Places to Play: Santa Barbara Zoo

Giraffes at the Santa Barbara Zoo, one of the best attractions for kids in Santa Barbara

As a destination blessed by an abundance of loveliness, it’s no surprise that Santa Barbara has a superb zoo. The AZA-accredited Santa Barbara Zoo covers 30 acres and is home to more than 500 animals. Among them are giraffes, western lowland gorillas, a flock of flamingos, and this year’s new arrivals (and brand-new parents!), African lions Felicia and Ralph.

The zoo’s size is compact enough for even small children to explore in full without a fuss. Stay for a few hours or all day, and you’ll be able to take in every exhibit. It also allows for a second loop-around if, for example, some must-see animals were previously sleeping or out of view.

A flock of Chilean flamingos at the Santa Barbara Zoo, a top family attraction

In addition to the Santa Barbara Zoo’s top-notch animal attractions, its gardens, green spaces and scenery deserve some praise. The Pacific Ocean and an expansive bird refuge flank the property. Behind the exhibits might be sweeping ocean views, an uninterrupted estuary landscape or the distant Santa Ynez Mountains. The zoo also has some impressive green spaces of its own, including palm and cactus gardens and sizeable lawns ideal for picnics.

After closing due to the pandemic, the Santa Barbara Zoo has been open daily since June 2020, with reservations required. Crowds are sparse due to the reduced capacity, so this is a good time to visit if you typically avoid them. Some exhibits and services are currently closed. If you’re planning a trip to the zoo, check online at for the latest information.

Reservations Required at Santa Barbara Zoo

At this time, limited quantities of tickets to the Santa Barbara Zoo are available by advance reservation only. This applies to members and non-members alike, on a first-come, first-served basis. Face coverings are required for all visitors ages 3-plus. There are hand sanitizer stations throughout, as well as signage reminding visitors about social distancing.

The zoo train is running on a limited schedule with reservations required. Giraffe feeding is also available; buy tickets online beforehand. The majority of the animal exhibits are open as usual. Some of the more popular exhibits might have queues, with one group at a time given access to prime viewing spots.

A tortoise at the Santa Barbara Zoo

Areas currently closed include the play area and children’s gardens, walk-through aviaries and the Eeeww! exhibit of reptiles, amphibians and insects. Food and souvenirs are available outdoors for purchase with credit/debit cards only. Bathrooms are open but drinking fountains are closed, so bring water.

Santa Barbara Zoo Highlights

Some of the show-stealing big mammals at the zoo are the four Masai giraffes, including adorable baby Twiga; the boisterous western lowland gorilla brothers Nzinga and Bangori; and new arrivals for 2020, the African lions Ralph and Felicia. There are other big cats to admire – an Amur leopard and snow leopard – and a playful troupe of white-handed gibbons occupying their own island. Other favorites are the Fennec fox exhibit, home to two adorable fluffballs, and the slender-tailed meerkat habitat, whose high-alert residents are unaware that they’re in little danger at the zoo.

A western lowland gorilla plays with a toy at the Santa Barbara Zoo, a top attraction for kids

The zoo’s exotic birdlife is quite a draw, with scarlet, military and blue-and-yellow macaws, toco toucans and several hornbills, plus a whole flock of Chilean flamingos. You can also see the endangered California condor with its enormous wingspan.

Coming Soon….

Those remarkable lions, Felicia and Ralph, who arrived at the zoo in May of 2020, had their first cub early this month. The female cub, Pauline, will make her public debut shortly.

The Santa Barbara Zoo recently broke ground on its new Australian Walkabout exhibit. Taking the space of the now-closed elephant habitat (R.I.P. Sujatha and Little Mac), the 15,000-square-foot space will be home to wallabies, kangaroos, emus and Australian birds. It’s scheduled to open in summer 2021.


Santa Barbara Zoo, 500 Nonos Drive, Santa Barbara, CA 93103

(805) 962-5339

Planning family fun elsewhere in California? Check out “Where to Go for Family Fun in the East Bay.”

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