The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is unlike any other zoo experience, and we think your family will toadally love it. The Safari Park houses over 3,600 animals in large habitat areas. The animals are given plenty of stimulation and, in many cases, the opportunity to rub noses with many other species they might encounter in a natural environment. As you can imagine, creating an environment where the animals can roam and graze means spreading things out … a lot. So this 1,800-acre wildlife preserve and botanical garden offer a lot of adventure. We're here with expert advice and great San Diego Zoo Safari Park tips.
Do you have high-energy, adventurous tadpoles that you often think belong in a zoo? Do you dream of going on a safari in Africa? Then this is the right destination for your family vacation! Let's hop to it and discover what you need to know to visit this amazing safari park.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park Tips
The Safari Park used to be known as the Wild Animal Park. It changed names when it changed directions to allow more intimate animal encounters and adventure experiences that are kind of like going on a mini safari. You can even camp out in the middle of the savanna between the elephants and lions for Roar & Snore! Other experiences include zip-lining over animal enclosures, meeting animals up close in a safari setting or getting a condor’s-eye view of the park from a giant balloon.
1. Choose a Safari or Animal Encounter
There are a number of experiences that will get you up close and personal with the animals, and it's best to book those in advance. You’ll save money reserving in advance rather than purchasing in the park — plus you'll guarantee your spot. Many of these experiences have age restrictions, so keep those in mind as you search for the right experience for your family. You can sign up online or call 619-718-3000. Make sure you purchase your ticket in advance (especially for the early morning safaris, which start before the ticket windows open), as the safaris do not include admission.
Roar & Snore — We've done the Roar & Snore Safari and got to sleep in a tent in the Safari Park! It's an experience we'll never froget! We could hear the lion roaring at night and watch the elephants play when we woke up.
Wildlife Safari — Sign up for a Wildlife Safari (to enter the actual exhibit and meet Asian and African mammals and birds). You can go at twilight or go for the deluxe version with close-up views of giraffes, rhinos and other species. This is one of our favorite activities to do. Costs vary depending on which tour you choose. You can book ahead.
Cart Safari — The Cart Safari follows a similar path as the Africa Tram around the exhibits, but you can get closer to some areas, ask questions and request to pause to get the perfect picture. When we did this tour, we went to the Asia habitat and saw rarely seen animals.
The Ultimate Safari — This five-hour, customized tour comes with a personal guide. The tour caters to your interests and includes lunch. You’ll want to book early (a minimum of 72 hours in advance).
Flightline Safari — Adventurous families may want to soar over the Safari Park to get a bird's-eye view of the wildlife on the Flightline Safari. You'll "fly" via zip-line about two-thirds of a mile over the savanna habitat.
Cheetah Safari — Cheetahs are the fastest land animals. You can see one reach top speed right before your very own eyes on the Sun Up Cheetah Safari. You'll need to be an early bird to catch this tour before the Safari Park officially opens.
Balloon Safari — Get a bird's-eye view (400 feet in the air!) from a tethered helium balloon modeled after the hot air balloon tours of the Serengeti. It costs about $20 and is wheelchair accessible.
Of course, you don’t have to embark on any of the safaris to have a great time. You can explore much of the park on foot, and if you do, you definitely don’t want to miss the free Africa Tram expedition, which is already included in your 1-day pass ticket. It's a 25-minute tour that takes you around the savanna habitats.
There are some other animal encounters that won’t take a bite out of your budget. You can buy an inexpensive ticket to the Lorikeet Safari at Lorikeet Landing and feed a cup of nectar to the lorikeets. You'll quickly make friends with a colorful lorikeet or two, who will be literally eating out of your hand.
Stop by the Animal Ambassador Stage (when available) near the entrance to meet some animals or birds and hear fun facts from their keepers. Check the schedule for talks and animal encounters throughout the park.
Pet and brush goats in the Petting Kraal. One of our favorite activities is meeting and possibly petting some kangaroos or wallabies or their friendly geese friends in the open trails of the Walkabout Australia exhibit. More on that below.
