San Diego Safari Park vs San Diego Zoo

One of the great things about San Diego is the sheer volume of family friendly thing to do. We’ve been there twice now, for a full week each time, and it still feels like we’ve just barely scraped the surface of available attractions. Last time we were there we visited the world famous San Diego Zoo which is in the centre of the city so this time we decided to try the other great zoo in the area, the San Diego Safari Park.

Many people don’t realize that the San Diego Zoo Society actually runs two parks in two separate locations. The one with the “World Famous” prefix is the original. Founded in Balboa Park in 1916 it now packs an amazing assortment of animals into 100 acres in the heart of the city. We visited when the kids were two and three and we found that a full day was barely enough to see everything.

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San Diego Safari Park, on the other hand, is a bit more out of the way. It’s not difficult to get to, but it does take a good 40 minutes of driving to reach. It started out as an extension of the zoo, a place to breed animals and keep it’s excess stock. Now it is an attraction in it’s own right and we enjoyed a full day there with the kids.

But while the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park are both great zoos filled with amazing animals and they are both run by the same organization, they are definitely not interchangable attractions. Each park has different animals and offers a very different experience for families. So how does a family decide which one to visit?

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In an ideal world you’d have time to visit both. The parks are different enough that you could easily fit both into your itinerary without feeling like you were repeating anything. Unfortunately, the pricing policy doesn’t really encourage multiple visits. They do sell a two park ticket which allows one visit to each attraction, but it is only $10 less than buying two separate tickets. ($48 for one park vs $86 for two.) Since many magazines have coupons which offer $5 off admission to each park, this really doesn’t save you anything and you might as well stick with single tickets.

Most visitors, however, when faced with the huge variety of options in San Diego, find themselves having to chose between the two parks. So how do you decide? Here are a few things that you can take into consideration if you’re making the decision.

1) Transportation

Basically, the Zoo is in the middle of the city and the Safari Park is in the middle of nowhere. This isn’t a significant issue if you have a rental car, but if you’re relying on public transportation the Zoo is probably your only option. Getting to the Safari Park is definitely more of a time commitment and there’s not really anything else out in that direction, so that’s something to keep in mind.

2) Space

The Zoo is very large at 100 acres of space. The Safari Park, on the other hand, is 1800 acres in size. While not all of this space is open to the public, the Safari Park definitely feels much less crowded than the Zoo. It should have been more crowded the day we went to the Safari Park since it was Spring Break season but the park felt practically empty compared to how it felt at the Zoo. With the Zoo being so much smaller and more easily accessed it really felt like it filled up by mid day with every pathway and viewpoint crowded with people. At the Safari Park we had some of the more remote areas almost to ourselves, even in the middle of the day.

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Of course, all this space meant a lot more walking, but I didn’t really find that to be an issue. The Zoo is extremely hilly and much of your time there is spent trekking up and down paths that are almost as steep as staircases. The Safari Park had some hills as well, but walking there didn’t seem quite so strenuous.

3) Variety

Basically, the Zoo has a wider variety of animals, but the Safari Park has more animals in a more natural environment. There are no pandas at the Safari Park for example, but they do have one of the world’s last five Northern White Rhinos. The Safari Park has fewer small enclosures where you can see a variety of animals one after the other, but they do have places where you can take in the vistas over the African Savannah and see a dozen different animals all out grazing together. If there’s a certain animal that you just have to see, it’s likely that you will have more luck finding it at the Zoo. If you just want to see animals, the Safari Park will give you more than enough to see.

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4) Extras

Both parks have lots of options, some of which are included in admission and some that have an added cost. The freebies are pretty much equivalent between the two. The Zoo offers a skyride over the park, a bus tour of the Zoo highlights and several animal shows. The Safari Park includes a tram “safari” in the African savannah, and shows including a cheetah run and a bird show. Both parks also have an almost unlimited variety of pricey extras. The Zoo offers a selection of backstage tours and VIP experiences while the Safari Park has a host of safari options that let you get close to the animals as well as a zipline and hot air balloon option. For a family these extras could add up very very quickly as they start at about $50 per person and quickly go up to $100 or more. Still, if there’s a once in a lifetime experience that your family would like to do, this would be your chance to do it.

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Overall, we had a great time at both places. I found that we got a little more out of our more recent visit to the Safari Park than we did from our previous visit to the Zoo, but that could well be because a five and six year old are more able to appreciate the experience than they could at two and three. Both parks have their advantages, but you really can’t go wrong with either. Perhaps we’ll visit both on our next trip to get an even better comparison.

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