(Note about the pictures herein: I stupidly didn’t take notes about the species I photographed. In addition, my zoology knowledge and my memory are both in very short supply. Consequently, some pictures are captioned something to the effect of “one species or another.” Sorry about that.)
I feel the need to make the following two assertions about the San Diego Zoo Safari Park right off the bat:
- It’s awesome.
- It’s not for the faint of wallet.
Not for the Faint of Wallet
I’ll start with the second assertion first: It’s not for the faint of wallet. I usually avoid putting prices in these posts because I hope the posts will have a long shelf life. If you don’t read a post until a couple of years after I write it, and then don’t visit the place I wrote about for some time after that, there’s a good chance the prices will have changed in the meantime.
Nevertheless, I’ll break my rule against posting prices to substantiate my assertion that the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is on the pricey side. However, keep in mind the caveat that prices may change without notice and, because I have no affiliation with the park, particularly without notice to me.
The emptying of my wallet started with my rental car. I’m not referring to the cost of the rental. I would have incurred that no matter where I went. This is California we’re talking about. Apart from possibly San Francisco, touring without a car is not an option. Instead, it was a matter of where I had to leave the car when I went into the park.
Parking at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park cost me $10. There was little, if any way to escape this. The park is officially in Escondido, California, but it’s not what I would call walking distance from anywhere else you’re likely to be while on vacation. And I’m not aware of any public transit lines that head into the park. So, you’re probably going to need a car to get there unless you are with a bussed in tour group, assuming there are, indeed, tours that go there. And then you’d have to pay for the tour.
After I parked the car, the basic entry fee into the park was an additional $44; just for me. I didn’t look at the kids’ prices because I don’t have kids, but I checked the park’s Web site before writing this post. General admission for children ages 3-11 was $34. Everyone 12 or older was considered an adult as far as the park was concerned.
I qualify for seniors’ prices at some theaters and other attractions in the United States (but rarely in Canada, where we typically consider seniorhood, to coin a word, to start at 65), but I didn’t qualify here. That wasn’t because I wasn’t old enough. (At time of writing I’m 60 and was when I was there.) It was because there were no seniors’ prices. Period.
Add it up. It cost me $54 to get past the admission gate.
I’m single and travelled alone, but a couple of adults would have had to pay a little shy of $100 just to park their car and go inside. If you throw a couple of kids into the mix, you’ll be well over the $100 mark. If you leave your kids locked in your car on a sunny, hot day while you visit the park, hopefully your kids will be rescued and you’ll be thrown in jail. So cough up the cash and take in your kids or don’t go at all.
And that’s just the basic admission price. That lets you see a few walkabout exhibits, watch a cheetah run, and ride the “African Tram,” which skirts around the other side of perimeter fences of some of the major animal areas.
Don’t get me wrong. That makes for a terrific visit, but if you want to get the full park experience you have to take one or more of the extra-fee safaris. When I went, the prices ranged from the “cart” or “cheetah” safari at $40 up to the ultimate safari at $599 for an up-to five-hour personalized safari or $950 for an up-to eight-hour personalized safari. All of those prices were per person and they were in addition to the basic admission fee.
I took the Caravan Safari, which is a two-hour safari that takes you inside three of the animal fields. That added another $95 to the cost of my visit. (There is also 3.5-hour “deluxe” Caravan Safari listed on the Web site at $150 in addition to the general admission price.) According to the Web site, there were no children’s discounts for the extra-fee safaris.
So my parking, admission, and safari fees totalled $149. And I was just one person. You do the arithmetic if you are taking a family.
And, if you’re hungry or thirsty and want to grab a bite or a drink at one of the snack bars or cafes, plan to pay prices that you’d expect to pay when there is no restaurant competition for miles around.
So, is it worth the money? Well, if you can barely meet your family food and housing budget each month, I’d say clearly not. But if you can afford the occasional luxury in your life, you’ll have to decide that for yourself. I thought it was well worth the money, but it’s certainly not something I’ll be doing terribly often. (Unless, of course, the San Diego Zoo people want to reward me with unlimited free admissions as thanks for me writing this article. Call me.)
A Zoo that’s Much More than a Zoo
Enough about the cost, what do you get for your money?
You get to view animals in an environment that is far, far superior to what you’ll find in most zoos. In fact, if you’ve got the word “zoo” stuck in your mind, get it out. Only a few of the exhibit areas bear any resemblance to typical zoo pens. This facility is big—very big—compared to what you probably think of as a zoo.
