San Diego Zoo Safari Park Review & Tips

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San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a vast wildlife preserve that’s home to thousands of animals from all over the world, which are separated into distinct “lands” based upon the animals’ habitats. While there are a variety of unique attractions at the San Diego Safari Park, its flagship offering is the Africa Tram, which takes guests on a 30-minute safari across the park’s African Plains. This post offers a review of the San Diego Safari Park, animal photos, and various tips & tricks for making the most of your visit to the Safari Park.

The San Diego Safari Park is a 1,800 acre wildlife preserve that’s home to over 3,500 animals across 260 species from 6 continents of the world, with an emphasis on Africa. It’s actually not in San Diego at all, but north of the city (so closer to Los Angeles, if you’re staying there) in a remote area of Escondido, California.

If you’re unfamiliar with San Diego or are planning a first time visit, the big questions you might have is what’s the difference between the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and which should you visit? We’ve already reviewed and offered visitation tips for the San Diego Zoo, but we’ll start here by offering a comparison between it and the Safari Park…

We’ve been Keeper’s Club members at the San Diego Zoo, which is one of their versions of an annual pass. This allows us to bring visitors to both the the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park. Due to time constraints, we have always had to choose one or the other. We always choose the Safari Park.

You can see other ticket options for the San Diego Safari Park here; in terms of value for money, I think the base tickets are very fairly-priced. Part of this is probably because the Safari Park uses upsell options to make its money. (Good for those of us who don’t care about the add-ons, though!)

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For most people, the Safari Park is totally different than anything they can experience at home, or elsewhere. As good of zoo as the San Diego Zoo is, it’s still a zoo.

The exhibits are incredibly well done and seeing pandas is awesome, but it isn’t a game-changer. It’s taking the familiar zoo formula and just adding several layers of quality.

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By contrast, the Safari Park is something totally different, and offers experiences that blur the lines between zoo, safari, and theme park. We’ve yet to have anyone disappointed by the choice to visit the San Diego Safari Park, and usually our guests are blown away by how different it is than a zoo.

“This feels like a real safari” is a comment we’ve heard countless times on the Africa Tram. (Granted, it’s from people who have never been on a real safari, but still…)

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Now, this is not to say that they would be disappointed by the San Diego Zoo. However, I share this because I think the impressions of tourists are probably valuable here since most people reading this are (presumably) visitors to Southern California rather than locals.

I know when I visit a new place, I want to experience its best and most unique locations, and am less interested in attractions that are similar to what I could find closer to home.

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While the San Diego Zoo is more iconic, the Safari Park is so much more unique. As such, it’s my recommendation for tourists to Southern California with limited time. This isn’t to say I don’t like the zoo–to the contrary, I love the zoo, and have visited several times.

It’s a really pleasant place to be with a lot of cool exhibits and re-visitability, but for me, it just isn’t in the same league as the Safari Park.

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Now, if your vacation is not a Southern California vacation, but rather, a San Diego vacation, you should do both. I’d put both the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park among the best attractions in San Diego (both would make the top 7).

Doing them on separate days with late afternoon and evening reserved for other experiences makes for a good itinerary. Don’t do them the same day.

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Part of the reason we recommend doing them on separate days is because there’s enough to do in each to justify a morning until mid-afternoon visit. The other reason is because they aren’t all that close to one another. They’re around 30 miles apart, and with normal afternoon traffic, it’ll take about an hour to get between the two.

The comparison more or less covers everything that a standalone review of the San Diego Safari Park would encompass, so let’s now turn to some tips for the park…

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The biggest one is to arrive early, and do the Africa Tram first thing. This isn’t just because it can have long lines (although that really only happens during holidays and prime tourist season–during our off-season visits the longest we’ve had to wait is 10 minutes), but because the animals are most active first thing in the morning.

If you can’t do the Africa Tram first thing, save it for the very end of the day (the last tram departs 45 minutes before park close).

