On any trip to San Diego, the famous San Diego Zoo should definitely be on your San Diego itinerary. But with two world-class zoos in the area (both part of the San Diego Zoo), which should you visit? Here we’ll look at all the differences between the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park to help you choose which one to visit.
Honestly, if you have time though, visit both! Both the Zoo and the Safari Park offer completely different experiences and we really loved our visit to both of them! (However, we did have a favorite…I’ll explain at the end.)
But if you’re trying to decide between the San Diego Zoo vs. San Diego Zoo Safari Park because you only have time for one zoo on your trip, here’s the comparison you need to help you make a decision.
San Diego Zoo vs. Safari Park: History + Mission
The San Diego Zoo began as a traditional zoo with animals that were left in San Diego after the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Since then it has grown to a world-famous zoo, with all the traditional things you expect to see at a zoo.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park was a natural offshoot of the San Diego Zoo that focuses on conservation. (Note: both zoos focus on conservation, but it is an even bigger focus at the Safari Park.)
On our visit, we were talking to a Safari Park volunteer and she explained that the reason the Safari Park exists is because keepers noticed that animals weren’t breeding well in the cramped quarters of the San Diego Zoo. Moving animals out the Safari Park gave them the room they needed to feel comfortable breeding, and thus the Safari Park became an important part of the San Diego Zoo’s conservation mission.
San Diego Zoo vs. Safari Park: Location
Perhaps the biggest difference between the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park is their location.
The San Diego Zoo is located near downtown San Diego in Balboa Park. This means it’s easy to visit the Zoo on a short San Diego trip, as it is central to probably everything else you’ll be doing.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park, however is located about 30 minutes north of San Diego in Escondido. This means that it could be a little trickier for your family to make it up to the Safari Park.
If you are looking to stay close to central San Diego on your trip, then the San Diego Zoo is probably the right choice for you.
San Diego Zoo vs. Safari Park: Size
Because of the different focuses of each zoo, their size differs greatly. The San Diego Zoo is 100 acres, while the Safari Park covers 1,800 acres.
It’s important to note though, that a lot of the Safari Park is dedicated free-roaming space for animals. So while the actual property is bigger, the area guests will walk in is very similar in both parks.
Traveling to California? Check out these books all about California!
San Diego Zoo vs. Safari Park: Walking + Park Transportation
In both parks you’ll need to be prepared to walk. But the experience is going to be different in each park.
The San Diego Zoo is built into a canyon, which means there are A LOT of hills within the zoo (and it also means the way the space is used is very creative). This means there is some steep terrain you should be prepared for.
BUT the San Diego Zoo has also has some free transportation options to make this a little easier. There are several elevators throughout the park to help you get up and down to the different levels.
There is also a bus system called the Kangaroo Buses that you can hop on and off throughout the right side of the park.
And of course there is the Skyfari, which are sky buckets that can take you back and forth between the front and the back of the park. (Plus, they are just fun to ride and give you great views of San Diego and Balboa Park!)
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is not quite as hilly (although there are some hills), which means the walking can be a little easier. But it also does not have the same in-park transportation options. There is an elevator in one area, but other than that you will need to walk pretty much everywhere you want to go.
San Diego Zoo vs. Safari Park: Animals
You may not realize it, but the animals between the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park are vastly different!
Because the San Diego Zoo is a more traditional zoo experience, you will find a bigger variety of animals here. From lions and tigers and elephants to koalas and penguins and tortoises, the San Diego Zoo has almost every animal you might want to see.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park, however, focuses more on African animals, with more limited selection of species. There are still lots of animals to see though! Giraffes, elephants, all kinds of gazelles, lions, and gorillas.
The Safari Park also has an Australian section with kangaroos and platypuses, and a Tiger Trail with tigers. (So don’t worry…it’s not JUST African animals.)
