San Diego is lucky to have two of the top zoos in the world. Of course, for visitors whose time is limited, you may only have the opportunity to visit one. So this article looks at the differences between the San Diego Zoo vs Safari Park so you can make the most informed decision.
Both the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Safari Park are major attractions operated by the San Diego Zoological Society. However, San Diego has many great attractions, so reality means many tourists must pick one or the other. To cut the chase, for most visitors the answer will be the San Diego Zoo is the first one to visit.
However, this does not mean the San Diego Zoo is better than the Safari Park. It is more an issue of the Zoo being right by downtown and the airport, while the San Diego Safari Park is as much as an hour away to the north, by Escondido.
When we ask our family and friends which park they like better, the answer is likely to lean more towards the Safari Park. Of course, these are from people who visit both places many times. Also people from San Diego like the serenity of the Safari Park in the off-season. During busy times of the year, both parks can get crowded. In summer the temperature at the Safari Park is often 20 degrees or hotter than at the zoo.
It should be noted that the San Diego Safari Park is much bigger than the San Diego Zoo. The Safari Park is on 1,800 acres while the San Diego Zoo is on 100 acres. However, much of the Safari Park is either undeveloped or left as open space for animals. The actual pedestrian accessible portions are a pretty similar size for both parks.
Both parks cost about $54 for a basic ticket. For about $86 you can visit both parks. Note that while parking is free at the San Diego Zoo it costs $15 at the Safari Park.
You can get into both the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park with a Go San Diego Card. The Go San Diego Card allows visitors access to up to 40 attractions for either 1,2,3,5 or 7 days. This is not a cheap option and we generally recommend it for 3 days or more where it is $209 adults/$189 children age 3 to 12. A 7-day pass is a very good value at $299/$269. The 3-day or more passes also includes admission to the museums in Balboa Park by the Zoo and other very big attractions like Belmont Park, SeaWorld, and Legoland.
If you are in San Diego for only a day or two you can still use the San Diego Go Card. This is through the Build Your Own San Diego attraction pass option. If you add two or more attraction you automatically get a 20% discount. We use this option frequently for many San Diego attractions, especially when we have out-of-town guests. Note, because of the built-in discount for visiting both parks, this option is better used when visiting other San Diego attractions such as the museums in Balboa Park or Legoland.
If you do want to visit both parks just realize that it will probably take two full days. Do not try and visit both in a single day.
On top of the basic ticket price, there are many add-on activities at both the Zoo and Safari Park. To see info about the add-on activities for the San Diego Zoo go here. For the San Diego Safari Park, whose add-ons are referred to as “Safaris,” see this article.
The basic San Diego Zoo ticket includes:
- Free parking
- General admission and shows
- Guided Bus Tour
- Kangaroo Bus Ride
- Skyfari Aerial Tram
The basic San Diego Safari Park ticket includes:
- General admission and shows
- Africa Tram
- Cheetah Run Show
The biggest difference between the San Diego Zoo vs Safari Park is the type of animals and how they are displayed. The San Diego Zoo has many more animals but in smaller displays. The San Diego Safari Park concentrates on fewer animals in a wide-open setting.
The official numbers:
- The San Diego Zoo claims it has 3,700 rare and endangered animals representing approximately 660 species and subspecies and a prominent botanical collection with more than 700,000 plants.
- The Safari Park has 2,600 animals representing more than 300 species. The focus is primarily on animals from the plains and savannas of Africa and Asia.
People that normally don’t like the concept of zoos will definitely prefer the Safari Park. However, I have been coming to the San Diego Zoo since 1976 and I can say it has completely changed the way it displays animals. The small caged environments are almost all gone, having been replaced by extremely well-designed open-space enclosures. From a design standpoint, I would say the San Diego Zoo is one of the most creative uses of 100-acres of urban open space anywhere.
Both parks are very strong on big animals like gorillas, elephants, rhinos, and giraffes. The newer lion and tiger exhibits at the Safari Park probably give them an edge up over the Zoo. The Safari Park also has a wonderful California Condor exhibit (the zoo is currently rebuilding its birds of prey exhibit).
Two very cool new exhibits at the San Diego Safari Park are the lemur exhibit and the kangaroo exhibit. In both cases, you can walk right into the enclosure with the animals. There is also an exhibit with lorikeets.
The San Diego Zoo simply has far more animals, and they are also easier to see. Some people joke about going to the Safari Park and only seeing a bunch of gazelles. That is an exaggeration but if you do go to the Safari Park it is much better early in the morning or on cold cloudy days.
Among the many animals at the San Diego Zoo highlights include giant pandas, koalas, hippos, polar bears, orangutans, reptiles and snakes and the new Australia and Africa exhibits.
Shows and Attractions
One of the biggest attractions at the Safari Park is the 35-minute Africa Tram ride through the open space for animals. Here you will rhinos, zebras, giraffes and many other animals interacting as they would on the open plain.
The San Diego Zoo includes a Guided Bus Tour, but it is more for providing an overview and basic information. Unlike the Africa Tram, it is not really a necessity to actually see the animals. The Zoo also has a very cool and scenic Skyfari aerial tram. It is a fun ride, but again not necessary to see the animals.
There are rotating shows and animal encounters at both parks. Shows at the Zoo are at the large Wegeforth Bowl and the newly opened Koalafornia Boardwalk area. The Safari Park has bird shows at the Benbough Amphitheater and the extremely popular Cheetah Run daily at 3:30.
Both parks have petting zoos for the younger kids. However, note starting in 2019 the San Diego Zoo will be closing down its Children’s Zoo to expand it. There are other small children playgrounds in the zoo, but that was the main area for small kids. The Safari Park also has several cool kids playgrounds.
This is just what is included with basic admission. Both parks offer many ways to expand your experience via extra activities. You can find out more about these experiences in this article for the San Diego Zoo and this one for the San Diego Safari Park.
San Diego Zoo Vs Safari Park: Conclusion
For most people, I recommend trying to visit both parks but visiting the San Diego Zoo first. This is mainly because:
- The Zoo is convenient to downtown and the airport with free parking
- The Safari Park is 35 miles north of downtown and you must pay for parking
- The Zoo has significantly more animals that are easy to see
- The Zoo is much better on hot days
- The San Diego Safari Park is more for people that dream they could go on an African safari. Many adults prefer the Safari Park and I definitely see why. I go to both several times a year and it really depends on my mood.
- For around two years, starting in 2019, the San Diego Zoo Children’s Zoo will be closed for a major upgrade. During this period, the Safari Park will have more options for children age 8 and under.
For more information see our detailed guides to both parks.