Ready to roar with the lions, roam with the wolves or let a tarantula perch on your head? Do your kids want to learn how to be a vet, feed a zebra or sea turtle or ride a camel? Then we’ve got animal encounters they’ll go wild for. San Diego is home to so many amazing places to get up close and personal with almost any creature you can think of. Read on for where life is a real zoo and you’ll have a total ball.

photo: The Living Coast Discovery Center

The Living Coast Discovery Center

No need to dive into the ocean to experience sea life up close. The Living Coast Discovery Center is home to more than 20 exhibits that feature local marine life including octopus, sea horses, jellies, sharks and eels. Shark lovers will be in awe at the 21,000 gallon exhibit that houses four local shark species: leopard sharks, grey smoothhound sharks, horn sharks, and swell shark. More than just a place to view animals, kids can interact with many creatures: touch a ray or feed a sea turtle! They also offer VIP Animal Encounters for an extra fee and an array of educational events and programs to teach kids about the care and conservation of wildlife.

Read our guide to exploring cool critters at The Living Coast Discovery Center here.

1000 Gunpowder Point Dr.
Chula Vista, Ca 91910
619-409-5900
online: thelivingcoast.org

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photo: Beth Shea

Children's Nature Retreat

Feel a world away just outside the city in Alpine at the Children's Nature Retreat. This locale is a literal escape to the animal kingdom where kids can come face to face with magnificent creatures ranging from camels, a bull, horses and zebras to goats, bunnies and pigs. They'll get to feed the animals at will and have a picnic under the trees. It's a dreamy way to spend a day.

Read our guide to visiting Children's Nature Retreat here.

Children’s Nature Retreat
5178 Japatul Spur
Alpine, Ca 91901
619-320-4942
online: childrensnatureretreat.com

photo: Oasis Camel Dairy

Oasis Camel Dairy

Heading to Julian? Be sure to include a visit to Oasis Camel Dairy which is nearby in Ramona in your plans. The 32-acre working ranch and camel milk dairy is home to a large camel herd as well as donkeys, horses, sheep, turkeys and exotic birds. Run by ranchers Gil and Nancy Riegler, their mission is to share the incredible nature of camels and camel milk with visitors. Go on one of their Open Farm Tours to learn about, ride and feed and pet camels. You'll also get to visit the Camel Milk Product Shop to find unique gems including camel milk chocolate!

26757 Old Julian Hwy.
Ramona, Ca 92065
760-787-0983
online: cameldairy.com

photo: Wild Wonders

Wild Wonders

Wild Wonders in Bonsall offers a Family Zoo Camp that's a three-hour interactive experience for families who adore animals. It's a splurge at $395 for a family of four, but it's exclusively geared for one family at a time. In this unique adventure, parents and kids will together perform various animal husbandry duties, learn about conservation efforts with endangered species and get a full, private tour of the facility. Plus, there will be plenty of opportunities for photos that will be lifetime keepsakes. You can also opt for an array of other interactive animal experiences they offer including a less expensive guided tour of the facility and meet animals including binturongs, foxes, kinkajous and pythons.

online: wildwonders.org

California Wolf Center

The California Wolf Center seeks to recover wolves to the wild so they may have a safe and peaceful existence. They offer "Wolf Recovery Today" and a "Wolf Pack Tour" wherein visitors will be given an educational presentation on wolves before a guided observation tour of two packs of wolves.

online: californiawolfcenter.org

photo: San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo & San Diego Safari Park

Kids will go wild for an annual pass to the San Diego Zoo & San Diego Safari Park- truly a gift that keeps on giving. The world famous destinations here in our backyard as lucky San Diegans, are home to an impressive, amazing and rare array of animals big and small––and these locales are constantly improving by adding new habitats, creatures and programs to their ongoing animal conservation and global education efforts. Click here to read about the thrilling new exhibits that just opened at the Zoo.

 

For an extra special experience, go on the family Roar & Snore Safari adventure for all ages which includes a sleepover at the Safari Park, up close animal encounters, a ride on the Africa Tram and more!

San Diego Zoo
2920 Zoo Dr.
San Diego, Ca
619-231-1515
online: zoo.sandiegozoo.org

San Diego Zoo Safari Park
15500 San Pasqual Valley Rd.
San Diego, Ca
619-231-1515
online: sdzsafaripark.org

photo: Ginger Anderson

EcoVivarium 

Got a kiddo who's crazy for reptiles, amphibians and arthropods? The hands-on experiences at EcoVivarium will surely delight. Kids will be treated to an interactive and immersive experience featuring more than 200 rescued and donated animals including a Croc Monitor, Black and White Tegu, Giant Pixie Frog and 17-foot Amethystine Python. Read more about this creepy, crawly experience here.

136 S. Juniper St
Escondido, Ca.
760-975-9690
Online: ecovivarium.org

photo: San Elijo Vet Care

Advanced Veterinary Care of San Elijo

If you've got an aspiring vet in your home, then be sure not to miss the wonderful opportunity to take him/her to a veterinary skills children's workshop at Advanced Veterinary Care of San Elijo. Kids can learn suturing and surgical skills, animal physiology and pet husbandry among other topics during the hospital's Wednesday afternoon PAWS (Pet Awareness Workshop Series). Learn more about these animal classes here.

1691 Melrose Dr. #110
San Marcos, Ca
760-736-3636
Online: sanelijovet.com

photo: Helen Woodward Animal Center

Helen Woodward Animal Center

You'll find an abundance of various opportunities to interact with and learn about animals at Helen Woodward Animal Center. From their seasonal Critter Camps to their "You Can Be a Veterinarian" Camp and their Mommy & Me "First FURiends" classes for 2-4 year-olds to their animal-centric birthday parties and therapeutic horseback riding ––there's a program geared for every age and stage at this haven that houses an array of furred, feathered and scaled creatures as well as rescue animals for adoption. You're sure to find an animal encounter experience that's just right for your kiddo.

Helen Woodward Animal Center
6461 El Apajo Rd.
Rancho Santa Fe, Ca 92067
858-756-4117 x 318
Online: animalcenter.org/education

Where’s your favorite place to get up close and personal with wildlife? Share in the comments below!

––Beth Shea

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