Look for seasonal experiences. During the spring months of March through early May, the Safari Park offers a butterfly exhibit in the Hidden Jungle area for an additional fee. In 2022, tickets were $15 ($13.50 for membership holders!). This is so much fun! Butterflies may land on you during your 30-minute experience. We liked this exhibit so much that we did it twice!
2. Dress for Activity at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Whether you're going on a safari or hopping around the park, you’ll need to dress for a workout. Prepare by wearing proper clothes and shoes for the type of adventure you want to embark on. Wear layers you can shed as the sun warms things up in the afternoon. Hiking shoes or good walking shoes are a necessity for exploring the park, which is very spread out and hilly. This is one of those San Diego Zoo Safari Park tips that we can't stress enough! You’ll toadally rack up some steps on your Apple watch or Fitbit. (I will NOT lose my ranking on the leaderboard. Never!)
Despite all of the walking, the park is very kid-friendly. There are multiple playgrounds, a lot of shady spots, fun photo opportunities for tadpoles and limitless chances to hop, skip, jump and climb around the park. Of course, getting to observe and learn about animals throughout the park is why you're going there in the first place.
3. Visit During a Non-Peak Time
You do not always have control over your free days and vacation time, but if you plan to visit during a week in the winter vs. on a holiday, you will find cheaper prices on entertainment, as well as some safaris and services in the park. You will enjoy smaller crowds, shorter lines and have a more relaxed experience. If you are finding long waits, you can pay an additional fee to skip the line on the Africa Tram. You can also check out the single rider/couple line if you do not have children with you. Weekdays during non-peak times are the least crowded.
4. Arrive Early at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
We are early frogs because we enjoy zoos and amusement parks in the cool mornings ahead of the crowds. You’ll get the most out of your day if you arrive at opening and make your way into the heart of the park to see the animals before the masses arrive and enjoy a shorter line for the Africa Tram or other activities. Plus, you're more likely to catch some animals being more active in the morning. Certain animals like to nap in the heat of the day. Some just like to nap all of the time! Purchase your Safari Park tickets in advance to skip the ticket booth lines.
5. Map Out a Plan
Welcome to the jungle! It's a bit overwhelming when you enter the Safari Park. You won’t immediately see animals in cages or signs directing you to them. You might begin to wonder where they are and even how to begin finding them. It's good to enter with a plan in place and tours or adventures reserved to set a framework for your day. At least arrive having an idea of everything that the park has to offer. That way you don’t leave wishing you had known about an experience.
Pick up a park map after entering the park. Or, in the spirit of conservation, you can download the SDZ Safari Park app to get park maps and other helpful information.
The zoo is set up in regions with named loops and trails, and the animals are in various regions. You'll want to consult the map. You’ll notice that there are numbers (in orange — expand to see them in the app) on the map. Using those numbers will be tremendously helpful in finding your way around the park, along with the trails. Think of the numbers as checkpoints. They can help you determine where to turn onto a new trail and assure you that you're still on the correct path to your destination. There are many helpful guides along the way to help you find a trail or animal. At point number 1 on the map, there is a Park Information booth where they can start you out on the right foot.
You will also want to note showtimes for animal encounters and keeper talks, which can teach you many interesting facts about the animals. The keepers can answer your questions and often tell you a lot about the individual animals. The wildlife presentations remain temporarily unavailable.
If you're not planning to take any safaris, then you’ll definitely want to take the Africa Tram. On busy days, we recommend heading here early because the line builds (it's usually busiest from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.). The first tram may leave about an hour after park opening. Along the way to the tram loading (in African Outpost) you can visit the elephants and lions — we hopped by the lorikeets first to feed them a quick treat before hopping down the African Plains Trail. If you're visiting during a peak time, you can reserve a place in line for the Africa Tram (for an additional fee) once you're in the park. But if you arrive early, you should have no problem getting on the tram quickly.
Guests with disabilities can board through the priority access entrance. If they’re in a non-transferable wheelchair, they can load in the front of the tram.
