If your little bunny wants to walk with the animals and talk with the animals… or even touch, pet, feed and hug them too, we’ve got just the ticket for a hands-on safari. From ponies, pigs and talking parrots to goats, camels, alpacas and so many more amazing creatures, your little tyke will go wild for these petting zoos. Read on for the details.

Surfside Ranch

Reach out and touch a chicken, goat, pig or a llama. To start, it's free if you just want to take a look... or pay a nominal fee to pet and feed the animals. Also, there's no age requirement at this zoo, except little tykes four and under need to have a grown-up with them. Even more, if you love this local ranch they offer birthday parties, pony rides, summer programs and more. Let your little one pet the animals and check out the ranch!

Insider's Tip: Wear long pants and closed toed shoes.

Cost: petting zoo, $3/person for 15 minutes
Hours: Mon.-Sun., 9 a.m.-dark

Surfside Ranch
2225 Hollister St.
San Diego, Ca
619-443-3517
Online: surfsideranch.com

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Sugar Sweet Farm

It's a family affair! Invite the grandparents too. Further, be ready for a bunny snuggling, chicken feeding, pony-riding adventure. For one fee, everyone's (siblings too!) invited to this local farm in Encinitas for a full-hour of barnyard fun. Even more, splurge and have your little farmhand (three and older) take a pony ride. There will be plenty of great photo-ops on this private farm tour.

Insider's Tip:
Wear long pants and closed toed shoes.

Hours: By appointment only.
Cost: $80/family; $40/person for a half hour horse ride

Sugar Sweet Farm
Encinitas, Ca 92024
760-815-6616
Online: sugarsweetfarm.com

photo: Beth Shea

Children's Nature Retreat

It's day trip time! This gorgeous, serene retreat is about a 40-minute ride (from downtown San Diego) and it's well worth the drive. You'll see and touch an amazing array of animals. Even more, each entrance fee includes a big bucket of grass for feeding the animals. You and your fam will interact with horses, llamas, pigs, chickens, cows, zebras, camels, tortoises (yes!) and more. Prepare to be in awe of nature.

Read our full review of Children's Nature Retreat here.

Insider's Tip: Pack a lunch to eat at the picnic tables by the great oak tree. 

Cost: $25/adult; $15/child; free for kids under two
Hours: March-Oct., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Nov.-Feb., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Children's Nature Retreat
5170 Japatul Spur
Alpine, Ca
619-320-4942
Online: childrensnatureretreat.org

Pony Land

Giddy up to South San Diego and pet a pig, hug a cow or ride a pony. You'll find a plethora of animals at this working farm that your little one can pet and snuggle. After the animal encounters, kiddos can play in Dodge City or the Western-themed play area. Also, half-pints ages 2-8 can take a pony ride (three laps around the corral) hand-held with an experienced guide.

Insider's Tip: You can go during the week if you make an appointment.

Cost: $10/person for petting zoo; free for kids under two; $5/pony ride
Hours: Sat. & Sun., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Pony Land
2606 Hollister St.
San Diego, Ca
619-947-3952
Online: ponylandsandiego.com

Free Flight

Birds of a feather flock together! Say hello to the parrots and they say hello or sing to you too! Even more, feed your feathery friends and gently pet them on the back. The docents provide information and help. Also, little ones love to check out the giant koi fish as an extra treat. This small non-profit bird sanctuary makes a fun and unique day outing for the crew.

Good to know: Free Flight is small, but a visit makes for a great afternoon.

Cost: $7/adult; $3/child (under 13 years old)
Hours: Daily, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; except Weds., 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

2132 Jimmy Durante Blvd.
Del Mar, Ca
858-481-3148
Online: freeflightbirds.org

photo: Leah Singer

Petting Paddock

This is a first-rate place for future veterinarians to interact with the animals and it’s educational too. Go into the petting paddock (it’s in the Children’s Zoo) and your little animal-lover may let out a tiny “whee” of excitement while petting and brushing the soft sheep. These baa-u-tiful creatures love small-hands giving their back a soft sweet stroke. You can ask your wee ones to compare the feel of a wooly sheep’s coat to a pygmy goat’s hair. You’ll also appreciate the cool playground and other learning experiences outside the petting paddock.

