San Diego Zoo vs Safari Park: Main Differences & Which One is Better

san diego zoo vs safari park

TL;DR: We compared San Diego Zoo vs. Safari Park and found that both parks cost the same, but the San Diego Zoo is best for families with young kids because there are more animals, transportation options, and play areas. Meanwhile, the Safari Park offers safari experiences, with large enclosures and unique tours, so it’s best for those looking for different experiences from a zoo and who might be willing to pay extra for it.

If you’re making a trip to San Diego, the famous San Diego Zoo is a must-see attraction. But how do you choose between the San Diego Zoo vs Safari Park? 

Many visitors assume they’re the same thing–or at least in the same place–but they’re actually in different locations and offer different experiences. 

I’ve visited a lot of zoos in California and beyond, but the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Safari Park are my favorites. 

Not only will you see a lot of animals, but it’s clear that they’re also well-cared for with amazing, spacious habitats. 

The gorgeous San Diego climate helps, too–my last trip was in December, and the whole day was sunny and warm.

If you love animals, you’ll have a great time at either park, but it’s good to know the key differences between San Diego Zoo vs Safari Park so you can make the best decision for your trip. 

Use this guide to find out what admission includes and what it doesn’t, and what you can expect at both parks so you can make the most of your trip.

San Diego zoo vs safari park

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San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo is located minutes from downtown San Diego, just off Park Blvd in Balboa Park. It’s an oasis in the midst of the urban jungle. 

The zoo is home to over 12,000 rare and endangered animals and represents over 600 species. Spread out over 100 acres, you’ll want to devote an entire day to experiencing this massive zoo. 

To give you a bit of background–the San Diego Zoo began on a whim. After the 1915 California-Panama Exhibition ended, the animals from the event were abandoned in Balboa Park. 

Local physician Harry Wegeforth heard a lion roar while driving by in 1916 and joked that it would be splendid if San Diego had a zoo. The idea grew and Dr. Wegeforth pursued it. 

As it turned out, the city of San Diego was keen for someone else to assume responsibility for the lion–along with the wolves, coyotes, bears, and monkeys left by the exposition. And thus, the zoo was born.

Conservation has always been a massive part of the zoo’s mission and there are many ethical breeding programs at the San Diego Zoo. In other words, you can often spot baby animals! 

The best way to find out what’s new at the zoo is to take the guided bus tour in the park, which takes you by all the highlights and offers lots of exciting information about the animals.

Who’s the San Diego Zoo for? 

The San Diego Zoo is world-famous and perfect for anyone interested in wildlife. It’s popular with families but is a fun place for adults too. 

Zoos can be somewhat sad and cramped, but it’s clear that the animals at the San Diego Zoo are well-cared for. And unlike some places, the zoo doesn’t force animals to entertain anyone.

Conservation has always been key to the zoo’s mission, and the San Diego Zoo partners with organizations worldwide to preserve endangered species. Many of the animals born at the zoo have been safely introduced into the wild.

One of the San Diego Zoo’s biggest success stories was its giant pandas. In collaboration with scientists in China, researchers at the San Diego Zoo set up a breeding program that saw several cubs born in captivity. 

Scientists learned a lot from this program and were able to help pandas in the wild. In fact, pandas have now left the endangered species list.

Although the panda program ended with the pair’s return to China in 2019, the San Diego Zoo still has a wide variety of animals to visit.

Its location in Balboa Park is close to downtown San Diego, making it more convenient to visit than the San Diego Safari Park in Escondido.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

San Diego zoo safari park

Founded in 1964, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park first existed as a place to breed animals for the zoo, but has since become an attraction in its own right.

With 1,800 acres of open space, the safari park focuses on allowing animals to roam naturally across the plains without the cages of traditional zoos.

The most prominent animal exhibits at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park are the African and Asian savannas. 

The 300 species at the safari park include elephants, rare rhinos, giraffes, gazelles, antelope, tigers, and much more. 

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park has also had a lot of success with its breeding programs, most famously with California Condors.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park has another special animal exhibit–a pair of platypuses, the only two living outside of Australia! You can find these unique animals in the Australian Walkabout sector of the wild animal park.

Although the space for animals is enormous, the safari park isn’t a drive-through experience. 

Guests walk through the San Diego Zoo Safari Park or take guided tours. The entrance fee includes the Africa Tram, which takes guests through the African area. Other tours cost extra.

Who’s the San Diego Safari Park for?

Like the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Safari Park is suitable for all ages and abilities. It’s a unique opportunity to see animals in a near-natural environment and learn about conservation. 