6. Follow a Park Plan
While we have many San Diego Zoo Safari Park tips, we're ranking "have a plan" pretty high among our tips. That's because things will go much more smoothly if you know where you're headed. Our suggested plan for people who do not plan to do any additional safaris or adventures is as follows:
Arrive at park opening. Take the Nairobi Walk to Lorikeet Landing to feed the birds. Then hop on the African Plains Trail (stopping to enjoy Elephant Valley and Lion Camp along the way) to the African Loop to the Africa Tram (you’ll see signs for Africa Tram along the way).
After riding the tram, follow the African Loop to the elevators that take you up to Africa Walk. Stop by the playground over by Mawazo Kitchen for the tadpoles to play (it’s currently closed, but hopfully it’ll reopen soon).
Once the tadpoles had their fill of monkeying around, follow Gorilla Trail to see the gorillas. Sit on a bench and watch for a while. Then follow the trail to Lagoon Loop. Prepare to climb a bit, but it’s worth it! Take the Safari Walk toward Walkabout Australia (to the left) and Tiger Trail (to the right). Walkabout Australia is an exciting exhibit. The Kangaroo Walk allows you to walk through the animal enclosure with almost no fences.
You have to stay on the path, but if a kangaroo or wallaby hops near you, you can pet them (once COVID-19 ends)! Every tadpole in the place was hopping with excitement to see a joey popping in and out of Mama’s pouch to nibble some leaves and hide again. After you say goodbye to the kangaroos, hop by the Platypus exhibit before heading up the path.
Then, follow the path up toward World Gardens and Condor Ridge. For your efforts, you will be treated to expansive views of animals, birds and the Safari Park spread out below, along with breezes, shade and benches. You might want to rest for a moment. On the way back down, take the path to Tiger Trail. Make sure to stop and enjoy the playground before visiting the tigers. You’ll end close to the park exit for snacks or shopping before you have to say goodbye.
That route will take you through almost the entire Safari Park and its residents, except for some areas that can only be reached by, well, a safari. You can see shows, listen to keeper talks and enjoy animal encounters along the way. If you see a show or talk that interests you on the entertainment guide, modify your plan to attend. Keep in mind that nothing is close to anything else, so try to see everything you want to see in an area before moving on. There will be a lot of walking, so choose a path that will take you near a show around showtime. There are multiple playgrounds and shady areas to rest.
7. Carry Supplies
Just like an expedition into the wild, you will need to take some provisions with you to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. That may include a jogging stroller, sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, water and snacks. (It's often hot and very dry out there.) Pack swimsuits for the tadpoles because there's a small water play area, and they might want to visit the old watering hole to cool off. The park rents single and double strollers. There’s a locker station near the entrance/exit if you need to store items throughout the day.
If you need a private area to nurse a baby, the Ranger Station behind the carousel has a room for nursing mothers, but there are also many shady benches around the Safari Park where you can feed your baby if you're not in that area when baby needs to eat.
8. Use Disability Services
If someone in your party has mobility challenges, there are elevators and a courtesy shuttle that accesses the African Outpost. The ADA Shuttles run about every 15 to 20 minutes. There are Easy Access Passes for guests unable to wait in regular lines. You can obtain them at Safari Ticket Booths. The park rents wheelchairs. If someone in your party cannot walk long distances, renting a wheelchair or motorized scooter (shaded!) is highly recommended. The paths are wide and accessible for the most part. Follow the dotted trails for the most accessible route.
Guests who have difficulty standing in line may request an Easy Access Pass at Safari Tickets/Guest Services booth, Ranger Base or at the Africa Tram window. The pass is for a total of four people — the guest and three party members.
There are many ways to enjoy the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. We hope you find these San Diego Zoo Safari Park tips hopful! Whether you choose to do it on your own or embark on a safari or other adventure, if you dress well, wear comfortable shoes and stay hydrated, you'll have an unfrogettable day in a zoo like no other.
Have you ever hung out with the wild animals at this amazing animal park? Do you have any San Diego Zoo Safari Park tips to share? Let us know in the comments below.
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