Planning a trip to San Diego?
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is different from any other zoo my family has visited. We made a special trip for it – along with LEGOLAND California and plenty of beach time – right after my son successfully completed cancer treatment. It was a much-needed vacation for our entire family. My kids were ages 6 and 8.
We visited the San Diego Zoo on a previous trip, and were excited to see what makes the Safari Park special. Here's what you need to know to plan a great day at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
It's Not in San Diego
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is NOT in San Diego. It's in Escondido, California, about an hour's drive (30 miles) north of the San Diego Zoo, which is in downtown San Diego.
The Safari Park is a little nearer to Carlsbad, home of LEGOLAND California. We booked a hotel in Carlsbad and enjoyed activities nearby. We never set foot in San Diego on this trip.
It's a Big Zoo
The official 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? The Safari Park has fewer animals and larger habitats than the San Diego Zoo. The animals have more space to roam like they would in the wild.
You'll probably walk a lot more at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. You can also enjoy experiences that aren't available at most other zoos.
Related: Tips for Visiting the San Diego Zoo
The thing that sets the San Diego Zoo Safari Park apart its Safari Tours. These are not included in basic admission. If you want to feed giraffes, meet a cheetah, zip line over the zoo or even camp overnight, check out tour options and prices on the Safari Park home page.
Safaris may fill up, so consider making reservations in advance. Most have minimum age limits.
We would have booked 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.
Related: What to Expect at SeaWorld San Diego
What's Included in Basic Admission
We bought the basic 1-Day Pass and it easily filled our entire day at the Safari Park. The basic ticket includes all of the animal exhibits, Africa Tram, shows and play areas.
The Africa Tram tour is 20-30 minutes long and good for all ages. You'll see African animals roaming freely through acres of open space, including giraffes, rhinoceros, zebras, cape buffalo, gazelle, various birds, and more. You'll also see lions and cheetahs in separate habitats.
Arrive around opening time and walk directly to the Africa Tram at the back of the zoo to avoid long waits during peak season. Africa Tram tours typically start at 10 AM. If you can't be there early, consider riding the tram in the late afternoon to avoid peak crowds.
The best show at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is Shiley's Cheetah Run in the late afternoon. This is your chance to see a cheetah run at top speed, and it's pretty cool. If the day is not too warm and the cheetah is feeling good, he may run twice. My son loves cheetahs, so this was one of our top priorities.
Arrive up to an hour early if you want to stand right next to the fence for the Cheetah Run. There is no seating for this show unless you purchase the Cheetah Safari. The show is 15-20 minutes long.
There is 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 enjoyed feeding the lorikeets. It costs nothing to go inside the habitat, but plan to spend a few dollars if you want to feed the birds.
We visited this exhibit in the afternoon and were warned that the lorikeets had already been well fed. We successfully fed a few, but the experience was not ideal. Visit early in the day to get the most from this activity.
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. Here, my children carried pots on their heads, “built” a hut and beat on drums. The Safari Park has three other play areas, including a splash pad in the summer.
Like many zoos, this one has a carousel, where you can purchase a single ride or all-day wristband. We skipped it this time.
Dining and Shopping
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park has several restaurants and lots of gift shops. We bought healthy sandwiches and kids meals at Okavango Outpost, which were good.
You can bring your own food into the zoo in a day pack or stroller. Large coolers are not allowed inside. Packing in your own sandwiches, drinks and snacks is a good way to save money.
Safari Park vs. San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is larger than the San Diego Zoo, but has fewer animals. It has more unique activities and safari tours. It is farther away from most other San Diego activities.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park has a lot of favorite African animals like lions, cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, gorillas, rhinos and zebras. Pandas, polar bears, koalas and monkeys can only be seen at the San Diego Zoo.
If your family really loves zoos, then consider both the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park on the same trip. My family visits San Diego every few years, so one zoo per trip was plenty for us.
You cannot do both the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park on the same day. They are too big and too far from each other to get your money's worth. One full day per zoo is about right.
If you can only visit one zoo, I'd pick the San Diego Zoo over the Safari Park. It has more animals and the location is more convenient. However, if you'd rather ride the Africa Tram, see the Cheetah Run or try any of the unique Safaris, then choose the Safari Park.
Ways to Save
There are several reliable ways to save money on San Diego Zoo Safari Park tickets. Remember that kids ages 2 and under get in free any time.
Go in October – Kids age 11 and under get in free to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and dozens of other San Diego attractions during the month of October. Learn more at https://www.sandiego.org
Bundle with San Diego Zoo – Planning to visit the San Diego Zoo AND the Safari Park? A two-day ticket costs a lot less than two single-day tickets. Save even more when you choose the 3-for-1 deal, which includes both zoos and SeaWorld. Learn more at www.sdzsafaripark.org/tickets
Get Away Today – You can save about $5 per ticket through Get Away Today. Bundling discount tickets with hotel deals is where this travel agency really shines. Save an extra $25 on a San Diego vacation package with my exclusive coupon code: SDFAMILY. Learn more at getawaytoday.com.
Go City – Save up to 55% on admissions when you use this pass at 35+ San Diego attractions. The Safari Park will take one full day, so a Build-Your-Own pass or an All-Inclusive pass for 5 or 7 days are probably your best deal. Compare prices and do the math before you buy. Learn more at gocity.com.
CityPASS – Bundle and save when you build your own Southern California CityPASS. Choose from San Diego Zoo/Safari Park, LEGOLAND California, SeaWorld, Disneyland and Universal Studios. Compare prices and do the math before you buy. Learn more at www.citypass.com.
Groupon – You may find discount ticket vouchers to the San Diego Zoo/Safari Park on Groupon.com. As of August 2019, The Groupon price was the same as the official San Diego Zoo website, so be sure to compare before you commit.
Special Groups – The following groups can save 10-15% with valid ID. Must be purchased at the ticket window. Learn more at https://zoo.sandiegozoo.org/help-center
- Students over age 12
- Active U.S. Military – Military member gets in free. Spouse and dependents save 10%.
- AAA Members
- Travel agents, airline and cruise ship employees
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.
I hope these tips help you plan the perfect San Diego Zoo Safari Park day for your family.
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 $56 for adults (ages 12+), and $46 for children (3-11). Parking is $15 per vehicle (updated August 2019).
How Long: One full day
Amenities: Bathrooms, restaurants, shopping, stroller and wheelchair rentals
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.