Oasis in Orange County, CA – Santa Ana Zoo

The Santa Ana Zoo at Prentice Park, nestled in the midst of an urban setting, is an oasis in Orange County. It was founded in 1952 by Joseph Prentice, who requested at least 50 monkeys be kept at all times. It has since expanded to nearly 20 acres with a rain forest exhibit, several rare and endangered species, a walk-through aviary, a train ride, and a carousel. Last weekend, we roamed the rainforest, trekked through the aviary, relaxed by the waterfall at Amazon’s Edge, and explored the grounds on the Zoofari Express. With a personal, behind-the-scenes tour from the Director, Kent Yamaguchi, we experienced an escape in Orange County without the price tag of a major attraction.

A park setting with clusters of trees and a picnic area led us from the parking lot to the main entrance. A modern playground adjoined it, from which started our informal path through the rest of the zoo. Roaming on the grounds were Indian blue peafowl and helmeted guineafowl.

The zoo’s major focus is the primate collection, especially Central and South American monkeys, and much of the rest of the collection features animals from Central and South America. The layout is a visual treat blurring the lines between animals and visitors.

Amazon’s Edge is the largest exhibit at the Santa Ana Zoo and features a waterfall that can be viewed from a wooden deck. The front of the habitat holds a water moat into which a large waterfall spills; behind it is a lushly planted land area with climbing branches and perches. The luscious habitat is home to howler monkeys, ducks, black-necked swans, and crested screamers. We viewed the exhibit from a rustic wood railing area with a viewing shelter buried within the shade of this tropical paradise. We were no longer stuck in the Orange County rush as we we transported to the Amazon.

Nearby is my favorite exhibit at this zoo, Colors of the Amazon. We mingled with a variety of exotic birds, who, free from cages and other enclosures, roamed about as if they were still in their native South America. Encompassing an expansive 9,000 square feet, the aviary features such colorful birds as the white-bellied caique, scarlet ibis, emerald toucanet, and blue-crowned mot-mot. In addition, the ponds feature red-eared slider turtles. Before leaving this exhibit, we relaxed at a small waterfall area that provided the perfect photo opportunity.

The Exploration Outpost fits in well with the Amazon-themed exhibits. Although it is primarily an education room in a themed peaked-roof thatched building surrounded by some play statues of a lizard and tortoise, it does have a small area with several glass terrariums for tropical insects inside and a famous bird-eating tarantula. The newest exhibit at the zoo, Tierra de las Pampas, is composed of two exhibits; the larger is for guanaco and greater rhea. The smaller exhibit is a nice one for giant anteater, a personal selection for the zoo’s Director.

The Tierra de las Pampas exhibit celebrates and preserves one of the most highly endangered habitats in the world, the Pampas Grasslands of South America. We were immersed into the environment and surrounded by native plants, grasses, and water as we explored this exhibit.

The Crean Family Farm, a large part of the zoo, offers a family farmyard adventure where you can pet some of the animals and learn about life on a farm. It is reached from a spur path from the main loop and at its entrance is the Conservation Carousel. The carrousel has a 33 animal line-up including the Giraffe, Giant Panda, African Elephant, Cheetah, Hummingbird, Lowland Gorilla, Eagle, Jaguar, Zebra, Bengal Tiger, Sea Otter, Panther, Seal, Sea Dragon, and a custom-made Anteater. Also at the entrance to the Crean Family Farm is the boarding station for the Zoofari Express Train Ride, a fun treat for both adults and kids.

If you work up an appetite while visiting the Santa Ana Zoo, there are picnic areas and Knowlwood restaurant. The most interesting feature of dining at the zoo is that you can bring your own food for enjoyment. If you don’t fancy paying high prices, like at most zoos, you can pack your own food and enjoy a simpler, family meal.

Santa Ana Zoo is definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for a fun, family-friendly day trip. Numerous events like Holiday with the Critters and Boo at the Zoo make the Santa Ana Zoo interesting all year round. Parking is free and admission to the zoo is very reasonably priced.

24 thoughts on “Oasis in Orange County, CA – Santa Ana Zoo

  1. Awesome! I love Zoos! I know some people look at them as cages for animals, but kids learn so much from those animals that it’s hard not to love it. And the Denver Zoo has a “Boo at the Zoo” as well!


