Probably one of the questions I get asked most by friends coming to San Diego is whether they should visit the Wild Animal Park or the San Diego Zoo. Most parents aren’t zealous enough about overpriced popcorn and the smell of elephants to want to tackle both popular San Diego attractions in one vacation. Fortunately after much contemplation and many hours in line to ride the Africa Tram I’ve come to a conclusion on which park is best.

What I discovered in my reflecting is it’s not as simple as one park is better than the other. It’s more a question of what type of experience you want, what your timeframe is, what the weather is like, and the age of the people that you’re with. Read on to learn more about the pros/cons of each park!

boy looking at butterfly at Safari Park in San Diego
A close encounter with a butterfly at the Wild Animal Park

The Difference Between the Safari Park and the San Diego Zoo

Wondering what the difference is between the Safari Park and the San Diego Zoo? Both parks are owned by the San Diego Zoo. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is also referred to as simply the “Safari Park” or the “Wild Animal Park”. The zoo is located near downtown San Diego and was the original San Diego County animal viewing establishment. The Safari Park opened afterwards and was intended to house larger, herd type animals.

kids watching lion at Safari Park in San Diego
The Wild Animal Park and the San Diego Zoo design their animal enclosures to be as natural as possible

Wild Animal Park or San Diego Zoo?

Now that you know the difference between the Safari Park and the San Diego Zoo I’m going to give you that really detailed pros/cons analysis that I promised earlier…

Location:

The San Diego Zoo is located in world renown Balboa Park, just minutes from downtown San Diego and the ocean. It’s quite possible to arrive on a morning flight and hop over to the zoo. I’ve even visited the zoo in the morning with my kiddos before catching a late afternoon flight. This makes is a great option for families who are short on time and trying to pack as many things into their San Diego vacation as possible.

The Wild Animal Park is in Escondido which is about a forty- minute drive, without traffic, northeast from downtown coastal San Diego. There isn’t much else to see in Escondido, although Stone Brewery is a worthwhile spot to grab an early dinner. With the amount of time it takes to get to Escondido plan on dedicating an entire day to the Wild Animal Park.

Best Location: San Diego Zoo

Balboa Park in San Diego
Beautiful Balboa Park

Animals:

Both have a wide array of animals. Neither park will leave you feeling like you didn’t see enough animals. The real difference is the way visitors get to interact with the thousands of different species.

At the Wild Animal Park there is a butterfly exhibit in the spring that is absolutely magical and worth waiting in line for. Visitors walk through a lush greenhouse type space and observe thousands of colorful butterflies fluttering about. Your favorite moment at the Safari Park just might be when a butterfly lands on your shoulder!

Another fun, interactive exhibit is the lorikeets. Visitors can wander around in an aviary and for a few extra dollars you can purchase a cup of food to feed the ravenous birds. It’s definitely worth it to spend the money on the food since this is the best way to get them to interact with you.

The Safari park opened its “Walkabout Australia” section a few years ago. The “Walkabout Australia” is another great example of how the Wild Animal park designs it’s exhibits to feel as un-zoo like as possible. Visitors walk along a pathway in an enclosed grassy area in which the kangaroos and wallabies have the opportunity to wander about. Have I ever actually had a kangaroo hop out onto the path in front of me? No. But does the possibility that it could happen make this exhibit exciting? Absolutely.

The San Diego Zoo has the classic zoo creatures, hippos, polar bears, playful primates, and lumbering elephants. Overall I feel like the zoo is a little less interactive than the safari park. However, the “keeper talks” are a great way to get a little closer to the animals. Be sure to check the schedule to find out what animals are being featured that day and where to see them.

Best Animals: Wild Animal Park

Boy watching monkey at San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo has many of the classic zoo creatures
Boys feeding birds at Wild Animal Park
Feeding lorikeets at the Wild Animal Park
kids looking at a butterfly at the Wild Animal Park

Other Attractions:

Included in the cost of your basic admission ticket to the San Diego Zoo is access to the Aerial “Skyfari”. The “Skyfari” is a gondola type contraption with brightly colored four-seater carriages that transport people from one side of the park to the other. This is a fantastic option if you’re exploring the zoo with younger children because it lets you walk to one side of the zoo and then take the “Skyfari” back to the entrance. This is the perfect solution when little feet have reached their limit of walking for the day. Adults will also love soaring through the warm San Diego sky and taking in the beautiful views of surrounding Balboa Park.

Not to be outdone, the Wild Animal Park has a ride on the Africa tram included in it’s basic admission ticket. The tram takes you out into a section of “savannah” where animals roam together in a large enclosure. A guide on the tram narrates the tour, teaching riders about the different species and a little about the history of the Wild Animal Park. Don’t expect to touch a tiger but you will get to experience observing animals in captivity in a more natural setting. And a perfectly angled picture might almost fool a friend into thinking you’re actually on an African safari.

Best Included Attractions: Tie

Skyfari tram in San Diego Zoo
Soar from one end of the zoo to the other on the Skyfari Aerial Tram
boys riding Africa Tram at Wild Animal Park
Explore the “savannah” on the Africa Tram at the Wild Animal Park

Walkability:

Both parks involve a lot of walking!

The San Diego Zoo feels a little more compact, however it has some steep hills and staircases. One of the nice things about walking around the San Diego Zoo is the lush landscaping. The trees and foliage along the pathways keeps visitors protected from the sun in many parts of the park whereas the Wild Animal Park is very exposed. Also, the San Diego Zoo does have some bus ride options included in the basic ticket in case your zoo companions need a break from walking.

