Discovering our World

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California small towns – San Diego: part 5 – a guide to San Diego Zoo and the Zoo Safari Park

San Diego County is home to two parks dedicated to animals and each of them is worth a visit. In this article, I will try to highlight the differences between the San Diego Zoo and the Zoo Safari Park, to help you decide which one you prefer to visit.

If you are planning to visit both San Diego Zoo and Zoo Safari Park, you can save money by purchasing this combined ticket valid for two days.

San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo is more than just a regular zoo. Over 40 hectares wide, it is home to about 4,000 specimens of 800 different species. It is ranked among the largest zoos in the world, but its size is not the only factor that sets it apart. In fact, there are some animals present here, such as the giant panda, that are not found in most zoos. Additionally, visitors can participate in thematic itineraries and events and can interact directly with some animals, which makes the experience more interactive for visitors.

The park aims to protect a large number of animal species from all over the world. The revenue generated from admission to the zoo funds research and animal protection projects, including the 22 years of research carried out on the giant panda, the release of specimens of 44 different species into the wild by the zoo, and conservation projects in 45 countries around the world.

How to get to the San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo is located inside Balboa Park, the largest park in the city, and occupies a significant portion of it. Getting to the zoo is very easy, whether you are driving, walking, or taking public transportation.

If you’re already inside Balboa Park, just follow the signs from each area of the park to walk to the zoo. If you are driving from another area of the city, enter Zoo Dr as your destination in the GPS. The road ends right at the parking lot in front of the park entrance.

Do you intend to get here by public transportation instead? In that case, you need to get off at the Park Bl & Zoo Pl bus stop, where Buses 7 and 215 arrive. Finally, another alternative is to take advantage of the bike-sharing system in San Diego. One of the stations where you can leave your bikes is right at the entrance to the zoo.

If you want to avoid wasting time or getting lost, go to this website where you will find information about the convenient shuttle service from your hotel to the Zoo.

San Diego Zoo hours and tickets

The zoo is open every day of the year, from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. There are two types of tickets to choose from:

  • Day Pass: $58. Includes admission to the zoo, a guided bus tour, and access to the Kangaroo Express Bus and Skyfari Aerial Tram. For children 3 to 11 years old, admission is $48.
  • Day Pass Plus: $64. In addition to the standard ticket, it also includes an entrance to the 4D Theatre. For children from 3 to 11 years old, admission is $54.

You can book in advance by clicking on the button below, so you won’t waste time in long lines at the ticket office, since the ticket includes the “skip the line” option.

Attractions at the San Diego Zoo

Have you ever walked in a tropical forest, surrounded by storks, tapirs and ferocious tigers? Have you ever witnessed the scene of a pack of Tasmanian devils feeding? The different areas of the park will give you the chance not only to see animals from all over the world embedded in their natural environment, but also to witness scenes of wildlife. This is because the habitats are maintained so well and the animals are not caged.

  • Guided bus tour. Included in all entrance tickets, this open-top bus runs from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm and takes you on a full 35-minute tour of the zoo. Throughout the journey, you can listen to a narrator give information about the zoo.
  • Kangaroo Bus. Every day, from 10:30 am to 4:30 pm, there is this shuttle that allows you to get on and off at four different stops. The Kangaroo bus runs every 15 minutes and is included in your ticket.
  • Skyfari Aerial Tram. The most impressive way to cross the zoo from one end to the other is this cable car, which is an exciting attraction, especially for children.

On this website, you can discover all the animal species in the zoo.

Shows and thematic itineraries

The San Diego Zoo is so large that if you visit it in general, you might miss out on a lot. There are numerous guided tours that follow specific themes and can help you make the most of your day. Are you an experienced photographer? Don’t miss the sunrise photo tour with a guide who will take your photos in the calm morning before the gates open. At different times throughout the day, there are animal encounters scheduled that allow visitors to approach and pet certain species.

In addition to the different themed areas where you can admire the animals in their habitat, you can also watch shows where the animals are the protagonists.

  • Wild about animals. Every day at 3:00 pm, at the Wegeforth Bowl, wild animal trainers will surprise you with their demonstrations. Note: At certain times this show is replaced by a simpler presentation of animals at the Centennial Wall, which is right next door.
  • Zoolittle Explores Australia. Every Saturday and Sunday, at 12:00 pm and 1:00 pm, the whole family can have fun in the company of the cheerful animals.
  • Dr. Zoolittle and his very nice animals. Another feature that differentiates the San Diego Zoo from most other zoos is that it has a 4D cinema. The 1-Day Pass Plus gives visitors access to a 4D show. Click here to see what 4D show is being shown right now.