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You’ll also notice there are a lot of upsell options in terms of the tram, including a variety of smaller vehicles that offer a more intimate experience at additional costs ranging from $50-100+ per person.

Whether this is worth it to you is a personal matter; we’ve never felt the need to splurge on these, and have always really enjoyed the standard Africa Tram.

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In fact, there are a lot of upsell options throughout the San Diego Safari Park. If you did even a handful of them, your daily admission could more than double in cost.

We think the base experience at the Safari Park is exceptional, so we haven’t felt the need to go beyond that, but if there are particular animals you or your family are interested in, these might be worth looking into.

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The other can’t miss aspects of the San Diego Safari Park for me are located on the north end of the park, and are its newest additions. These are Tiger Trail, Condor Ridge, and World Gardens.

These are all beautifully designed, and although you encounter fewer animals (you may not see the tigers at all), the experience is exceptional.

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I’m particularly fond of Condor Ridge, which is (last I knew) home to 3 California condors. This area details some of the success story of the California condor, which was also a vindication of the Endangered Species Act.

I remember learning about the California condor in elementary school, and our teacher saying it would likely be extinct by the time we were adults. It’s downright inspiring, in my opinion, that the species is now thriving.

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If you have kids (or if you’re a childish adult, like me), two other exhibits are must-dos. The goat petting zoo and the meerkats, both of which are near the front of the park.

Since Disneyland did away with its goat farm, the San Diego Safari Park is how we get our goat fix. Some of these goats are a bit aggressive, but they’re fun-loving (probably) and harmless (hopefully).

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While the goats are fun-loving and harmless, I don’t trust the meerkats for a second. Sure, they’re super cute and it’s enjoyable to watch interact with one another, but they’re too smart to “only” be playing around.

Beneath that cute and fuzzy exterior lies a conniving deviant that is working on some sort of long con. I can feel it. Meerkats, I’m on to you.

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I’d also recommend watching the bird show, which is down in the general vicinity of the Africa Tram. It’s fun and features some clever tricks (some of which are a bit corny, but they’re still irresistible).

Photographing this show is mind-numbingly difficult. Those birds move quickly, so it’s nearly impossible to capture a good photo of a bird in flight. (So, instead, you get the above masterpiece.)

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Another cool show at the San Diego Safari Park is the Cheetah Run, which (usually) occurs in the late afternoon. Everyone should love cheetahs, but even if you don’t, it’s pretty impressive to see them running at top speed…instead of just lounging around in the shade like they normally do.

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One final tip is to avoid eating at the San Diego Safari Park. I know this is one of those easier said than done type of things, but the food there is overpriced and stereotypically bad theme/amusement park fare.

Instead, I’d recommend eating a big breakfast, and then doing a late lunch (or early dinner) at nearby Kennedy’s Karne. Literally everything I’ve had there has been good, so you can’t go wrong. My personal pick is the carne asada fries, which are a local specialty (your body will hate you for ordering those–except your taste buds, which will love you for it.)

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That’s about it in terms of tips for the San Diego Safari Park. I want to reiterate that I really enjoy this experience, and would put it on a short list of things to do in Southern California if your family is interested in animals. For me, it’s ahead of the San Diego Zoo by a pretty significant margin, and a big part of this comes down to its unique nature, but I also think there’s more diversity in the experience. I find myself ready to leave the San Diego Zoo after about 4 hours due to the somewhat redundant nature of the attractions, but the Safari Park does a much better job of diversifying its exhibits/attractions to keep things fresh.

The San Diego Safari Park is an experience I think will be “worth it” to many Southern California visitors, but not everyone. It does require a time investment if you’re coming from Los Angeles or Orange County, and between the drive and attraction itself, you’re looking at nearly a full day in the San Diego area. Whether there are better uses of your limited vacation time is largely a matter of personal preference. If you enjoy animal experiences like this, you’ll undoubtedly have a good time at the San Diego Safari Park.

If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do. If you enjoyed this post, please use the sharing buttons above to help spread the word via social media. I greatly appreciate it! 