As far as I can tell, the primary reason that the word zoo is in its name is that the Safari Park is a sister facility to the San Diego Zoo (the zoo will be my next post; I went there the next day). They’re owned by the same organization, but they are about 35 miles apart and very different in size and design.
The money you spend at the Safari Park also helps to support animal conservation efforts.
Animals will do what animals will do. One of the things animals will do when left to their own devices is mate. And, I probably don’t need to tell you this, but mating often makes other animals of the same species. If it ever makes viable animals of another species you’ll probably hear about it on the news.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park sends some of its excess animals to the San Diego Zoo and to other zoos. As a result, those zoos can maintain diverse collections without having to capture animals in the wild, which is something that is frowned upon at reputable zoos these days.
In addition, where viable natural habitats still exist, the Safari Park tries to repopulate natural areas with members of endangered species that were birthed at the park. Sounds like a good plan to me.
The San Diego Zoo Safari Park covers 1,800 acres. About 800 of those acres are undeveloped and the plan is to never develop them. They are reserved as a natural habitat for indigenous species, some of which are endangered or close to it. Members of these species arrive on their own and are allowed to roam freely in the 800 acres, unfettered by fences.
“Free” Stuff (i.e., Included in General Admission)
Those of the zoo-like animal enclosures that do exist at the park are located near the park entrance. One of the first things I spotted was a flock of flamingos clustered on a small island in a small, artificial pond. The cacophony blaring from them was like nothing I’d ever heard before. They issued forth a head-banging mixture of cackling, squawking, honking, and beeping.
(Aside: Is “flock of flamingos” the correct term? Or is it gaggle, covey or clutch of flamingos? I should look it up, but I’m afraid that I’d find that flock of flamingos is wrong. I’d hate to lose the alliteration. Then again, maybe it’s “flight of flamingos.” That would be OK too.)
There is a larger artificial lagoon next door to the pond. I assume that the flamingos normally inhabit that as well, but I don’t know. When I was there the lagoon was drained, presumably for cleaning. No animals inhabited it at the time.
On the other side of the drained lagoon from where I found the flamingos were two enclosures: Lorikeet Landing and Lemur Walk. Sorry, there are no prizes for guessing what species, apart from the humans visiting them, are in each enclosure.
Inside Lorikeet Landing there was one member of the human species who was employed by the park. She was sitting and reading. Perched on her was a member of the species that was the true focus of the exhibit. Yes. You guessed right. It was a lorikeet. (If you didn’t guess right then, well, never mind.)
Other lorikeets were flying around and occasionally walking on the ground. The ones that flew over my head made me a tad nervous because birds will do what birds will do. In this instance, I’m not referring to mating. Luckily, none of them dropped any presents on my head.
Before I entered Lemur Walk a park employee poured some hand sanitizer on my hands to minimize the risk of spreading infections to the lemurs. He then told me, and the couple of other visitors waiting to get in, how to behave if approached by a lemur. Only then were we allowed into the first of the double doors of the entry to Lemur Walk. A sign cautioned us to wait until the first door closed before opening the second.
Inside, the lemurs were sound asleep on a platform away from the path that us humans were restricted to. I stayed for a while to see if they’d wake up. They didn’t. With thoughts of the Monty Python dead parrot sketch in my head, I asked the employee inside the enclosure if they ever wake up. She assured me they did, but I had to come at the right time.
I returned to Lemur Walk later in the day and, sure enough, the lemurs were awake. However, they were scampering about a considerable distance from the path. I never did have to employ the instructions on what to do if approached by a lemur.
I’m never likely to run into a lemur in the wild, which is a good thing because I forget how I’m supposed to react if I do.
Gorilla Trail runs roughly parallel to the southern side of the (dry when I was there) lagoon. Walk along it to see some … no, that’s too easy. You figure it out.
Another area that you can walk through and is included in the basic admission price is Condor Ridge. It’s located on the opposite end of the park from the Gorilla Trail. When I was there, the walk to it was a longer than it normally would be because I had to detour around an exhibit that was under construction and scheduled to open sometime in 2014, Tiger Trail.
I didn’t see any condors at Condor Ridge, but there are a couple of lookout points that provide views of the California hills that were stunning and well worth the walk.
(Short aside about Tiger Trail: If the artist’s drawings of it are anywhere close to what it will really be like, it should be amazing. One of the drawings I saw showed a canyon in which tigers roamed free. The visitors illustrated in the picture were looking down on the tigers from a ledge carved into the side of the canyon.)
