San Diego Zoo or San Diego Zoo Safari Park: Which to Visit?


As a longtime San Diego Zoo Global member, I can tell you that the answer to, “Which is better: San Diego Zoo or San Diego Zoo Safari Park?” is never a short one. They are both glorious parks in their own ways and ideally, you would visit both. I do get this question a lot because, with all of the things to do in San Diego, tourists don’t always have time to see both parks.

Here, I will point out the differences between the two parks so that you can decide which one suits your interests most when you can only pick one. Sometimes what happens is that people realize that they must see both parks after reading about how great they are. Both are very popular San Diego tourist attractions and at the top of my list of best things to do in San Diego with kids.

Tip: San Diego Zoo Safari Park was known as San Diego Wild Animal Park until 2010. Through me you have access to discounted tickets and sightseeing passes and may be compensated should you purchase them using links in this post.

What They Both Have in Common: Conservation

An elephant eats plants near a pond in its enclosure at San Diego Zoo.
An elephant eats lunch at San Diego Zoo.

Both parks are part of San Diego Zoo Global and work cohesively to save species worldwide through various impressive conservation initiatives.

It is important to know that the parks are non-profit organizations so the money you spend there on tickets, food, and souvenirs goes toward operating expenses, animals in residence, and protecting animals worldwide. That’s it.

They also do have some animals in common but, for example, but the exhibits they are in are different so do not fear that visiting both parks might feel repetitive.

Two Different Locations: Balboa Park and Escondido

The reason you should not visit both San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park on the same day is that they are about 45 minutes apart from each other, without traffic (and there can be traffic along this freeway corridor).

San Diego Zoo

We are so lucky to have San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park, about 15 minutes by car from downtown San Diego and the San Diego International Airport. In fact, many people just take Uber there from Downtown or Coronado Island hotels.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

San Diego Zoo Safari Park is located in northeast San Diego County amid the rolling hills of the San Pasqual Valley in Escondido, north of downtown San Diego. The reason for this is that it is a very large park, with the world’s largest veterinary hospital and an abundance of animals who need more space.

Without traffic, the drive takes about 45 minutes from La Jolla, downtown San Diego, and Coronado. You’ll drive about 35 minutes from the popular Carlsbad hotels near LEGOLAND (which is the same amount of time from these hotels to San Diego Zoo). Public transportation to San Diego Zoo Safari Park is difficult as the closest bus stop is near the freeway so you’d need to Uber from it.

Escondido isn’t a part of San Diego where tourists usually stay, but there are hotels near San Diego Zoo Safari Park that make perfect sense for those who are coming only to visit this park.

Differences in Size and Walking

Rhinos relax in the morning at San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
The African Plans exhibit at the Safari Park is massive.

At either San Diego Zoo or San Diego Zoo Safari Park, plan to do a fair bit of walking. Both parks are stroller friendly with provisions for wheelchair accessibility.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

San Diego Zoo Safari Park is an 1800-acre wildlife sanctuary that is home to 3000 animals from 300 species. You’ll see an emphasis on African and Asian animals that require more space.

So, a lot of this acreage is for the large African Plains and Asian Savanna enclosures but also for the off-view working facilities like the Nikita Khan Rhino Rescue center (where they are working so save the northern white rhino), enormous laboratory spaces, libraries, and even the Frozen Zoo (with its 10,000 living cell cultures, oocytes, sperm, and embryos that have helped or will help bring back endangered species) — to name a few. A lot happens at this park.

San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo is 100 acres with about 3500 animals in residence representing over 650 species and subspecies. There are a lot more animals across smaller acreage which means that there is less walking in between exhibits.

In between looking at the animals, you’ll want to pay attention to the plants around you at both parks, which are famous for their botanical collections. Half of San Diego Zoo Safari Park acreage has been set aside as a native species habitat. San Diego Zoo is also a botanical garden with over 700,000 exotic plants in various gardens around the park. You can find plenty of garden inspiration which is why many locals take their morning walks around both parks.

Free Tours to Get You Acquainted

Both parks offer tours included with admission that give you the lay of the land.

San Diego Zoo Guided Bus Tour, Skyfari, and Kangaroo Bus

San Diego Zoo offers a guided bus tour but also a few free ways to get around the park because it’s hilly in parts and not on a mostly level grade like San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Guests ride the San Diego Zoo guided bus tour through the park.

Board the double-decker bus for a 35-minute guided tour of the Zoo. Buses start departing at 9:30 a.m., a half-hour after the Zoo opens. Many guests like to take the guided bus tour first thing to get acquainted. Families of small children take it in the late afternoon to recharge batteries. Either way, it is included with your tickets.

The Kangaroo Bus stops at four spaced-out stops around the Zoo at 15-minute intervals for those who need to maximize time and lessen walking.

One of the top things to do at San Diego Zoo is to ride the Skyfari Aerial Tram to and/or from Front Street near the Children’s Zoo to Northern Frontier near Polar Beach Plunge. The views of Balboa Park and the Zoo are stunning.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park Africa Tram

Africa tram drives by the African Plains enclosure at San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

The Africa tram takes guests around the larger field exhibits like African Plains and Asian Savanna for a closer, narrated look at the animals in them. It starts running at 10 a.m., an hour after the park opens and lasts for 25 minutes.