Unlike the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is not in downtown San Diego. You’ll need to travel 30-45 minutes by car to Escondido. 

If you’re interested in African and Asian animals, this is the ideal park.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park vs San Diego Zoo

Location, Tickets & Hours

location tickets hours

Location

The San Diego Zoo is in Balboa Park, San Diego. The address is 2920 Zoo Drive, San Diego, CA. 

Because of its location in the heart of San Diego, the San Diego Zoo is easy to visit if you’re staying in the city. Free parking is available in the lot outside the zoo.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is located at 15500 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido, a 30-45-minute car journey from central San Diego. 

There’s a parking fee at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park: $15 per vehicle or $20 for RVs. On weekends and holidays, there’s preferred parking available for an extra $18. The two zoos are 35 miles apart.

Tickets

Both the zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park cost the same to visit. San Diego Zoo tickets and San Diego Safari Park tickets cost $67 for an adult and $55 for a child at either park at the gate (as of 2022). Children under two are free. 

However, there are discounts available if you purchase a ticket in advance.

No reservations are necessary and the ticket is good for a year. You can buy this discounted ticket to the San Diego Zoo or the San Diego Zoo Safari Park online at least 24 hours before you want to go.

Hours

Both the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park are open everyday, rain or shine – even on holidays. Usually they open at 9 am and close between 5 pm to 8 pm, but the exact hours change depending on the season and special events.

Click here to check the hours of the San Diego Zoo on the day that you plan to visit. And here to check the Safari Park hours.

Park Size, Transportation & Accessibility

Park size transportation accessibility

The park sizes are very different. The San Diego Zoo covers 100 acres, whereas the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a massive 1,800 acres in size.

Both the zoo and the San Diego Safari Park have similar walking distances between animal exhibits despite the size difference.

Although you could see both San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Safari Park in one day, you would likely miss out on a lot! Instead, I’d recommend one day for each park.

Expect to walk a lot in both San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park–you’ll want to wear comfortable shoes

There are several other ways to get around the two world-class zoos if you’re getting sore feet.

The San Diego Zoo is built into a canyon and is very hilly. Fortunately, there are three elevators to help you get up and down the levels. You can find two in the Lost Forest and one in the Asian Passage. 

There’s also a hop-on, hop-off bus Kangaroo Express bus service around the park. There are four stops, marked with a yellow kangaroo sign. This service is included in your San Diego Zoo ticket and can be a real foot saver.

Another fun way to get around the San Diego Zoo is the Skyfari Aerial Tram, a not-to-be-missed experience. 

The gondolas take you above the treetops from Front Street near the Children’s Zoo to the Northern Frontier next to the Polar Bear Plunge, giving you a bird’s eye view of the animals.

In addition, there’s a 35-minute guided bus tour around the zoo, which starts near the San Diego Zoo entrance. 

I suggest doing this as soon as you arrive. That way, the line will be shorter and you’ll get inspiration for where you want to visit that day. 

Over at San Diego Zoo Safari Park, you’ll find the Africa Tram, a 25-minute guided tour of the Africa savanna area. Like the San Diego Zoo guided tour, it’s a good idea to take this first thing in the morning. 

The busiest times for the Africa Tram are between 11 am and 3 pm.

Both the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Safari Park are wheelchair accessible. Complementary shuttles are available at both parks for guests who require help getting around. 

You’ll want to pick up a San Diego Zoo map or one for the safari park when you arrive at each respective park, so you don’t get lost!

Animals, Shows & Attractions

Animals shows attractions

The San Diego Zoo has more animals from across the globe, including Africa, Central America, South America, Australia, and Asia. The safari park focuses on large animals from Africa and Asia.

Both zoo and safari park tickets include a ton of activities and shows. In addition to the free things to do, there are several exciting paid-for experiences at both the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Your ticket to the San Diego Zoo includes a guided bus tour, the Kangaroo Bus, Skyfari, wildlife talks, and play areas. 

If you have young kids, you’ll know how important play areas are to help them burn off some energy on a day out. 

You can find four play areas around the zoo: Tree of Dreams in the Wild Woods, Polar Play Area at the Northern Frontier, Elephant Play Area in the Elephant Odyssey, and Koala Klimber in the Australian Outback.

Of course, the San Diego Zoo is exceptional for its animal collection–especially the rare and endangered species.

Don’t miss the Galapagos tortoises, some of which have been with the zoo since 1928, or the pygmy hippos, which are adorable miniature versions of the African mammal. 

My personal favorite is the okapi, an unusual animal that looks like a cross between a zebra and a giraffe.

