Close encounters with giraffes are a highlight of Santa Barbara Zoo. // © 2015 Melissa Karlin
Feature image (above): The zoo offers scenic views of the Pacific Ocean, the nearby mountains and downtown Santa Barbara. // © 2015 Melissa Karlin
Often called “the zoo with a view,” California’s Santa Barbara Zoo is one of the most popular family destinations in its namesake Central Coast city. Set on 30 acres of land and overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the zoo offers a more personal experience since it’s not as large as other such facilities.
“We are just the right size,” said Dean Noble, director of marketing for Santa Barbara Zoo. “We have enough resources to provide an outstanding experience, but we can keep it personal. We are essentially a boutique zoo.”
Despite its smaller size, the zoo is home to 146 species of mammals, reptiles, birds and insects. Families can expect to encounter Asian elephants, Chilean flamingos, Humboldt penguins, giant anteaters, snow leopards and the highly endangered California condor.
“The overall experience is fun and easy,” said Jaime Shaw, communications manager of Visit Santa Barbara. “My husband and I can take our toddler and not feel rushed. Even when we take our time, we see all of the animals.”
However, if the kids need to burn off some energy, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Kids can roam free at the sliding “ant hill,” an artificial turfed hill and creative play zone. Guests can even ride down the slopes on cardboard “sleds.”
Other non-animal activities that will entertain children are the miniature train, children’s garden and large-scale puppet shows.
“The train is truly a unique experience, and little kids absolutely love it,” said Rich Block, CEO of Santa Barbara Zoo. “Unlike other theme parks, we update our script and give engineers a chance to add their own flare.”
According to Noble, some children even call the train their favorite animal in the zoo — until, perhaps, they come face to face with a Masai giraffe.
“No matter their age, I definitely recommend guests feed the giraffe,” Block said.
For a $6 fee (in addition to zoo admission), patrons have the opportunity to hand-feed the majestic creatures. The activity is one of the zoo’s best photo opportunities.
Once the giraffe has had enough snacks, families might head to the children’s garden to learn about different flora or sit down for a dinosaur puppet show that demonstrates proper animal care. Opening this summer is a second show that will teach children about endemic California fauna through Native American folk tales.
Another major reason to visit the zoo is to support some of its conservation efforts. Zoo staff and volunteers help monitor and support local endangered species out in the wild, from California condors to Channel Island foxes. And through unique California eco-system exhibits, the zoo aims to call attention to native species such as these.
“The goal is ultimately to get people more engaged with the animals we have right here,” Block said. “We want to build the same enthusiasm about native species that guest have for lions, elephants and giraffes.”