Ultimate Guide to the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Safari Park

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a zoo in San Diego? I believe I’ll build one”

Harry M. Wegeforth, 1915, Founder of San Diego Zoo.

San Diego is a short drive from Disneyland and boasts two world-famous animal parks.  The San Diego and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park share the same parent organization, San Diego Zoo Global, and are about 30 miles apart.  Below is a guide to both parks, including admission, animals, experiences, tours, dining, and shopping.

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Hours and Admission at the San Diego Zoo

Image result for san diego zoo entrance

The San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park are open every day of the year, including all holidays. Our family visited on Thanksgiving one year and had a wonderful time. Click HERE for a link to the Zoo’s hours for a specific day and HERE for the Safari Park’s hours.

A one-day pass to the San Diego Zoo or the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is $56 for adults and $46 for children ages 3 to 11. A one-day pass to the Zoo includes one visit to the San Diego Zoo, Guided Bus Tour, Kangaroo Express Bus, Skyfari Aerial Tram, and all regularly scheduled shows. Families can upgrade to admission that includes the 4-D Theater experience for $62 for adults and $52 for children. A one-day pass to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park includes Africa Tram, Cheetah Run, and all regularly scheduled shows.

Guests can also purchase multi-day and multi-park passes. A 2-visit pass includes one visit to the San Diego Zoo and one visit to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, or a 2-day visit to each individual park. Adult prices are $89.60 and children ages 3 to 11 prices are $79.60.

Another option is the San Diego 3-for-1 Pass.  This pass allows guests to visit to the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and SeaWorld San Diego. The San Diego 3-for-1 Pass is valid for one visit per park.  Guests can enjoy three total visits by the same person on any and all days. The passes are valid for seven consecutive days from the first visit.

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San Diego Zoo: Things to See and Do

San Diego Zoo sign

The San Diego Zoo is located on 100 acres in historic Balboa Park and opened in 1916. This is on the largest zoos in the world, housing over 3,500 animals and more than 650 species and subspecies.  This Zoo has been a leader in the idea of open-air, cageless exhibits that recreate natural animal habitats.

Animal Areas to Explore


There are over 3,500 animals at the San Diego Zoo.  The best way to see the many animals is to navigate by the different areas and trails. The different areas include the Lost Forest, Northern Frontier, Panda Canyon, Asian Passage, Elephant Odyssey, Africa Rocks, Urban Jungle, Outback, and Discovery Outpost.

The Zoo also offers different walking trails as a way to see the animals. These trails include the Aviary Trail, Fern Canyon Trail, Hippo Trail, Monkey Trail, Orangutan Trail, Sun Bear Trail, Tiger Trail, and Africa Rocks. Below are the different areas and their animals and trails.

Lost Forest

Guests will feel like there are in the rain forest when they enter the Lost Forest. The Lost Forest is in the northeast corner of the Zoo. Some animals in this area include hippos, tigers, okapi, otters, birds and primates.  The Lost Forest also features the Fern Garden, the Ginger Garden and the Tiger Trail, where guests can see tigers, tapirs, fishing cats, and milky storks. Guests can enjoy the serene Terrace Lagoon and take in the Zoo’s beautiful collection of bamboo, oriental pines, and flowering trees and shrubs. Guests will feel like they are in an African forest when they visit Scripps Aviary in Gorilla Tropics. The Lost Forest includes the Hippo Trail, Tiger Trail, Fern Canyon Trail, Orangutan Trail, Monkey Trail, and Aviary Trail.

Northern Frontier

Polar bear at the san diego zoo

The Northern Frontier transports guests to the Arctic. Guests can view beautiful polar bears, artic fox, mountain lions, zebras, and reindeer in the Northern Frontier.  Polar Bear Plunge boasts a 130,000 US gallon pool where guests can view these magnificent creatures. Marsh Aviary is also in this area where guests can view buffleheads, harlequin ducks, smews and long tailed ducks.

