Someday I would love to go on a real African Safari and come face to face with a Lion or a Tiger – but until that day comes, I can go to the next best place right here in California.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is located in San Diego County close to the city of Escondido. It spans 1800 acres of land and is stocked with 2600 animals from 300 species. It is also home to thousands of plant species – some of it in a protected preserve. The main attraction is a vast open area with free ranging animals that vary from the fierce lions to the tame Giraffes. The only way to enjoy this vast flora and fauna is to join a Safari. More the on Safari options later.
The Safari park and the Zoo in the city of San Diego are run by the non-profit organization “San Diego Zoo Global”, which also runs a research institute. The organization dedicated to the reproduction, protection, and exhibition of animals, plants, and their habitats.
So the big question is: what is the best way to enjoy the Safari park? It all depends on how much you are willing to spend on your experience. You can spend $44 per person for entrance and the Africa Tram Safari or you can go for the Caravan Safari for $139. If you are really into the wild, you can build a custom Safari experience, but be ready to pay $600 or more.
If this is your first visit and you are not sure what to do, I suggest buying the Africa Tram Safari for $44 ($34 for kids). Once you are inside you can decide whether you want to pay extra for additional Safaris.
Before or After the Safari
As you are walking from and to your Safari experience you can enjoy several shows and exhibits along the way.
Near the park entrance, stop at “WINGS OF THE WORLD” to view some varieties of wild and rare birds. In this exhibit you actually enter the enclosure with the birds and can view them in their “simulated” natural habitat.
As you exit “wings of the world” you will pass “NAIROBI VILLAGE” – a large lagoon with a Congo River fishing village. In and around the lagoon you will find a large variety of bird species like pelicans, storks, shoebills, and ducks, herons and egrets. The most impressive were the pelicans with graceful one footed stand and the huge storks. One way to really enjoy this area is to climb to the top of the wooden structure (tower) for bird’s eye view.
As you are walking to your Safari station you will pass a large glass viewing area overlooking the Lions habitat (Lions Camp). The area looks like a battered Safari camp overrun by lions. There are always a few milling about or napping. While we were visiting one of the lions got up and walked right up to the glass window, as if he was visiting the zoo of humans and viewing the various species. A great photo opportunity.
Also on your way, don’t forget the visit Lorikeet feeding area. Those tiny colorful birds are very friendly. As you are holding a cup of nectar they will land on you and start drinking right off the palm of your hand. It is an amazing experience – not to be missed.
If you are lucky and arrive during the seasonal Butterfly Jungle exhibit, then you must see it. When you are buying your tickets you will an allotted time for your visit. Make sure you make it around that time. Once you are in your will be face to face with thousands of butterflies from various species. Some of them will land on your clothes or hats. One of them landed on my cheek and tickled me to death by fluttering her wings and antennae – a unique experience caught on camera.
The park offers many ways to interact with the animals. Some of them more up close and personal than others. The only drawback I can see for this abundance is that you have to pay a lot of money for every additional Safari.
Also, some Safari’s get sold out early, so it is advisable to make a reservation. For example, if you really want to be on the Caravan Safari, you have to book it ahead of tie.
Here are the available Safaris …
Africa Tram Safari
When you first get into the tram, try to find a seat on your left side (or the side facing the Animal habitats). This is the side with the majority of views, and provides for the best pictures. If you end up on the right side or the middle you will still enjoy the Safari but your pictures may have other people or tram poles in them.
The guides/drivers are very knowledgeable and seem to really love the wild life and believe in the mission of the conservancy. You will get a continuous monologue about the various animals and habitats. If you heard it all before, bring your electronic device with you.
Some of the most famous inhabitants of this area are: herds of curious giraffes, massive rhinos, graceful gazelles, and impressively horned antelope, ostriches, African crowned cranes. We especially enjoyed watching a herd of Giraffes feeding from the trees.
Hint: You can go on the tram tour as many times as you desire.
This is probably the best safari experience at the park. You get to ride in the back of a truck andget into areas that are usually only accessible by staff. The tour is about 2 hours long, much longer than the tram tour.
Some of the highlights are feeding the Giraffes and the Rhinos. The Giraffes grab the leafs right out of your hands.
Try to get on the first tour of the day. The animals are more likely to approach at this time – maybe they are still hungry in the morning.
This Safari costs around $95 (or $139 with entrance).
Have you seen pictures of hot air balloons floating over the African plains chasing the herds of animals in their feeding grounds? The Balloon safari tries to simulate the experience by taking you up in a single large hot-air balloon. The balloon is tethered to the ground but goes up high enough to allow a great view of the whole area. Bring a pair of binoculars to enhance your experience.
Flight-line Safari (Zipline)
This is a great experience for adventure seekers. You will first get some lessons and gear, and before you go on your zipline adventure you get to practice on a scaled down run.
Once you are ready, you ride a truck to the upper launch area. Your harness is hooked to the line, you are comfortably seated then you start your long slide above the rhinos, deer and other animals.
This Safari costs around $70 (or $114 with entrance).
Riding a small cart with an experienced guide through the park gives you a more personalized tour of the African or Asian animals. The guides provide a lot of information about the animal’s characteristics, feeding habits and habitat. You will also get to watch while the guide offers some treats to the animals.
The cart Safari costs around $40 (or $84 with entrance).
Are you curious about what it takes to run such a huge wild animal park? How do they care for and train the animals? If so, then the behind-the-scene safari is for you.
Go to places that are off limits to the general public: Visit a lion or tiger bedroom; feed some rare animals; visit the veterinary hospital or the research labs.
This Safari costs around $70 (or $114 with entrance).
Roar and Snore Safari
When you are on an African Safari you will probably spend several nights in a campground between expeditions. If you love camping close to the animals you can enjoy this experience at the Safari park. Several options are available for your accommodations and activities. Some programs are for adults only (over 21) and others for families with kids 6 and over. The campground overlooks the African Plains and offers great views of the animals in their natural habitat.
Depending on which option you pick, expect to pay from $184 to $264.
The Ultimate Safari
This Safari option allows you to custom design the Safari of your dreams. The professionals at the park will guide you through the various options that meet your needs and interests. Do you want to spend more time interacting with the wild animals or visiting exhibits? Do you prefer your visit to be on the adventurous side or on the mild and relaxed side?
You have to plan for this experience ahead of time. Once you arrive for your experience, a private tour guide is assigned to you and spends 5 or 8 hours with you – depending on which option you picked. The tour includes one meal.
Expect to pay $599 for 5 hours and $950 for an 8 hour experience – per person.
Where to eat
The park offers many dining options. We had lunch at the Sabmuru Terrace, which close to the Bird Show amphitheater and the Jungle Gym. At first glance the place looks too small with no place to sit, but after picking up your food you can find great tables with nice views a short walking distance away. The food was very good but pricy - lunch for 4 was $65. We tried the cheeseburgers, taco tostada salad and fish tacos. All were delicious and good filling portions.
Other places to try: Thorntree Terrace for sandwiches, paninis, salads, and burgers; Mombasa Island Cooker for BBQ favorites, burgers, vegetable skewers, entree salads.
If you prefer you can bring your own food and eat at the shaded picnic area.
Escondido, CA 92027-7017