A Zoo Hater Confronts The San Diego Zoo And The San Diego Safari Park

lions san diego zoo safari parkI do not like zoos. I have no ideological problem with them, but every time I bring my children to a zoo, I feel drained – financially, physically and mentally – by the time we’re ready to leave. When my wife and I had the first of our two children in 2007, I don’t think I’d been to a zoo in more than 20 years.
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But since then, I’ve been coerced into visiting zoos in Chicago, Brookfield, Illinois, Washington, D.C., Reston, VA, Zurich, Toronto, Baraboo, Wisconsin and a host of other places. And this week, I somehow got roped into taking my children to not one but two zoos: the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido.

These are reputed to be two of the best zoos in the world, but they’re also huge places that you can’t very well just duck into for a quick visit. Other than placating my sons, ages 3 and 5, my goal for the visits was to find out if these places were worthy of the hype and to determine if even a zoo-hater like me could be won over.


san diego zoo safari parkMy first impression of the Safari Park was overwhelmingly positive. You walk into the place and there’s a beached old Land Rover parked on the side of a small hill, next to a rushing waterfall. Speakers pipe in cool, tribal African music and the lush, tropical surroundings make you feel like you’re in the Hollywood version of a jungle set.

I had a vague impression that we were going to have our butts carted all around the place in some sort of vehicle or cart, but that isn’t exactly how it works. With the regular general admission ticket ($44), you get a 25-minute ride on the Africa Tram Safari, but have to walk the rest of the place. But if you want to spend more, there is a dizzying array of more expensive safaris, ranging from the $84 cart safari to the $599 ultimate VIP safari. Only in America can you drop a few grand on a trip to the zoo, right?


We opted for the cheapest ticket and I thought the Africa tram ride was more than enough for our needs. It’s a narrated ride that is about as close to an African safari as you’ll get in the U.S. You can probably see many of the animals we saw – giraffes, lions, cheetahs, rhinos, antelope, zebras and others – in a lot of zoos, but here you’re seeing them in a huge open space that looks like a much more natural habitat. (But if you want to get very close to the animals, you need to go on one of the more expensive safaris.)

lions san diego zoo safari parkAnd what’s more, our guide, Doug, even took it upon himself to give us some tips on how to reduce our carbon footprint. (I’ll be sure to slow down on the highways, Doug, thanks for the suggestion.)

My favorite animal was Vila, a 55-year-old gorilla that’s a great, great, great grandma who is believed to be one of the oldest “known-age” gorillas in the world. My sons dragged us all over the 1,800-acre park in search of all their favorite animals too, and, while it was a bit exhausting, I loved the fact that there are a host of unpaved trails that make you feel as though you’re on a hike out in the woods.

It’s not a typical zoo vibe at all and I liked that. But you will definitely need to watch your wallet at the Safari Park. There are opportunities to blow cash everywhere – you can even pay $6 to cut the Africa Tram line. If you’re on a budget, definitely bring your own food and drinks. A fountain soda goes for $5.19, a cup of soup is more than $7 and all of the other food and beverage options are similarly overpriced.

The San Diego Zoo, located in beautiful Balboa Park, in the city of San Diego, is more of a typical zoo experience, only better. The grounds are lush and expansive and the variety of interesting animals from all over the world is pretty astonishing. Everyone loves the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., but there you can walk for miles and see only a handful of animals. At the San Diego Zoo, the variety of wildlife in a similar sized space is far more impressive but you don’t get the feeling that the animal enclosures are cramped either.

macaw san diego zooLike the Safari Park, there are a host of expensive tour options and expensive souvenirs and refreshments, but given the fact that it’s right in the city, as opposed to the Safari Park, which is in a much more quiet, somewhat remote area, there’s no reason why you can’t duck out to get a bite to eat or simply bring your own lunch.

The amazing thing about the San Diego Zoo is that it really is like a little trip around the world. We saw animals from all over the planet: komodo dragons from Indonesia, gorillas from Africa, pink flamingos from the Caribbean, an anaconda from South America, and crested porcupines from India to name just a handful. And I saw a whole host of animals I’d barely even heard of before: a mang mountain viper, a Bornea sun bear, a Manchurian brown bear, an Andean bear, a West African dwarf crocodile, an Andean Cock-of-the Rock birds, and assassin bugs to name just a few.

I also liked the descriptions and the attempts to humanize the animals. We sat and watched the six gorillas for some time and I though the descriptions of their personalities was spot on: Paul “The Player” was indeed “handsome, charismatic and playful,” as he laid on his back, spread eagle with his hands covering his eyes, Ndjia, “The Thinker” sat in Rodin’s “The Thinker” pose, and Frank “The Tank” was every bit the “strong, independent, playful” lad he was made out to be.

san diego zoo signA few words of advice if you are going to be pushing children around this zoo at least part of the time. Go down Center Street and Park Way first toward the Pandas and Polar Bears because it’s a very long, steep hill. We did this part of the zoo last, when my kids were too tired to walk at all and I was exhausted pushing them in a stroller back up the hill to cap the day. And if your kids are as inquisitive as mine, don’t hand them the colorful map showing all the animals until you’re in the car ride going home.

My 5-year-old would see an image of an animal he liked -Porcupine! Zebra! Parrot! Bug house!- and then insist that we charge off to find that animal immediately, leaving me feeling a bit like Magellan looking for a spice route to the West Indies.


If you only have time to visit one zoo in the San Diego area, where you go depends on your preferences and where you’re staying. If you don’t want to stray outside the city limits, the zoo is the obvious choice. Those who want a more atypical experience and like the idea of seeing animals in a more natural habitat along hiking trails, trams or safaris should consider the Safari Park.

For sheer variety of animals, I’d go with the zoo – there are some 3,700 animals representing approximately 660 species in a 100-acre space, compared to about 2,600 animals representing about 300 species in an 1,800 acre space at the safari park. And the zoo has the advantage of free parking, though both of these places are worth visiting. Even if you hate zoos, like me.

[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]