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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Planning a trip to San Diego?
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