Panda Canyon

The San Diego Zoo is one of a few zoos in the United States that has giant pandas on display. The line to see these unique creatures is worth the wait. Panda Trek is popular with Zoo guests and features the Giant Panda Research Station. Guests can also see the adorable red pandas and takins.

Asian Passage

Snow Leopard

The Asian Passage is south of Panda Canyon and is a simulation of a tropical Asian rain forest. This scenic passage includes grizzly bears, snow leopards, and sun bears. This spectacular area also features the Sun Bear Forest, which resembles a southeast Asian rain forest, and the Hawaiian Native Plant Garden.  The Asian Passage also features the Sun Bear Trail.

Elephant Odyssey

Lion lounging at the zoo

The Elephant Odyssey is home to the African and Asian elephant habitat. This area includes the majestic elephants along with the Elephant Care Center and Fossil Portal. Guests can also see lions, jaguars, California condor, camels, and the Malayan tapir.

Africa Rocks

Africa Rocks highlights the biodiversity of Africa and features a variety of animals, including lemurs, meerkats, monkeys, African penguins, baboons, and serval cats (these guys are cute!).  We had the privilege of seeing a serval kitten during our last visit.

Urban Jungle

 flamingo san diego zoo

The Urban Jungle features animals such as giraffes, gazelles, kangaroos, rhinos, flamingos, camels, and cheetahs. Guests can also view some of the Zoo’s animal ambassadors, such as cheetahs, leopards and porcupines.


koala san diego zoo

The Outback will make guests feel like they are in Australia.  Guests can watch adorable koala bears, Tasmanian devils, and laughing kookaburra.  Guests can also enjoy the Australian Wonders garden which includes eucalyptus trees, Queensland lacebark trees, and other “botanical wonders from Down Under”.

Discovery Outpost

Blue bird on a branch

This area is located in the southwest corner of the Zoo and features the Reptile House along with the Reptile Walk. Guests can see Komodo dragons, anaconda, a variety of turtles, Chinese alligators, and Galápagos tortoises. Guests can enjoy the Hummingbird Aviary, Bromeliad Garden, Insect House, Children’s Zoo, and the Discovery Playground.  The Reptile Mesa has all kinds of exotic-looking plants.  The Outpost also features the Variegated Garden where guests can enjoy a duck pond with unusual plants.

Attractions and Experiences

There are several attractions and experiences that are included in the admission price. These attractions include the guided bus tour, botanical tours, Kangaroo Bus, Skyfari Aerial Tram, shows, 4-D Theater, animal encounters, play areas, and the Balboa Park Miniature Train.

Bus Tours

Bus Tour at the San Diego Zoo

The guided bus tour runs from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. This double-decker bus offers a 35-minute tour of most of the zoo.  This is a great way to start the day and helps give guests the lay of the land.  The Kangaroo Bus allows guests to hop on and off at four different stops throughout the Zoo. Guests just need to look for the yellow Kangaroo Bus banner and wait for the bus to arrive. The Kangaroo bus stops about every 15 minutes.  Click HERE for more information on the Kangaroo Bus.

Botanical Tours

Botanical areas of the san diego zoo

Guests can use the Botanical Tour brochures to enjoy a self-guided tour of the San Diego Zoo’s colorful gardens and plant collections at their leisure. Some of the gardens to check out include the Australian Outback, Elephant Odyssey Trees, Fern Canyon, and Monkey Trails. Guests can tour gardens that include Bamboo, Coral Tree, Cycad, Ficus, Orchid, and Palm.  Click HERE for more information on the botanical tours.

Skyfari Aerial Tram

Air tram at the san diego zoo

The tram allows guests to take an airborne shortcut from one side of the zoo to the other. Adults and kids will enjoy beautiful views of the Zoo, its animal and plant collection, as well as the scenic Balboa Park. Children younger than 8 years old must be accompanied by an adult. The tram cannot accommodate larger-sized or double strollers.  Click HERE for more information on the tram.