Popular Animals in Residence

A koala sleeps in a tree at San Diego Zoo.
A A koala

There is some overlap between the two parks in regard to animals (they are also occasionally moved between parks). Both parks have popular animals such as lions, tigers, elephants, gorillas, meerkats, lemurs, and many others.

The way you see the animals that they have in common though are very different experiences. Tiger Trail at San Diego Zoo like walking through a jungle while Tiger Trail at San Diego Zoo Safari Park offers a handful of other experiences like keeper talks and a playground.

Of course, each park has different themed areas but what people tend to care about most is not missing their favorite animals in action. The animals listed below unique to each park but I’ve also called out a few specific can’t miss animal exhibits or shows.

San Diego Zoo

There is a more diverse selection of animals to view at San Diego Zoo in a smaller land area.

  • Polar Bears: One of my favorite San Diego Zoo exhibits is Polar Bear Plunge. These Arctic giants actually thrive our sunshine and the exhibit allows guests to see them swim underwater. They do plunge! In fact, if you want to see bears, they are all at San Diego Zoo.
  • Koalas: This is the largest colony of koalas outside of Australia. Go in the morning when they are active but they are still super cute when sleeping in their trees.
  • Pygmy Hippopotamuses Hippos live at San Diego Zoo and we have a brand new baby born May 2020 that you may want to see.
  • Red Pandas: Sadly, our giant pandas returned to China. However, you can still see our adorable red pandas.
  • Reptile House: Fans of all things slithery will enjoy a cool visit to the indoor reptile house where more snakes and lizards than I can name live.
  • Two-Toed Sloth: If anyone in your group loves sloths as I do, they are at San Diego Zoo.
  • Galapagos Turtles: See one of the largest colonies of Galapagos Turtles in the world.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

  • Platypuses: These are the only platypuses outside of Australia. You’ll catch a glimpse of the nocturnal animals flurrying around their dark exhibit and learn about what makes them so unique.
  • Cheetah Run: Both parks have cheetahs but the highlight of any visit to San Diego Zoo Safari Park, weather permitting, is the Cheetah Run. Not only will you see the cheetah’s companion dog but also a chance to see him or her chase a toy at full speed.
  • Fruit Bats: These giant bats can be visited in the Nairobi Village Bat House.
  • Southern Cassowary: This crazy-looking bird is enormous and has what looks like a horn on its head. They live in Walkabout Australia.
  • Przewalski’s Horse: These pretty Mongolian horses are on the critically-endangered list and the Safari Park participates in a breeding program with other Zoos to promote genetic diversity. You can see them only on a Cart Safari or Behind-the-Scenes Safari.
  • California Condors: San Diego Zoo Safari Park has been instrumental in helping to save our state bird, helping to bring the population from 22 to over 500. You can see them in Condor Ridge, though many at the park live out of view in their “condor-minium.”

Animal Encounters: More at the Safari Park

You can feed lorikeets in their aviary at San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
Feed lorikeets nectar at San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Animal enthusiasts often want to know how or where they can safely interact with animals. Here is the answer.

San Diego Zoo

There are definitely opportunities for close-up interactions but they are mostly via the San Diego Zoo tours that are upgraded experiences you will need to book in advance.

We’ve taken Inside Look Tours and were able to feed a giraffe. I also recommend these tours because you’ll have the keeper’s full attention and many of them start before the Zoo opens to the public. So, you’ll already be inside with a head start and likely see animals when many are most active and having breakfast.

Keepers bring out various animals to showcase their abilities and answer questions during Animals in Action. You’ll also be able to go behind-the-scenes and maybe give one a snack.

Opportunities to get a little closer to animals that are included with admission are:

  • Keeper Talks that happen throughout the day feature various animals and are worth scheduling your itinerary around. I like the meerkat one in particular because the keeper gives them snacks so guests can watch them eat.
  • Animal Encounters on the Front Street Stage with various animal ambassadors.

(I believe that the petting zoo will return to San Diego Zoo when the new Children’s Zoo opens but this is still to be determined. In the meantime, you can also look at my list of activities at San Diego Zoo for kids.)

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Here, there are more opportunities to get up-close with animals where there are no barriers between you and them — which is one advantage to the park’s size. These activities are already included with admission:

  • Walk through Lorikeet Landing aviary (you can buy nectar to feed them and they’ll land on your arms).
  • Walk into the kangaroo and wallaby exhibit and they will hop around you.
  • See lemurs sleep or swing around Lemur Walk.
  • Visit the Petting Kraal (petting zoo).
  • View close-up Animal Encounters throughout the day at Nairobi Station with various animal ambassadors.
  • Plan to see the Frequent Fliers Bird Show where magnificent birds fly right over the audience.

If you can upgrade your day to include a Caravan Safari, I would highly recommend doing so. On this tour, if the animals are willing, you will be able to feed a giraffe and a rhino.