Walkability: San Diego Zoo. (More options to avoid lots of walking)

Shaded walkway in Balboa Park
Shaded walkways at the San Diego Zoo make visitors feel like they’re in a tropical forest

Weather:

Both parks are in San Diego County so therefore are blessed with San Diego’s idyllic weather. Since the zoo is closer to the coast it is typically at least a few degrees cooler than the Wild Animal Park which is inland. The zoo’s proximity to the coast can mean that it can be overcast and cool while inland is a bright, sunny day. Because of this I avoid going to the Wild Animal Park in the summer when it is sweltering hot but I absolutely love it on a gray coastal day when I need a dose of vitamin D.

Best Weather: Summer=San Diego Zoo Winter=Safari Park

Looking out at Escondido and Wild Animal Park
Looking out over the expansive Safari Park and the surrounding mountains of Escondido

Cost:

Being that the San Diego Zoo is rated as the “#1 Zoo in the World” it’s no surprise that it’s going to cost quite a bit to visit. Admission to the zoo for an adult is $58 and for a child (ages 3-11) it is $48. This includes the Guided Bus Tour, The Kangaroo Express Bus, and the Skyfari Aerial Tram.

If you were thinking that the Wild Animal Park would be cheaper than the San Diego Zoo I have some bad news for you. It’s not. The cost of admission is exactly the same. Basic admission to the Wild Animal Park gets you a ride on the Africa Tram and the chance to view the Cheetah Run show.

Cost: Tie. But the San Diego Zoo has free parking

Gorillas at Wild Animal Park
Make sure to watch the gorillas being fed at the Wild Animal Park, and marvel at how human-like they are!

Parking:

Parking at the San Diego Zoo is free and it’s a flat walk to the zoo entrance.

If you’re going to the Wild Animal Park you will need to pay $15 for parking. The lot is massive and on a crowded day you might end up parking far from the entrance. There is a free shuttle that comes through the parking lot to take people to the entrance. This isn’t a deal breaker, it’s just slightly more hassle, especially is you have toddlers or babies with you.

Parking: San Diego Zoo

The front of the San Diego Zoo
Parking at the San Diego Zoo is free

Best for Toddlers

Doing anything with toddlers takes a lot of patience, caffeine, and some serious strategizing. Having visited both parks several times with my boys when they were toddlers I would recommend the San Diego Zoo as your best option if you have a toddler as your sidekick for the day.

Starting with the flatter, free parking lot, the zoo makes the actual act of getting to the zoo entrance easier. No shuffling onto parking lot shuttles or fumbling around for money to pay for parking.

Once you’re in the park, the zoo has the bus and the Aerial Skyfari as options for when your stroller hating toddler gets tuckered out. And the shaded pathways will keep little bodies walking longer than tramping around the sun-baked Safari park.

Lastly, many of the interactive exhibits at the Wild Animal Park that make it fun and unique can be parenting nightmares if you’re with a young, headstrong, impulsive tot. Listening and remaining seated on the Africa Tram is a potential challenge for an energetic two-year old. And you don’t want to find yourself having to wrangle a three- year old when they decide they want to chase after a kangaroo in the “Walkabout Australia” There’s a reason zoo’s have big walls and it’s not just to keep animals enclosed… it’s to keep the animals safe from us!

That being said, older kids and adults will probably enjoy the Wild Animal Park more. All the features that make it a challenge for toddler management make it really fun and interesting for anyone whose hands won’t be going in their mouth after handling a lorikeet.

Best For Toddlers: The San Diego Zoo

toddlers at San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo has plenty of toddler friendly features

Tips for Visiting the San Diego Zoo/Safari Park

  • Bring your own food. Both parks allow you to bring in your own food. Packing snacks or a picnic lunch will save you money.
  • Avoid major holidays. The most crowded days are the ones during school breaks. If you can, try to visit mid-week or not during spring break/winter break.
  • Dress like you’re going on a safari: hat, sunglasses, layered clothing, comfy shoes, and sunscreen.
  • Arrive early to avoid the heat or come later to avoid the crowds. Mid-morning is typically the most crowded. A lot of families with nappers will leave by early afternoon which means the very end of the day can have thinner crowds. That being said, if you want to see the entire park plan on spending an entire day.
  • Plan your day around feedings/ shows/ “keeper talks'”. The first thing to do when you get to the park is pick up a map/schedule and plan your route around which special events you want to see.
  • Buy your tickets online to save some time.
  • FYI: When you buy your tickets there are lots of different options depending on how much you want to spend. Depending on your budget you can opt to add on behind the scene tours and other activities. I’ve always stuck with the basic admission ticket and never felt like we needed the additional activities to enjoy our day at the zoo.
Front of the Safari Park

How to Save Money

So you went through this meticulously detailed pros/cons list and decided that you can’t chose just one park? If you do want to see both parks there are a few ways to make it a little gentler on your wallet.

  • Two Visit Pass: Two visits to any of the two parks. So you could potentially see both parks or go to the same park twice. Adult Ticket: $92.80. Child Ticket: $82.80
  • Free in October: The best kept secret in San Diego! Many popular attractions, hotels, and restaurants offer fantastic deals throughout the month of October. The Zoo and the Wild Animal Park both allow free entry for kids during October.
Toddlers petting goat at the zoo
Rest assured, there are ways to make your day at the Zoo or the Safari Park more affordable!

The Bottom Line: If you’re trying to decide between the Wild Animal Park or the San Diego Zoo, don’t worry, both are wonderful. The Wild Animal Park is more of a unique experience but the San Diego Zoo is in the heart of vibrant Balboa Park and minutes to the beach.

Further Reading on Things to Do in San Diego

family in bamboo forest at Wild Animal Park
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