Live Animal Shows

Trainer stands with a parrot on her arm

Guests can watch two shows, Wild About Animals and Dr. Zoolittle and Friends Explore Australia. Wild About Animals shows 1 p.m. daily at Wegeforth Bowl. Guests can meet world-famous animal ambassadors and their trainers. The Dr. Zoolittle and Friends Explore Australia show plays at noon and 1 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at Koalafornia Boardwalk in the Australian Outback. This show features Zoo costumed characters and is fun for the entire family! Guests can learn more about these shows clicking HERE.

The 4-D theater is located in Northern Frontier and features a 4-D version of the popular animated film Rio, and its beloved characters, Blu and Jewel.  The movie is shown several times daily between 10:30 am 5 pm and costs $7. Click HERE for more information on the 4-D theater.

Animal Encounters

San Diego animal trainer holding a bird

There are several animal encounter experiences, including the following shows:

  • Animal Encounters: Front Street Stage – this 10-minute show is at 10:30 a.m. daily and features animal ambassadors
  • Animal Encounters: Africa Rocks – runs daily at 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. near Rocks Box and features animal ambassadors
  • Tasmanian Devil Experience – runs at 12:15 p.m. daily at Australian Outback
  • Reindeer Talk – plays at 12:30 p.m. daily at Northern Frontier
  • Keeper Talk: Bamboos – shows at 12:30 p.m. daily at Africa Rocks
  • Keeper Talk: Lemurs – runs 12:45 p.m. daily at Africa Rocks
  • Keeper Talk: Horse, Burro, or Camel – shows 1:30 p.m. daily at Elephant Odyssey, near condors
  • Keeper Talk: Giraffes – shows 3:30 p.m. daily at Urban Jungle

Click HERE for more information on the animal encounters.

Play Areas

Map of Play Areas

There are three play areas for the little ones to enjoy. The Elephant Play Yard is located at Elephant Odyssey. Kids of all ages will enjoy a maze of elephant satellite tracking collars, a play fossil dig, and puzzles to solve. Koala Klimber is located at Australian Outback and features cute koala replicas and a photo opportunity! The Polar Bear Play Area is located in Northern Frontier and includes supersized illustrated storybooks and a polar bear den! Guests will have fun comparing their height to life-size polar bear statues. Click HERE to learn more about the play areas.

Dining at the San Diego Zoo

Dining options at the san diego zoo

The Zoo offers a few different dining options, including restaurant dining, casual dining, quick bites, and dining events.

Restaurant dining includes Albert’s Restaurant located in Lost Forest in Treetops. Albert’s is open from 11am to 3pm and offers full-service dining with a view of a beautiful waterfall.  Starters include truffle fries and Queso Fundido.  The menu features soup, salads, sandwiches, and entrees. Some notable menu items include Flat Iron Steak Wedge Salad, Crispy Seafood Basket, Teriyaki-glazed Grilled Fish Sandwich, and White Miso-Shoyu Ramen. The children’s menu includes cheese pizza, baked grilled cheese, hot dog, and chicken strips.  Children’s meals are $9, sandwiches and entrees range from $17 to $22. The restaurant also features a full bar.  Click HERE for more information, menu, and to make reservations for Albert’s Restaurant.

There are several casual dining options.  The San Diego Zoo Sandwich Co., Front Street Café, Lagoon Terrace, and the Safari Kitchen, are all on Front Street. The Front Street offers tacos, burritos, and rolled tacos, as well as salads and burgers. Lagoon Terrace is just outside the San Diego Zoo Sandwich Company and sells pizza by the slice, meatball subs, specialty hot dogs, and wraps.  The Safari Kitchen sells gourmet burgers, grilled chicken sriracha sandwiches, and chicken strips. Guests should check out their tater twisters and loaded tater tots. All casual dining options offer vegetarian options and kid’s meals.