Feeding a rhino on Caravan Safari at San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Upgraded Tours on Offer

I highly encourage residents and frequent visitors especially to see a new side of the parks by taking San Diego Zoo tours and San Diego Zoo Safari Park tours. Themes and offerings change so the selection of my favorite tour offerings below may not be what is on offer during your visit.

San Diego Zoo

  • Inside Look Tours: Themed tours with keepers take guests behind-the-scenes, sometimes before the Zoo opens to the public, with koalas, tigers, and more.
  • Discovery Cart Tour: This is popular with families of young kids because it’s a 60-minute small group cart tour that cuts out a lot of walking.
  • Animals in Action: A 60-minute demonstration and behind-the-scenes look at various animals and their abilities.
  • Early Morning with the Cheetahs: Visit with the cheetahs, their keepers, and see a few other park animals on this 2-hour cart tour.
  • Sunrise Surprise Stroll: Walk the Zoo with a keeper before it opens for an insider’s view on what’s happening with the animals and initiatives. The theme changes monthly (you won’t know what it is until you get there) and the price is reasonable since it includes muffins and coffee.
  • Early Morning Photo Expedition: Arrive with your camera before the Zoo opens to take photos from the best vantage points whether you’re a pro photographer or just want to see the animals.
  • Crazy About Cats: Take a 2-hour cart and walking tour dedicated to all things cat.
  • Exclusive VIP Experience: They will give you the red carpet treatment on a 5-hour private tour customized to viewing your favorite animals.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

  • Caravan Safari (most popular and highly recommended): The basic tour takes guests out on a safari vehicle into the African Plains and Asian Savanna exhibits for an up-close look at these animals and opportunities to feed giraffes and rhinos (if they’re willing).
  • Behind-the-Scenes Safari: Visit the platypuses, elephants, tigers, rhinos, kangaroos, or cheetahs (and a few other friends) on a 90-minute behind the scenes tour with a keeper.
  • Balloon Safari: A 10-12 minute ride into the sky on a tethered helium balloon.
  • Cheetah Safari: Have an up-close encounter with a Cheetah prior to the Cheetah run.
  • Jungle Ropes Safari: Walk an obstacle course with rope bridges and tightropes through treetops (in a safety harness).
  • Flightline Safari: Yes, it’s a zip line that is 2/3 of a mile long and 130 feet in the air!
  • Cart Safari: This 1-hour tour takes you behind-the-scenes to viewing and photo areas that you normally wouldn’t see (choose Asia or Africa).
  • Ultimate Safari: You will learn so much on a private San Diego Zoo Safari Park VIP tour tailored to your interests for up to five hours.
  • Roar and Snore Safari: Yes, you can spend the night at San Diego Zoo Safari Park! Various tent and theme options are available.

Nearby Things to Do

Families with younger children find that they are exhausted after a fun day at the parks and head back to their hotels. However, energetic sightseers may want to keep exploring.

San Diego Zoo

As mentioned above, San Diego Zoo is located in Balboa Park, which is the nation’s largest urban cultural park with 17 museums, neat places to eat, hiking trails, and more things to do.

It is possible to see Balboa Park outside of the Zoo on the same day without moving your car. San Diego Zoo’s parking lot is close to the San Diego Natural History Museum and Fleet Science Center. From these museums, you can walk down the pedestrianized street called El Prado toward the California Tower, hopping into museums along the way if you choose.

Tip: The cost of museums can add up as you will want to pop into more than one. If you are going to visit museums and the San Diego Zoo, look into a Go San Diego pass (my 10% discount on all-inclusive passes applies automatically) which will be less expensive than buying a la carte.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Most of our San Diego tourist attractions are located in other parts of the county but there are things to do in Escondido you can enjoy while up here. On the way to and from San Diego Zoo Safari Park, you’ll pass Orfila winery where they have a lovely terrace and opportunities to purchase locally-made wines.

Family-friendly Stone Brewing is just on the other side of the freeway should you want to stop for a meal in their gardens. If the kids have energy left over, you could also stop into the fantastic San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum, a small detour on your way back to the freeway.

Tickets and Parking

San Diego Zoo tickets and San Diego Zoo Safari Park tickets are exactly the same price. You can buy 1-Day or 2-Day tickets or annual memberships (the latter are available to California residents in certain zip codes).

Tip: You can use my code lajollamom for $6 off 1-Day adult and child tickets to both parks. Shop now for Zoo and Safari Park tickets.

Admission to both parks can also be included on a sightseeing pass like Go San Diego which I also have a discount for here that applies 10% off of All-Inclusive passes.

San Diego Zoo parking is free and the lot is so big that we’ve never had an issue parking. (We tend to arrive earlier in the day and avoid holidays, however.)

The cost for San Diego Zoo Safari Park parking is $15 per car. Preferred Parking, which is closer to the entrance, can be purchased for an additional $18 or $33 total.

While I hope that you don’t have to choose between San Diego Zoo or San Diego Zoo Safari Park, if you are short on time, you can always visit the other park on a different San Diego vacation. Most importantly, have fun!