How to get around the park

The zoo is definitely vast and walking around without following a precise itinerary can be tiring, especially in the summer heat. Fortunately, there are some internal means of transportation that allow you to get around the zoo more quickly, but also to learn more about the zoo and the animals that live there.

Where to eat at the San Diego Zoo

It is very likely that you will spend the whole day inside the zoo. Therefore, unless you bring your packed lunch, you will need to buy lunch at the zoo. There is a wide selection of restaurants and kiosks where you can grab a bite.

At lunchtime, Albert’s Restaurant is open. Given the size of the park, I personally advise against sitting at a restaurant to eat, because you risk wasting a lot of time. At the zoo, you will find many other places where you can have pizza, sandwiches, fried food, and all sorts of fast food. On this website, you will find all the places to eat in the park.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

The Zoo Safari Park also recreates the natural environments that are the habitat of the animals but in even more detail and breadth. By traveling on a special train or off-road vehicle through the park, you can feel like you’re on a safari in the middle of the African savanna and take spectacular pictures.

How to get to the Zoo Safari Park

The Zoo Safari Park (15500 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido) is located 30-45 minutes drive from Downtown San Diego and the car is certainly the best way to get there. Daily parking costs $15.

You can also get there by public transportation, but you’ll have to take into account that it will take longer to get there. It takes about 2 hours and 30 minutes to get there by bus, because in addition to the distance you need to change buses. The fastest way is to take Bus 235 at any stop along Broadway to Escondido Transit Center. From here, take Bus 371 to the Hwy 78 & Wap Outside Gate stop.  You will then walk for 15 minutes to reach the park.

In case you do not have a car and do not want to spend half of the day by bus, you could consider this round-trip transportation from your hotel directly to the park.

Alternatively, it may be convenient for you to buy your ticket that includes both transportation from the hotel and admission to the Zoo Safari Park.

Zoo Safari Park hours and tickets

The zoo is open every day of the year, from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. The day pass costs $58 and includes admission to Safari Park, the Africa Tram, Cheetah Run, and all shows. For children from 3 to 11 years old, admission is $48. You can book in advance the “skip the line” pass by clicking on the button below, so you don’t waste time in long lines at the ticket office.

Visit the Zoo Safari Park

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is one of the largest safari parks in the world and has a wide variety of settings that recreate the natural habitat of many animals. Much of the park is inspired by the forests and savannas in Africa. Elephants and gorillas, lions, and giraffes are just some of the many mammals that live in habitats with African vegetation.

Some areas of the Safari Park are dedicated to other areas of the world, in particular Australia and Asia. On this website, you can download the map of the park to get a precise idea of how it is structured and where there is to see.

Meet the animals at the Zoo Safari Park

In addition to visiting the park, every day you have the opportunity to meet some animals up close and to find out more about them. Every day at 11:45 am, you can learn about the Sumatran tigers, while at 9:30 am and 2:30 pm at Safari Base Camp, you can go with park staff to see a cheetah, an alligator, and other rare and exotic animals up close.

Every day, at various times, Nairobi Station hosts close encounters with different species ranging from the cute goats that you can pet to the parrots that will come to eat from your hands. On this website, you can see all the animals.

There are also multiple shows to see animals perform. The protagonists are usually the birds of prey that perform incredible aerial acrobatics. To learn more about the shows, go to this website.

The Cheetah Run is also included in the admission. Have you ever seen a cheetah hunting its prey? In this case, there won’t be bloodshed in front of your eyes (you will see him chasing a puppet), but you will be able to admire how fast this feline can run.

The different safaris in the park

Compared to other Safari Parks around the world, the San Diego Safari Park offers different programs to visitors, including animal encounters. Here are the main options.

  • Africa Tram. Included in the ticket, this train is active every day starting at 10:00 am. It travels across some of the main areas of the park.
  • Cart Safari ($53). This is a guided tour that lasts 1 hour and you can choose between the Africa or Asia sections. This customized safari enters areas that are normally not accessible to the public so visitors on the tour can see the animals more closely.
  • Caravan Safari ($121). During the 2-hour safari on an off-road vehicle, you will get closer to the animals and have incredible experiences, such as feeding giraffes.
  • Behind the scene ($87). This is a series of guided tours, usually of 90 minutes, to see some specific animals up close and discover more about them.

Where to eat at Zoo Safari Park

Visiting the Zoo Safari Park usually takes a whole day. Therefore, it is normal to have lunch in the middle of the visit and, unless you bring sandwiches, you will have to buy lunch there. On this website, you will find a complete list of restaurants and bars to choose from.

My advice is to take a look at the descriptions of the dining options before your visit, so you can plan on where to stop and eat a quick bite. Otherwise, you might be forced to find a table at a restaurant, which is not the fastest option.