Sydney’s Grill is located in the Outback. Hua Mei Café is located between Asian Passage and Panda Canyon and features Asian cuisine. Sabertooth Grill at Elephant Odyssey includes salads, wraps, sandwiches, and hot entrees. Treetops Café is located in Lost Forest and features flatbread pizzas, Italian-style cuisine, wraps, and salads.

Quick bite options are throughout the park and include coffee, fast food and desserts.  The Lost Forest features Jungle Java, and Zoo Brew. Jungle Java sells coffee (including nitro), pastries, and popcorn. Zoo Brew offers mini doughnuts, popcorn, draft beer, and specialty coffee drinks.

Rocks Box in Africa Rocks sells hot dogs, nachos, locally brewed draft beer, and Icees.  The Panda Pagoda is in Panda Canyon and serves egg rolls, corn dogs, popcorn, craft beer, and snow cones.  Kettle Corn is located in Wegeforth Bowl in Discovery Outpost. This quick stop features kettle corn, caramel corn, churros, pretzels, locally brewed draft beer, Icees, and soft drinks. The Bridge Snack and Refreshments is located by Bashor Bridge in Elephant Odyssey. The Bridge serves pretzels, and popcorn along with locally brewed draft beer, Cadillac margaritas, Icees, snow cones, sand soft drinks.

Front Street features a few quick bite options, including Nestle Toll House Café by Chip and San Diego Craft Beer and Margaritas. The Ituri Hut is located in the Lost Forest and serves hot dogs, soft pretzels, churros, and Icees. Click HERE for more information on casual dining and quick bites.

Shopping at the San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo entrance

There are few shopping options in the Zoo. Front Street features the San Diego Zoo Kids Store, Zootique, Front Street Photos, and The Roar Store. The San Diego Zoo Kids Store sells plush animals as well as other toys, gifts, books, snacks, clothing, and hats. Zootique features international gifts from around the world, along with gourmet foods, fashion, hats, and jewelry. Guests can visit the Front Street Photos to pick up souvenir photos, magnets, and CDs. The Roar Store sells hats, sunglasses, and other items guests will need to start their day.

Sydney’s Shoppe is located in the Outback and sells a variety of gifts from the Land Down Under. Guests can purchase exclusive koala and friends-themed gifts and souvenirs.  Guests can shop at the Panda Shop in the Asian Passage for all things Panda. The Arctic Trader in Northern Frontier sells polar bear gifts and souvenirs.  Tusker’s Trunk is located in the Elephant Odyssey offers elephant gifts.

The Lost Forest features the Zoo Brew and Ituri Forest Outpost for shopping. The Zoo Brew sells quick food bites as well as primate souvenirs. The Ituri Forest Outpost sells African-themed items. Click HERE for more information on shopping at the San Diego Zoo.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

San Diego Zoo Safari Park sign

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park was known as the San Diego Wild Animal Park until 2010.  The Safari Park sits on 1,800 acres in San Pasqual Valley area of San Diego, California, near Escondido.  This park is a park is in a semi-arid environment and hosts over 2,600 animals representing more than 300 species, as well as 3,500 plant species.

Animals at the Safari Park

San Diego Animal Park

The Safari Park has several zones where guests can view many different animals.  These zones include African Woods, African Outpost, Elephant Valley, Nairobi Village, Gorilla Forest, Asian Savannah, African Plains, Condor Ridge, Lion Camp, and Tiger Trail.

African Woods and African Outpost

African Woods features animals such as the Egyptian Vulture, Gerenuk, Okapi, and Secretary Bird. Guests can view the majestic Cheetah in the African Outpost.  Other notable animals include flamingos, hornbills, and warthogs.

Elephant Valley

Elephant at the Safari Park

Guests can watch these giant creatures in their large pond at the Elephant Viewing Patio, located at the south end of Elephant Valley. Guests may catch sight of baby elephants splashing in mud holes!

