7 tips and tricks for visiting the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Posted By Allison on May 1, 2013

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Hey there!

Planning a trip to San Diego? Way to go! It’s a no-fail family destination.

Before we visited San Diego for the first time we wondered… What is the difference between the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park? Which one is the best? Or should we visit both?

Since then, we’ve visited San Diego several times, and we have the answers to these questions. You need to know that the San Diego Zoo Safari Park will be different than any zoo you’ve visited before. Keep reading to find out why, and get all the information you need to plan the perfect day.

7 MUST HAVE tips and tricks for visiting the San Diego Safari Park in Escondido, California | tipsforfamilytrips.com | spring break | summer vacation | fall break | family vacation

1. The Safari Park is located in Escondido, California

Unlike the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is not in San Diego. The Safari Park can be found about 30 miles to the northeast, just outside Escondido. It’s a little nearer to Carlsbad, so it pairs well with a LEGOLAND California trip.

Tips for visiting the San Diego Zoo Safari Park | tipsforfamilytrips.com

2. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is not an ordinary zoo

The San Diego Zoo website calls the Safari Park an “expansive wildlife sanctuary.” Half the park’s 1,800 acres has been set aside as a protected habitat for native species of plants and animals.

What does that mean to you? While the Safari Park has fewer animals than the San Diego Zoo (2,600 vs. 3,700), they have a lot more space to roam as they would in the wild.

You’ll still have the opportunity to walk around and experience the Safari Park in much the same way you would a regular zoo, but the park’s size enables it to offer experiences that can’t be found at a regular zoo.

3. What you get for basic admission

For the cost of the basic ticket, you can enjoy all of the animal exhibits, shows and play areas. Your ticket also includes a ride on the open-air tram through the African field exhibit. This is the ticket we bought and it easily filled our entire day at the Safari Park.

The tram tour is 20-30 minutes long and is appropriate for all ages. You’ll see African animals, including cheetahs, giraffes, rhinoceros, lions, zebras, cape buffalo, gazelle, various birds, and more.

The wide open spaces have been made to resemble the African savanna, but don’t expect to see lions mingling with antelope. It’s not that kind of tour, folks. The lions and cheetahs have separate habitats, which can also be reached by foot if you want to see more of them after the tour.

TIP: After you arrive, walk directly to the back of the park and ride the African Tram to avoid long lines during peak season.

4. See the Shows

The best show at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is Shiley’s Cheetah Run in the late afternoon. My son loves cheetahs, so this was one of our top priorities of the day. This is your chance to see a cheetah run at top speed. If the day is not too warm and the cheetah is feeling good, he may run twice.

Unless you purchase the Cheetah Safari, plan to stand for the entire show, which only lasts 15-20 minutes. During peak season, arrive 45-60 minutes early to get the best views.

Tips for visiting the San Diego Zoo Safari Park | tipsforfamilytrips.com

The Safari Park also has a bird show, which is similar to bird shows we have seen at other zoos. We found it educational and entertaining, and the amphitheater is large enough that we had no trouble getting good seats just a few minutes before the show.

Our children also enjoyed feeding the lorikeets inside their habitat. It costs nothing to go inside, but if you want nectar to feed them, it is a few dollars per cup. We visited this area in the afternoon and were warned that the lorikeets had already been well fed. We bought nectar cups for each of our children anyway. They successfully attracted lorikeets, but there were quite a few visitors competing for the same lorikeets, so the experience was not ideal. Visit early in the day to get the most from this activity.

5. Take a play break

Our children (ages 6 and 8) enjoyed brushing goats at the petting zoo and learning about the activities of African villagers in the Village Playground nearby. Here, my children carried pots on their heads, “built” a hut and beat on drums.

The Safari Park has two splash pads, but it was not warm enough to enjoy those on the day we visited. It also has a jungle gym sponsored by Fisher-Price.

Tips for visiting the San Diego Zoo Safari Park | tipsforfamilytrips.com

6. Unique animal encounters

The thing that sets the San Diego Zoo Safari Park apart from other zoos are its safari programs. For an additional charge, you can get a longer, more intimate tour and feed giraffes, get reserved seating for the Cheetah Run with a cheetah meet and greet, or try a ropes course or zip line over the zoo.

These safaris may fill up, so consider making reservations in advance. Most have minimum age limits. We would have purchased the Cheetah Safari, but our cheetah lover was too young. I asked about the age limit and was told that they didn’t want the cheetah to mistake a small child for a meal. I couldn’t argue with that rationale.

Like many zoos, the Safari Park has a carousel, which you can ride for $3 per person or $6 for an all-day wristband. The carousel is similar to the carousel at our local zoo and we skipped it this time.


7. Dining and Shopping

We purchased box lunches and kids’ meals from Okavango Outpost. The kids’ meals included hot dogs with chips, raisins, animal crackers and a drink in a reusable cup. They also included a reusable bag.

Hot and cold sandwiches were also available and I was glad to find a wrap filled with grilled chicken and vegetables. The meals were resort-priced at about $9 each for an adult meal. We could have brought in our own picnic for a lot less.