San Diego Zoo also has polar bears, a very popular exhibit. You can watch these giant creatures swim gracefully in the water through the viewing glass, which is a memorable experience. The bears seem to enjoy watching people too!

Find out more about the animals at one of the daily wildlife presentations at noon at the Africa Rocks Stage. 

These presentations are an opportunity to meet the animal ambassadors who work at the zoo, studying and caring for the animals. 

In addition to animals, the San Diego Zoo has a fantastic collection of plants from around the world. 

Once or twice a month (find the list of days here), the zoo has Plant Days when the Orchid House is open to visitors. During these events, you can also take a guided bus tour of the botanical garden.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park has fewer animals and species than the San Diego Zoo, which offers a more traditional zoo experience. 

Instead, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has mostly larger animals in huge enclosures so that visitors can see wildlife in a more natural setting.

The admission price includes the Africa Tram, a guided open-sided bus tour around the African savanna area, access to a petting zoo, and several play areas.

The petting zoo hosts a herd of kraal, which look like goats but are cuter. Don’t skip this if you have kids in your group; it’s always a big hit. You can find the cuddly kraal at Nairobi Village. 

Children will also love the four play areas in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. If you’re visiting on a hot summer day, head to Savanna Cool Zone in Lion Camp for some water fun.

If you’re comparing the San Diego Zoo vs Safari Park on included activities, it’s clear the zoo has more to do. 

However, if you’re willing to spend more on upgrades, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has incredible opportunities to get close to the wildlife.

Special Tours & Upgraded Encounters

Special tours upgraded encounters

I hate spending more money when I’ve already paid for admission, but even I must admit that there are some special San Diego Zoo tours and safaris. 

It helps to know that the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park operate as non-profits, so everything you buy in the parks goes toward caring for the animals, wildlife conservation, and nothing else.

For a tour of the San Diego Zoo, book a Discovery Cart Tour for $55 each, which offers a 60-minute guided trip around the park. 

These private tours are ideal if you have lots of questions or are short on time and want to make the most of your experience at the zoo.

Those looking for an up-close encounter with exotic animals should reserve a spot on the Animals in Action Experience or Crazy About Cats, which take guests to visit incredible creatures in person. 

Or take an early morning photo expedition to visit the cheetahs, who are at their most playful at the start of the day.

Other tours and animal encounters are available, so check the San Diego Zoo’s website for the latest offers.

Going on a wildlife safari in Africa is at the top of my bucket list, but I’ll need to wait a few years. For now, a wildlife safari in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is much more child-friendly (and considerably cheaper).

The best tour at the safari park is the Ultimate Safari, where you receive five or seven hours with a guide plus a sit-down lunch. 

This customized tour is pricey at $675 per person but would be a memorable special occasion gift for an animal lover. 

Shorter, cheaper experiences are also available at the San Diego Safari Park. For instance, the one-hour Wildlife Safari is perfect for families.

Or, the romantic Twilight Wildlife Safari (formerly known as the Caravan Safari Twilight) ends with a drink and snacks as you watch the sunset over the savanna. 

The Behind the Scenes Safari takes you to off-limits areas to learn about animal care. Tickets for both the Twilight Wildlife (Caravan) Safari and the Behind the Scenes Safari start at $89. 

Adrenaline seekers, take note: the Flightline Safari will see you soaring across the plains, 130 feet in the air, for a unique bird’s eye view of the safari park. 

Or, if you prefer a more gentle flight, take off on a Balloon Safari to enjoy the view from a hot air balloon basket at 400 feet.

You can also access the park before it’s open with the Sun Up Cheetah Safari, where you can see a cheetah run at top speed. Or, sign up for a unique sunrise Surprise Stroll tour–no two tours are alike!

For a real adventure, stay the night in canvas tents on the Roar and Snore Safari. From $149 per person, this safari experience includes overnight accommodation, an after-hours look at the animals, a campfire program, dinner, a snack, and breakfast. I think this is pretty good value!

Comparing the San Diego Zoo vs Safari Park on special upgraded tours: San Diego Safari Park has many more choices for tours. 

Seeing a cheetah run, ziplining over animals on the Flightline Safari, and staying overnight in a safari tent are all fantastic experiences you won’t find anywhere else.

Food & Drink Options

Food drink options

The San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park allow guests to bring in their own food and drink, although you can’t trundle a giant cooler around. 

Having said that, the food and drink options at both the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Safari Park are tasty, diverse, and healthy, so there’s no need to take your own food.

The San Diego Zoo has a good mix of “theme park” food like hot dogs, kettle corn, and ice cream (the best cones are from Hua Mei) and healthier meals like freshly-made sandwiches and salads. 