Nairobi Village and Gorilla Forest

Small tiger at the safari park

The Nairobi Village houses a wide variety of animals such as the dik, duiker, pelicans, red river hogs, fruit bats, and the shoebill.  Guests can visit the nursery where baby animals are hand-reared as well as a petting corral.  The Gorilla Forest includes butterflies, lemurs, pink pigeons, and of course gorillas. This forest also includes the Hidden Jungle, a tropical rain forest with colorful tropical birds and beautiful plants.

Asian Savannah and African Plains

Rhinos running

These two areas comprise the Safari Park’s largest exhibits and cover over 300 acres. The Asian Savannah features camels, rhinos, oryx, and wild cattle.  The African Plans features animals such as antelope, rhinos, giraffe, ostrich, vultures, and zebras.

Condor Ridge


This area houses endangered North American desert wildlife.  Guests can view some majestic birds including bald eagles, the California Condor and the adorable burrowing owls.  Guests can also see bighorn sheet.   The Safari Park is one of the only places in the world where the public can see the California Condor in captivity.

Lion Camp

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The Lion Camp allows guests the privilege of watching these beautiful big cats and their natural behaviors.  Lions can be spotting romping, exploring, eating, or resting.  Guests may even catch sight of an African lions relaxing in an acacia tree!

Tiger Trail

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The Tiger Trail opened a few years ago and is definitely worth checking out. Guests can view the majestic Sumatran tigers in three separate yards with glass viewing windows.

Walkabout Australia

Kangeroo eating

This area includes Australians animals such as kangaroos, wallabies, and platypuses.  Guests should check out the Matschie’s tree-kangaroo exhibit to watch these playful creatures.


Plants to see at the safari park

The World Gardens areas hosts a few different gardens where guests can enjoy beautiful greenery. Safari Park’s Bonsai Pavilion showcases many of these interesting miniature plants in a tranquil surrounding.  Guests can visit the Old World Succulent Garden and the Baja Garden to see cacti, elephant trees, boojums, and euphorbia.  The Grove is another area with gardens. Guests can visit the Herb Garden and enjoy over 30 varieties of herbs including fragrant cedar, rose, apple, lime, nutmeg, and peppermint.

Guest Experiences at the Safari Park

The Safari Park offers a few exciting experiences for guests, including the Africa Tram, animal encounters, balloon safari, play areas, and the Conservation Carousel

Africa Tram

Image result for africa tram san diego safari park

I highly recommend the Africa Tram! Our family rode this a couple of times throughout the day.  This tram is located in the African Outpost and is a 25-minute tour of the field exhibits. Guests will enjoy an informative tour of a diverse collection of animals. Tours start at 10am and continue throughout the day.

Animal Encounters

Lemur standing on a pole for show

The Safari Park offers several animal encounters, including Tiger Keeper Talk, Animal Ambassador Stage, Nairobi Station, Petting Kraal, Lorikeet Landing, and Lemur Walk. Click HERE for more information and times on the animal encounters.

Balloon Safari

Hot air balloon

Guests can enjoy a bird’s eye view of the Safari Park from the Balloon Safari. These tethered rides are modeled after the hot air balloon tours of the Serengeti and rise 400 feet. The rides last 10 to 12 minutes.  Prices are around $20 per person and are subject to change.

Play Areas and Conservation Carousel

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The Safari Park offers play areas throughout, including Village Playground, Savanna Cool Zone, Samburu Jungle Gym, and Tiger Trail Play Area. Click HERE for more information on play areas. Kids and kids at heart will enjoy this colorful carousel that features 60 different animals, including a giraffe, rhino, zebra, cheetah, and more!  The cost is $6 for unlimited rides.  The carousel is open from 10am to closing.

Tours at the Safari Park

The Safari Park offers several tour options, including Behind-the-Scenes Safari, Cart Safaris, Cheetah Safari, Jungle Ropes Safari, Caravan Safaris, and Flightline Safari.

