May 09 2012
San Diego has a lot of attractions for families, and one of its best-known is outside the city itself. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park (formerly known as the Wild Animal Park) is in Escondido, a 30- to 45-minute drive from the main San Diego tourist areas.
Before we went, I tried to get an idea of what the Safari Park would be like. I looked at satellite views on Google Maps and read the website extensively, trying to guess if it would be a good stop for our family, and how much time we would need there. Much of the guessing I did was wrong.
It’s hard to get a feel for the Safari Park from a map because the terrain is quite varied, and also because much of the park’s expanse is not in publicly-accessible areas. The vastness of the park that scared me when looking at the map was really not so much to worry about.
I had read that the Safari Park is extensive and the terrain quite hilly, so I was concerned that my already-troubled feet wouldn’t be able to take it, especially after several days in amusement parks. While it’s true that one does a lot of walking at the Safari Park, the only part that I thought was really steep was down into the tiger area. The other zone where there’s a big hill is near the cheetah and lion area, but there’s an elevator available at that location.
We arrived at the Safari Park just before it opened and parked very near the entrance. The ticket line was slow-moving but the agent was knowledgeable and helpful when it came to our turn. At $42 for adults and $32 for children, the Africa Safari is the most basic ticket available. There are many other ticket options available that include extras like Segway and zipline tours or behind-the-scenes options, all at increased prices. In fact, there are upsells throughout the park itself, including $5 to have a better view for the cheetah run. The San Diego Zoo and Safari Park do not participate in the AZA reciprocal program, and adult memberships are only available to southern California residents, so there isn’t a good way to get reduced admission. Visitors to southern California who want to save a few dollars should take a look at the Koala Club for kids, use their AAA card for a discount, look at the Go San Diego card*, or look at the multi-park/multi-visit options if visiting both the Zoo and the Safari Park.
The Africa tram is a 25-minute open-air ride that is included with the most basic admission ticket. During the tram tour, visitors are taken to areas of the park that are otherwise inaccessible by the public. Narration provides information about the various animals in this zone, many of which are severely endangered. Since the Africa tram tour is included with admission, it’s worth the time for visitors, especially those who are there for the first time.
After the tram tour, we wandered around the rest of the Safari Park. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of paths that were shady, lined with beautiful plants.
The walking was not nearly as difficult as I had envisioned. Paths and trails and specific exhibits were well-marked, making it easy to navigate to the areas we wanted to visit.
Because the animal areas at the Safari Park are often large, it’s not always easy to see the animals. After trekking down the tiger path, we learned that the tigers were not in a visible area at that time, and I had a disappointed six-year-old to lead back up the hill.
Food is available at several locations in the park. The $7.49 kids meal included two small chicken fingers, a bag of Pirate’s Booty, raisins, animal crackers, and a child-sized soda (with $1 in-park refills). While milk and chocolate milk could be purchased for $1.49, an adult soda (refillable for a charge) carried the price tag of $4.99. In my opinion, the food was high-priced and mediocre, and I’d recommend packing a picnic lunch if you can.
Our kids enjoyed an interactive screen show featuring Robert, the zebra from Madagascar, in an amphitheater, and begged to spend time in the splash area and play & climb zone in the park that give kids a chance to run and play. The carousel was also a hit with the kids.
We spent four hours at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. In the future, if I had to choose either the San Diego Zoo or the Safari Park, I’d go back to the zoo, where more animals were easily seen and more programs were available. Benefits of the Safari Park, however, included easier parking and a less-crowded atmosphere. I was surprised at the amount of duplication of animals between the two, and on future visits to San Diego, I would likely choose one or the other, but not go to both.
For my Minnesota readers who may be interested in visiting the Safari Park, I found it to be very similar to the Minnesota Zoo, and in fact, many of the animals are the same (tigers, takin, meerkat). The tram ride is similar in scope to the Minnesota Zoo’s monorail, and the terrain and amount of walking we did seemed very much like that of the Minnesota Zoo.
The San Diego Zoo and its Safari Park are known as some of the best zoos in the world, giving visitors to San Diego good options for a zoo experience while in California.
Disclosure: The San Diego Zoo gave us four free passes so we could check out the Zoo and Safari Park.
* Affiliate link