If the zoo is your only day in San Diego, you can try fish tacos, the dish the city is famous for, paired with a local craft beer.

There’s even a sit-down venue, Albert’s Restaurant, where you can enjoy steak frites on a private patio next to a waterfall. I advise making reservations for Albert’s, which can get busy on weekends and holidays.

The food and drink options at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park are equally good. Some of the eateries have views over the plains, so you don’t have to miss out on a moment of wildlife watching. 

I especially like The Watering Hole at Kijami Overlook, which has a tasty sandwich and salad menu. 

Macan Market, located on the Tiger Trail, is another good spot to enjoy a light lunch while spotting tigers. 

On a hot day, head to Lion Camp Slush and Snacks, where you can build your own slushie for a cooling treat.

FAQs About the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park

FAQs about the San Diego zoo and safari park

Is the San Diego Zoo or the Safari Park better for toddlers? How about for babies?

If you have a toddler and you’re trying to compare the San Diego Zoo vs Safari Park, consider this: you’ll see more animals at San Diego Zoo. There’s also a children’s zoo, more transport options around the zoo, and there’s slightly less walking. 

Both places are fun for toddlers, but the San Diego Zoo is easier for families with young kids.

As for babies, they won’t care where they are. Pick the park you think you’ll enjoy the most.

Is it worth going to the San Diego Zoo AND Safari Park?

Definitely! The two parks offer different experiences. 

I wouldn’t attempt to do both on the same day, as there’s a 45-minute drive between the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Plus, there’s a lot to see in each wild animal park in San Diego.

Is the San Diego Zoo bigger than the Safari Park?

No, the San Diego Zoo is 100 acres in size compared to the 1,800 acres at the safari park. 

Remember, the safari park’s extra space is mostly for the animals. The length of the pathways guests walk along is roughly the same in both parks.

What is the difference between a zoo and a safari park?

You’ll get more of a traditional zoo experience at the San Diego Zoo. 

In contrast, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is an opportunity to see large animals roaming free across large enclosures. 

The safari park focuses on African and Asian animals and has some great safari tours as add-ons, like the Ultimate Safari, while the zoo offers close-up animal encounters.

How far is the Safari Park from the San Diego Zoo?

The Safari Park’s general location is about 35 miles away from San Diego Zoo in Escondido. The journey time in a car is 45 minutes without traffic, although there’s often traffic on this route.

How much time do you need to see each park? Could you see both the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park in one day?

Both the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park deserve an entire day of their own but give them at least three hours each if you can’t spare a whole day for both. 

You could see both in one day, but I wouldn’t recommend doing so, as the two parks aren’t that close and there’s so much to do at each park.

San Diego Zoo vs San Diego Safari Park: Which One is Better?

San Diego zoo vs san diego safari park which one is better

When deciding between the San Diego Zoo vs Safari Park, it depends on your personal preferences.

The San Diego Zoo has all the animals as the safari park and more, except for the platypuses. You can only see these unique creatures at Walkabout Australia in the San Diego Safari Park. 

So, if you really want to see a polar bear, for example, you would be better off picking the San Diego Zoo vs the Safari Park.

There’s also the location to take into consideration. If you’re staying in the central San Diego area, the San Diego Zoo is more convenient to reach than the San Diego Safari Park. 

If you don’t have a car, the San Diego Zoo is more accessible to get to by public transportation. Also, there’s free parking at the San Diego Zoo, which is always lovely.

If you’re considering adding an upgrade to your experience, this could be the ultimate deciding factor between the two parks. 

When comparing the San Diego Zoo vs Safari Park, the San Diego Zoo offers fewer experiences than the safari park.

If your dream is to feed giraffes, float over herds of elephants in a balloon, stay the night in a wild animal park, or go on a cheetah safari, the safari park offers all of this and more.

Whichever you choose, both the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Safari Park are some of the top things to do in the San Diego area, so you’ll have a fantastic time at either.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Sarah McDonald

Sarah McDonald is a travel writer based in the Bay Area. She writes for the national parenting website Red Tricycle and on her own family travel blog, Tiny Trailblazers. She loves exploring California’s outdoors and has a weakness for a national park gift shop.


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1 thought on “San Diego Zoo vs Safari Park: Main Differences & Which One is Better”

  1. Please note the hours for the Zoo change with seasons and holidays. 9-5 in winter; 9-7 during some months; 9-9 in summer. It is open special hours for Halloween week and Christmas holidays. Also, it may close early for some special events.
    **Check hours online before planning your trip.

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