The Safari Park has several colorful and inviting shops where you can purchase souvenirs, t-shirts, hats and so forth.

Tips for visiting the San Diego Zoo Safari Park | tipsforfamilytrips.com

The Bottom Line

Our children are animal lovers and my 6-year-old son has a passion for African animals. As parents, we appreciate fun and educational outings like this, so the San Diego Zoo Safari Park was perfect for our family.

If your vacation is based in San Diego and you have to choose between the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park, I would choose the zoo. The entrance fee is the same. You’ll have a chance to see more animals, including lovable endangered species like pandas and koalas. It is also more conveniently located.

However, if you have already visited the San Diego Zoo and you’re looking for a different kind of zoo experience, then the San Diego Zoo Safari Park might be just what you’re looking for.

Tips for visiting the San Diego Zoo Safari Park | tipsforfamilytrips.com

Good to Know

Where: 15500 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido, California.

When: Open every day, including holidays. Open every day at 9:00 a.m. Closing time ranges from 5:00 – 7:00 p.m., depending on season.

How Much: Tickets start at $48 for adults (ages 12+), and $38 for children (3-11). Parking is $12 per vehicle (updated April 2015).

How Long: One full day

Amenities: Stroller-friendly, bathrooms, drinking fountains, dining options and shopping.

Website: www.sdzsafaripark.org

Planning a trip to San Diego?

We recommend booking your trip through Get Away Today Vacations. They are the family travel experts for Southern California, and if you find a lower price on your vacation package, they will beat it by $10. Read more about our partnership with Get Away Today here. 

ANYTIME! Save $25 on any San Diego vacation package of 2 nights or more that includes 2 tickets (San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld, etc) when you use the coupon code SDFamily.

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Hi there! I am the founder of Tips for Family Trips. I am a married mom of two children, ages 10 and 12, living near Salt Lake City, Utah. We took our first child on a two-week road trip when she was four weeks old and we have been traveling as a family ever since. We love to get out of the house to see and do fun things, both far away and in our own neighborhood.


  1. I surprised my husband last year with the Zipline Safari at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. It’s the longest continuous zipline in the continental U.S. So awesome!

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    • That sounds so fun! That’s the kind of surprise I’d like.

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  2. thanks for the info, heading there this weekend for Mother’s day.

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    • Thanks, Keryn! That was our first big outing with our new DSLR camera and I too was impressed with the results.

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  3. We LOVED the San Diego Wild Animal Park. For us- the most sense with the tickets was to buy a year long membership before we left home. I don’t recall what the price was then, but it is $114 now for 2 adults. So if you only plan to go to the Wild Animal Park, that’s an extra $26, but if you plan to go to the zoo too, or more than one day at each park- it is a steal.
    Since we also went to the Wild Animal Park twice and the San Diego zoo twice (over the course of 3 days): it saved us a ton of money. And because we had unlimited entries, we went back to the zoo for just an hour before we had to get to the airport, just to get a chance to see the Pandas in the early morning. It was nice and relaxing to know we didn’t need to ‘get our money’s worth”. (Plus we got free parking, and then we got a magazine sent to our home for a year!)

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    • That’s a great tip! We bought an annual pass to Sea World San Diego once for the same reason. It’s sometimes worth looking at the price of an annual membership, even if you don’t live in the area. Look at the reciprocal benefits too. You may get free or discounted admission to other attractions in that area or in your home city!

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  4. Is it worth going to the safari park zoo ?

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    • I thought that the San Diego Zoo Safari Park was worthwhile. If you want a traditional zoo experience and you have to choose between the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park, choose the zoo. If you have been to the zoo and you want something a little different, try the safari park. Unless you love zoos, you may not want to do both on the same vacation.

      Did I answer your question? If not, please let me know!

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  5. do you have to buy the zoo entrance ticket to go to the Safari Park?

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    • The Safari Tram is included in the basic entrance pass for the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. You do not need to visit or purchase a pass for the San Diego Zoo in San Diego to visit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido. They are different zoos in different locations and their admissions are separate, though if you do want to visit both on the same trip, you can save a few dollars by bundling the two admissions.

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  6. How long can you wait to use your 1-day pass for the Safari Park?

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    • If you purchase a 1-day pass online through the zoo’s website, it is good for one year from the date of purchase.

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  7. Thank you so much for the tips, we are visiting this summer and can not wait!

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  8. I’m assuming the safari tour costs are in addition to the basic entrance fee???

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    • The Africa Tram is included in the basic ticket. The various safari experiences do cost more, but are optional. We had a great day with only the basic ticket. It’s a big place with some fun included activities like the Africa Tram.

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      • Thank you. This is what i wanted to hear. How long does it take for the basic safari

      • Glad to be helpful! I don’t recall the exact time for the Africa Tram, but I’d guess it was around 30 minutes. The last tram leaves 45 minutes before the park closes. 11-3 are peak times on busy days.

  9. which safari experience is worth it? I’m thinking the bikes anyone suggest it?

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  10. How much does it cost to zipline at the Safari Zoo?

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    • The Flightline Safari currently starts at $79 per person.

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