Your Thoughts

Have you ever visited the San Diego Safari Park? If so, what did you think of experience? Did you partake in any of the upcharge/add-on options at the Safari Park? Were they worth the money? If you’ve visited both the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park, which did you prefer? Would you recommend the San Diego Safari Park to SoCal visitors? Any other tips or recommendations? If you haven’t done the Safari Park, is it something that interests you? Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below!

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11 replies
  1. Matthew
    Matthew says:

    I grew up in San Diego and went to both the Zoo and the Wild Animal Park (as it was known then) and I agree completely that while the Zoo is great (and benefits from being in Balboa Park surrounded by a lot of other great sights) the Safari Park is really in a class all on its own.

    I’m surprised you made it all the way through the review without even a passing mention of Animal Kingdom. On my first visit to Animal Kingdom it was clear to me that Disney took a lot of…ahem, inspiration from the Wild Animal Park, just with a lot more money devoted to the ride/theme park aspects. I recall that the originally planned name for DAK was Disney’s WILD Animal Kingdom until the San Diego Zoo objected for being too close to their own park. Ironic they later changed the name to Safari Park…

    Reply
  2. Sara
    Sara says:

    I’m a San Diego local and I love both the Wild Animal Park and the zoo. We have had passes since moving here 6 years ago and we love going. The safari is awesome, and so different! It’s fun to see the animals exploring with so much space.
    We love the zoo too. It had its 100 year birthday last year. The San Diego zoo pioneered animal exhibits to mimic the animals’ natural environment. Before that zoos kept the animals is cement cages with steel bars. It’s full of history and I love going.

    Reply
  3. Katie
    Katie says:

    Have you ever gone early on one of the 4 Saturdays for the Keeper’s club membership? It opens at 8am and you can ride the African tram early. Do you think it’d be worth it to wake up that early? (I’m so not a morning person!)

    What I’m nervous about is the fact that the middle of July will already be crowded. Do you think you can even get past traffic that early? I’m a member but I’ve never been to the Safari park so I’m not sure what to expect parking line/entrance wise. Obviously non members can’t get in that early, but I’m unsure when the “normal” summer tourist traffic starts.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      In terms of traffic, it really depends upon where you’re staying and at what hour you leave. Whenever there’s an early admission offering like this, I tend to jump on it (even though we’ve never done this particular one), as they usually offer a good way to beat the crowds.

      Reply
  4. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    This sounds like a really cool place to visit, and one that offers something outside of the norm. It reminds me a bit of some of the offerings in South Dakota, they have some bear and wolf parks where you can get a lot closer than a standard zoo. They’re very cool.

    Also really loving eagle picture (and the Sarah panic face 😉 )!

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      That sounds interesting! I assume those are akin to single-animal sanctuaries that help rehabilitate or house bears or wolves? Things like that are always fascinating to me (so long as they are run properly), and they usually offer a more up close and intimate experience with a single species.

      By contrast, the San Diego Safari Park has greater variety, but doesn’t offer as in-depth of an experience with any individual species.

      Reply
  5. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    Thanks for the review. We really like zoos and spent far more than 4 hrs at the San Diego zoo. This sounds like it would be worth trip as well.

    There is a place in Ohio called the Wilds that is associated with the Columbus Zoo and offers a safari ride. Since the Columbus Zoo is on oar with the Dan Diego zoo for quality, I assumed the safari park would be comparable quality to the Wilds. But it appears I was wrong. This park looks much, much nicer than the one in Ohio.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      There’s a shockingly diverse selection of animals at the San Diego Safari Park, and I’m guessing the climate of Southern California as compared to Ohio helps with this.

      Reply
  6. Jody
    Jody says:

    We did the photo safari add on and really enjoyed it. I think the best part was feeding the baby rhino. It was pricy so probably one and done, but we were glad we did it.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Thanks for the feedback on that. Even though the add-ons are expensive (to me, at least) they all seem like they’re arguably worth it given what they entail. Good to hear you enjoyed the photo safari!

      Reply

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