Hours: Open daily, hours vary by day
Cost: $54/adult; $44/child (includes zoo admission)

San Diego Zoo
2920 Zoo Dr.
San Diego, Ca
Online: sandiegozoo.org

Zoomars

Bunnies and guinea pigs? Sound like smiles are close at hand. Your little bunnies will love to meet theirs (bunnies, that is). Not only is there a huge walk-in corral fabulously-filled with bunnies and guinea pigs, your little peeps will get a kick out of feeding the goats, sheep, llamas and donkeys too. This hands-on place has plenty of options for small-critter fun. Just be prepared for activity fees. We’re giving you a good ol’ heads-up so you can manage your little farmers’ expectations.

Insider’s Tip: Take a potty-break before you get there (the restrooms are outhouses).

Hours: Daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Cost: $12/adult; $10/child ($3 train ride; $5 animal food, $6 pony ride)

Zoomars
31791 Los Rios St.
San Juan Capistrano, Ca
Online: zoomars.com

 

OC Zoo

Did someone say day trip? The OC Zoo is small-scale, affordable pint-sized fun. Meet some gregarious goats. Easily walk to a supervised goat-area, where littles can brush, pet, feed and even view a picture chart with the goats’ names too. Outside the petting area you and your tot can witness local wildlife up-close. Get eye-to-eye with a wolf, spot a beaver’s dam, observe a California black bear and bald eagle. Have lunch at the 475-acre park and go choo-choo on the railroad. There's plenty to do on this outstanding-outing—it’s a total win for the younger set.

Hours: Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; Sat. & Sun. 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Cost: $2/person; free for kids under 3. Park parking, $3/car Mon.-Fri.; $5/car Sat. & Sun. (holidays more)

1 Irvine Park Rd.
Orange, Ca 92869
Online: ocparks.com/zoo

photo: Leah Singer

Petting Kraal

Not only will the kiddies get a little giddy, they might also let out a small “baa-baa” when they get a gander of the Zoo Safari Park’s petting kraal. The perfect-place for timid toddlers to reach out and gently feel a goat’s hair or a sheep’s wooly-softness, little farm-hands will also delight in brushing the animals too. Enter a large fenced-in area with plenty of space and introduce your little one to first-hand farm-fun. An extra bonus is watching the newborn animals (located right before you enter the petting kraal).

Read our Insider's Guide to the Safari Park here.

Hours: Daily, 9 a.m-5 p.m.; longer hours in the summer
Cost: $54/adult; $44/child (includes park admission to the park)

Zoo Safari Park
15500 San Pasqual Valley Rd.
Escondido, CA 92027
Online: sdzsafaripark.org

photo: Leah Singer

Bates Nut Farm

Head north up the 15 freeway to Valley Center and you’ll find Bates Nut Farm is a sweet stop for some rustic romping. Not only can little farm-helpers shout a hee-haw to mini donkeys and hand-feed the goats and sheep, they also get a look-see at the llamas, pigs, emus, chickens, peacocks, ducks and geese and a tortoise. The animals will eat from your hand and bags of animal feed can be purchased for 50 cents. Wrap up the morning with a byo-picnic (bring your own) under the big shade trees. Let the littles run, blow bubbles, bounce balls and they’ll be ready for that afternoon nap. Head on home with the happy tank—full.

Good to know: The farm zoo has lots of farm animals, but you don’t actually get in the pen with them.

Hours: Daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m
Cost: .50 cents for animal feed. Farm & parking free. (Except: $5 parking October)

15954 Woods Valley Rd.

Valley Center, Ca 92082
Online: batesnutfarm.biz

Don’t forget to always wash your hands after petting the animals!

—Nikki Walsh

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