Behind-the-Scenes Safaris

Guests can choose some several safari tours, including Butterflies and Friends, Elephants and Friends, Roos and Mates, Tiger and Friends, Cheetah and Friends, Rhino Rescue Center, and Veterinary Medical Center.  Tours range start from $89 and up.  Click HERE for more information on Behind-the-Scenes Safaris.

Cart Safaris

The Safari Park also offers two Choose Your Cart Safaris, including Cart Safari Africa and Cart Safari Asia. These tours cost $54 and up.  Click HERE for more information on Cart Safaris.

Cheetah Safari

Shiley’s Cheetah Run is definitely worth checking out!  Guests can watch this magnificent cat race at on a straight 330-foot-long track and reach maximum speed of about 70 miles per hour. Our family thoroughly enjoyed this free event.  Guests can reserve trackside seating for this experience.  Click HERE for more information.

Jungle Ropes Safari


The Jungle Ropes Safari takes guests on a 90-minute adventure where they climb, balance, swing, and walk through the trees using a Smart Belay system. The thrills in this safari include rope bridges, aerial tightropes, swinging log steps, and moving platforms. Click HERE for more information.

Caravan Safaris

Guests can choose from several choose-your-own caravan safaris that include Caravan Safari Adventure, Caravan Safari Twilight, Caravan Safari Deluxe, and Caravan Safari Kids. Prices on these Caravan Safaris range start at $125 per person.  Learn more about these tours by clicking HERE.

Flightline Safari

The Flightline Safari is a zipline experience that allows guests to soar as high as 130 feet above the ground.  The 2/3 mile track flies guests over the Safari’s vast animal exhibits. Prices start at $79 per person. Click HERE for more information.

Dining at the Safari Park

Image result for behind the scene safari san diego safari park

The Safari Park offers several different dining options. Walkabout Australia includes The Sheared Sheep which serves salads, wraps, and snacks. The Watering Hole at Kijamii Overlook is a restaurant and bar that features sandwiches and salads and a view of giraffes and rhinos.

Safari Base Camp hosts the Barking Deer Pizza and Beer, Thorntree Terrace that serves Asian cuisine, and Safari Coffee Outpost.  Nairobi Village has a few dining options, including Bamburi Boat Bar, Mombasa Cooker that serves barbeque favorites, Kibo Cones & Snacks, and Oasis Deli.

The Okavango Outpost is located in in the African Outpost and serves sandwiches, paninis, and salads with a beautiful view of the African Plains. Samburu Terrace in the African Woods offers delicious “South of the Border” entrées.  Lion Camp Slush & Snacks offers a build-your-own slush drink along with hot dogs and churros. The Rift Sand Bar, located in the Grove, offers refreshing drinks and snacks with a scenic view of the African Plains and Lion Camp. Click HERE for more information on dining options.

Shopping at the Safari Park

Image result for shopping san diego safari park

The Safari Park offers a few shopping options. Safari Outfitters is by the entrance/exit and offers candy, snacks, apparel, hats, sundries, and souvenirs. Guests can purchase their wild safari pictures at Safari Photos.  The Plant Trader sells garden décor and drought-tolerant plants. The Bazaar offers a large selection of authentic African artifacts, jewelry, books, and home décor, as well as T-shirts, hats, toys, snacks, and souvenirs.

Nairobi Village has two stores, the Village Market and Rift Gifts. The Village Market offers face painting.  The market also sells candy, snacks, toys, hats, souvenirs, and personalized gifts. The Macan Market is located on the Tiger Trail and sells all things tiger. Click HERE for more information on shopping options.

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About Monique Smalling

Monique and her husband, Ted, live in Sacramento, California with their two daughters, Sydney (14) and Reagan (13). Sydney's first trip to Disneyland was at one year old, and the family has been hooked ever since. The family has been annual pass holders for several years and visit the Happiest Place on Earth every couple of months. Each visit includes 3 to 4 days in the parks before heading to the beach. Monique and her daughters consider themselves huge Disney fans, and love sharing their knowledge and tips on the parks.

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