Location: Orange: Inside Irvine Regional Park, 1 Irvine Park Road
Hours: 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily
Cost: Entry fees for the park are $3 per vehicle during the week, $5 on weekends and $7 to $10 on holidays. Entry fee to the zoo is $2 per person (children under 2 enter free). Your animal-lover might talk you into a pony ride, too, which runs $3 per person.
For ages: All
Orange County Zoo lies hidden among the centuries-old oaks and sycamores in Irvine Regional Park in the hills of Santiago Canyon. The oldest zoo in the county, it has been in existence inside the park – in some form – since about 1905, when red foxes were bred and brought to the region. Later, park superintendents set up corrals to house mule deer, and an alligator exhibit thrilled park visitors in the 1920s until visitors became even more enthralled with a bird exhibit of cockatoos, quail and parakeets, which was introduced in the 1930s.
Today, the zoo’s 8 acres are home to more than 150 animals representing the southwest, including bears, beavers, barn owls, bald eagles and “Simba the Mountain Lion.” A new island fox arrived and has been settling into his new digs near the porcupine exhibit. Works are under way for a new watery habitat to house harbor seals. Shady paths lead past all the exhibits in an easy-to-follow loop, with a side loop toward some barn animals such as pigs and goats that kids can pet. Benches are placed throughout to rest. A vending machine with cold drinks is near the zoo entrance.
The zoo hosts several excellent learning programs for preschoolers and grade-schoolers, such as “What’s For Lunch?” (learning what animals eat), “Feathery Friends” (learning about birds through crafts and activites) and “Nose, Toes and Ears” (identifying how animals are the same and different) and more. The programs generally take place on weekday mornings (for preschoolers) and weekends (for grade-schoolers) and run about $5 to $10 per child. They require preregistration (714-973-6846).
Not requiring preregistration, however, and free with zoo admission are the “storytime” programs held under one of the park’s enormous live coastal oaks. Storytimes are held at various times both on weekdays (for preschoolers) and on weekends (for grade-schoolers). Check the web site for the current month’s dates and times.
After touring the zoo, your little animal lover might enjoy a pony ride, too. Located near the park’s entrance next to the train, pony rides are offered in a large corral from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends and holidays. During the summer, when local schools are out, pony rides are available every day except Mondays. Rides are $3 per person.
The park has numerous picnic tables and 477 acres of rolling lawn on which to enjoy a picnic lunch. Although you can drive right up to the zoo if you wish and park there, we usually park sooner, near the train ride, and enjoy the train and ponies before walking to the zoo, which is a pleasant 5-minute stroll away along some of the park’s prettiest paths.
Where to park: Once you enter Irvine Park, you can drive directly up to the zoo entrance; signs will guide you. Or you can park in the area where the train rides and pony rides are and enjoy those attractions before taking a stroll around the lake to the zoo.
What to bring: Bottled water, sunscreen, hats, wipies and antibacterial gel for use after petting the barn animals. Cash for the parking fee, zoo entry fee. You might want to bring cash for snacks, train rides and pony rides if you wish ($3 each).
Best time to go: Weekends are a little more crowded, but not unpleasant. Check the ocparks web site to see if you can time your visit with a “storytime” at the zoo, which little ones love.
For more information: 714-973-6835 or Orange County Parks website
Have you been to the Orange County Zoo in Irvine Park? Do you have any special tips or memories to share?
If you want to go to a bigger zoo, you might enjoy Santa Ana Zoo at Prentice Park.