Some notable animals you’ll find at the San Diego Zoo but NOT at the Safari Park:
- Brown bear
- Galapagos tortoise
- Polar bear
Most of the animals you’ll find at the Safari Park you can also find at the San Diego Zoo, with the big exception of the platypus. Note that you can ONLY see the platypus at the Safari Park. In fact, the platypuses at the Safari Park are the ONLY platypuses anywhere in the world outside of Australia!
If there is a very specific animal you want to see on your zoo visit, be sure to check the website to see which zoo you might find it at.
San Diego Zoo vs. Safari Park: Experiences
Both the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park have some extra free (!) experiences that make them unique.
At the San Diego Zoo you can take a free bus tour that will take you around most of the park and let you see the animals. (I definitely recommend doing this first thing in the morning, when the animals are most likely to be active!).
You can also ride the Skyfari for aerial views of the zoo for free.
Plus keeper talks and animal shows are also included. (Check the day’s schedule because what’s available is subject to change.)
The San Diego Zoo also has a new children’s zoo area called Wildlife Explorer’s Basecamp that opened in 2022.
At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the main free “extra” is going to be the Africa Tram. This 30 minute (ish) ride takes you back to some of the more open areas of the zoo to get closer to some of the African animals. It doesn’t get you as close as some of the paid safaris, but it’s definitely still must-do at the Safari Park!
At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, your admission also includes admission the Cheetah Run, by far the most popular show at the park. (Be sure to check that day’s schedule because what’s available is subject to change.)
And if you’re visiting with kids, the Safari Park has a carousel. It’s not free, but one $6 ticket will give you unlimited rides all day. And another plus with kids? The Safari Park has several small play areas that kids (and parents) will love.
San Diego Zoo vs. Safari Park: Paid Upgrades
If you are interested in paying to add to your zoo experience, both the Zoo and the Safari Park have extra options.
San Diego Zoo upgraded experiences include:
- Inside Look Tours (you can choose different animal focuses)
- Animals in Action (meet animal ambassadors)
- VIP Experiences
- Early Morning Cheetah Experience
- Discovery Cart Tour (more private guided tour of the zoo)
- Crazy About Cats tour
These experiences all require a ticket in addition to your zoo admission. Prices range from $55 to $92 per person, with the VIP experience being $675+ per person.
And as much as the San Diego Zoo offers, the Safari Park offers even MORE unique experiences:
- Wildlife Safari
- Behind the Scenes Safari
- Cart Safari
- Sun Up Cheetah Safari
- Ultimate Safari
- Roar & Snore Safari (you can actually camp overnight in the zoo!)
- Flightline Safari (zip line)
- Balloon Safari (tethered hot air balloon)
Most Safaris are in the $90 range per person, while the overnight costs $149 and up and the Ultimate Safari is $675 and up per person. The extra paid experiences are a big draw to the Safari Park, and you might feel like you need to do one of them. But I promise you can have a great day here even without a paid upgrade! (We did!)
Whichever zoo you visit, be sure to look up details and buy any tickets for additional events before your visit!
San Diego Zoo vs. Safari Park: Which is Better?
Whether the San Diego Zoo or the Safari Park is better is obviously a completely objective opinion.
However, I will say that our favorite visit on our trip to San Diego was to the Safari Park. The San Diego Zoo is great, but the Safari Park really surprised us with how much we enjoyed it.
Reasons we loved the San Diego Zoo Safari Park? The beautiful wide open spaces, the lower crowds, and the unique animal experiences (like the platypus and getting to walk through the kangaroo enclosure).
But the more important question here is which park is right for you. Because while we love the Safari Park, if you just have time to visit one of the zoos you want to make the right decision for your family.
If you want to stay close to the city, see as many animals as you can, and check a world-famous zoo off your bucket list, then go to the San Diego Zoo.
If you want a different kind of zoo experience, want to avoid the more crowded and cramped zoo, and have time to drive to Escondido, then go to the Safari Park.
Either way though, you’ll have some awesome animal experiences and a fantastic time!