. Competence.
From there it was off to feed guanacos and camels, before ending up in the announcer's booth at the Zoo's panda exhibit. Is that a baby panda in those last two pictures, running around the exhibit with mom? It might be, it might well be.
The entire tour is more walking and driving than the Backstage Pass, where the animals are mostly brought to you rather than the other way around. Different experiences for different tastes. If you like animals or zoos at all though, you should make a point of choosing at least one of them.
This is kind of an accelerated version of the Inside Look Tour, and provides a quick way to see a huge swath of the zoo with an expert guide at the helm. On any given day you pay $39/person, and in exchange they take you on a 60-minute cart tour that covers 70% of the grounds. At the end you get dropped off at a show, where you'll get priority seating, again like with the Backstage Pass. The downside is that you don't really get to interact with animals the way you do with the other tours. But it's still a fast, easy, and affordable way to get something extra and to see the animals a little more closely.
Little known fact: the value and rarity of the San Diego Zoo's botanical collection exceeds that of the animals they care for. Now consider that the Zoo has one of the most extensive animal collections in the world, and you begin to get a sense of what the park offers plant lovers and photographers. Above and beyond just being able to wander around, you can now book a special Horticulture Tour to get an insider look at the over 700,000 plants on the Zoo grounds.
The tour lasts either 90 minutes ($25/person) or two hours ($35/person) and can be tweaked depending on what you want to see. The only limitations are that you have to assemble 15 or more people for the event, and that reservations are only available Monday-Friday.
[Photo: Omri Ceren / Jaunted]