    • The Santa Ana Zoo has education and conservation programs and they participate in a number of the AZA (American Zoo and Aquarium Association) programs. It isn’t about cages or capturing animals. With Boo at the Zoo, Holiday with the Critters, Membership Appreciation Day, and Zoo-B-Que and Party for the Planet, they really do offer a lot more.

      I think it will be a regular day out for us when our daughter is born and as she grows.



  2. Great post! I love going to the zoo, the botanical gardens and such. It is such a great treat and you do forget that you are in a metropolitan area. Thanks for sharing!


  3. I went to the Santa Ana Zoo earlier this month to do an extra credit project for my Physical Anthropology class I took this semester. My professor works there part time with the primates, so he recommended we go to the Santa Ana Zoo over the San Diego Zoo because it’s 1) cheaper and 2) had more primates since our extra credit project was on primates.

    It’s a really really nice zoo, and I loved how intimate it was. I’m actually really surprised I had never been there before, but was glad I finally had an opportunity to go! I even came home with my own stuffed Golden Tamarin. I named him Bernie 😛

    ♥ and harp strings,


  4. This is definitely the child in me because we don’t even have kids yet, but Hubs and I love to go to zoos! When we go on vacations, we definitely check to see if there’s an awesome zoo nearby. This one sounds amazing! Too bad it’s not so much nearby 😉


  5. Wow, that is pretty spectacular. I remember going to this zoo on school field trips back in the mid-90’s…what a turn around! It was a sad looking little place back then and really didn’t seem like it was going to make it. What a turnaround! I would be interested to go and see it now, as it has been off my radar since about 1997! And the fact that they have a Knowlwood’s restaurant..YUM. Make sure you try their burgers and Irish Nachos: You and the little one will both love it!

    Thanks for taking me back to “the glory days”…I wish we had field trips at work.


  6. That sounds like a lot of fun! We have a few zoos here on the East Coast but they don’t sound nearly as large as that (though it has been a LONG time since I was last at a zoo!). There is a zoo near me that has an annual “attraction” called ZooLights. They decorate with twinkling lights throughout the zoo and Santa even makes an appearance through December 23. And it’s super cheap: $5 for a non-member during the week and $6 for the weekends. (members get a dollar cheaper). If you want to see a picture, check out this link: http://www.zoonewengland.org/page.aspx?pid=268


    • Ok, corerction, I’m terrible with size and dimensions sometimes, so I was just looking at the website about the zoo I mentioned and it’s about the same size as the Santa Ana Zoo. haha The other one listed on the website is 72 acres!


  7. I love this post and your new baby is going to love the zoo too, I’m sure! There is nothing better than seeing the excitement in kids’ eyes when they see all the animals from their picture books. Last time I went to a zoo, it was with a group of 3rd graders and yes, they were some of the wildest animals there. But it was amazingly fun.


  8. Looks like it’s a nice environment for the animals, much like the Bronx Zoo in NYC.
    Only animal facility I’ve been to on the west coast is the Monterey Aquarium, which blew me away.

    Really like the Amazon’s Edge pic you posted.


  9. Thank you for posting. We often to go to LA Zoo, but I was unaware of the Santa Ana zoo. Will definitely be adding to the list of things to do based on your write up.
    It is hard to see animals not living to their fullest potential in the wild, but that is an awfully human perspective. There might be something said for “three squares a day” and thousands of adoring fans. Kids love zoos and I learn a lot, too.


  10. I lived in SoCal until just recently and never knew about a Zoo in Santa Ana. Just figures I missed it, and it looks wonderful too! ~ Lynda


  11. @ yo i love this article cos i m a wildlife photographer of my own with my own small digital cam i do that as my hobby & a animals lover yo as in my country there are many big zoo but as in my view whey even dont know the meaning of zoo instead of that if they want to make a zoo i suggest peoples to make a small one whom u can own manage but but but do not open the zoo 4 visitors to only c the animals but give them the knowledge about them arrange some classes 4 young children & test their knowledge & give them the animals related toys gift as the positions in test

    i have a very big plan in my mine to making my dream zoo of only for baby child to 5th grade student and of the baby of some biggest carnivores like crock tigers and some other big cats
    yo and that was the 1st zoo in my country who will change all things about animals that what the peoples think about them
    but the only thing is in my way is the land 4 zoo hope i will get that from my government by telling them my idea if no then i have to purchase that any how what ever
    can i add you on facebook?


  12. Pingback: Let’s go to the Zoo … « Mixed Up Already

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