There is another free walkabout exhibit beside Condor Ridge called World Gardens. Apart from the local wildlife that wanders through, I think it contains only vegetation from around the world, not animals. However, I can’t be sure of that because I didn’t go there. Did I mention that the park is big? There’s only so much you can do in a day.
The African Tram, which, as I’ve mentioned, is included in the basic admission price, drives around the outside of the African Plains. How many and which animals you get to see up close depends on the animals. It’s a big plain. The animals wander about based on their own whims and schedules.
However, you can be fairly certain that you will get to see a number of African species reasonably closely. And, even if not, you’ll get see some amazing views of the park.
When you plan your day at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, plan to go to the cheetah run, which, when I was there, was scheduled for 3:30 every day. (I can’t promise that won’t change at some point. Check when you visit.) The cheetah run is close to the African Tram station, so doing one after the other makes sense.
The cheetah run is exactly what it sounds like it should be. You get to watch a cheetah run. Arrive in advance because good positions for viewing it are limited. There is a reserved area, which I assume is for people who paid to go on the Cheetah Safari, but I wasn’t entitled to watch from there.
Here’s what happens: The cheetah is a good friend of a dog. The dog gets to do the run first. He chases a stuffed toy pulled on a cable.
The dog is fast, but …
Then the cheetah gets to do it. Don’t blink. That’s one fast animal. Whether or not the cheetah catches the stuffed animal, it gets a real meat treat at the end of the run.
After the first run the trainer assesses the cheetah’s state and, if it’s in good condition (the cheetah, not the trainer, but you probably guessed that), the trainer will send it out on another run. Fortunately, the cheetah did the second run when I was there.
I say fortunately not because I wanted to see the cheetah run again. I did, but that’s not the reason. Some people left after the first run, so I was able to get a better viewing position for the second one. Did I mention that cheetahs are fast animals? Damn, are they ever!
That concludes my discussion of the exhibits that are included in the basic admission price, which brings me to the Caravan Safari I went on. One word: terrific.
On the Caravan Safari, about 15 people, plus the guide and the driver boarded a truck with low wooden walls, otherwise open sides, and a canvas canopy. We were then driven inside the “African” fields.
We ventured into three different fields. To enter each, the driver remotely opened one gate. We drove inside to confront another gate. The second gate wasn’t opened until the first one closed. This was to ensure the animals didn’t escape (and presumably so other animals, including human visitors, wouldn’t go inside). Don’t ask me what action would have been taken if a wild animal joined us between the gates. It didn’t happen when I was there.
The Caravan Safari doesn’t have a set route through the fields. The animals make up their own minds as to where they are going to be at any time. The driver of the truck found them and took us close to them.
On the description of the Caravan Safari at the park entrance and on its Web site you are told that you will have an opportunity to feed giraffes and rhinoceroses. Well, maybe. (The Web site and signage didn’t say, “well, maybe.” I added that.)
It’s up to the animals whether they 1) are hungry and 2) want to take food from the likes of you. The guide on the safari told us that they are almost always successful at giraffe-feedings, but they have only about a 50 percent success rate at getting the rhinos to come and take food from the paying guests. There was no suggestion that there would be any refunds if they don’t.
During our safari, one giraffe was standing around waiting for us to come by and feed it. It patiently accepted food from everyone on the truck, one person at a time.
The way it worked was: The giraffe was standing behind the truck, waiting for food. The person whose turn it was to feed the giraffe walked to the back of the truck. The guide gave that person a handful of leaves. We were instructed to face the giraffe, but hold the leaves in one hand behind our back. With the other hand, we reached behind our back and pulled the leaves out one at a time and fed it to the giraffe. The guide offered to take pictures of our feeding turn with our camera or smartphone.
When everyone had his or her turn, we moved on. A little further on, there was another giraffe waiting for us. The guide still had a few leaves left. She (the guide, not the giraffe, but probably the giraffe too) was able to identify each giraffe individually. She warned us that, if we wanted to feed this one, we should be prepared to get wet because it drooled major quantities of drool incessantly.
I passed on that experience, but others didn’t. I had never in my life seen that much goober come out of one individual’s mouth. Then again, I haven’t been up close and personal with many giraffes before either. Those who chose to feed the giraffe did, indeed, get wet.
We were on the losing end of the 50 percent probability of being able to feed a rhino. We drove within a few yards of a rhino. The guide rattled her pail of apple cores to try to encourage it to come to us to feed, but it just stood there. The driver took us equally close to another rhino. The guide again tried to entice it with food. The result was the same.
Whether your safari is successful in its attempts to feed the giraffes and rhinos or not, you are guaranteed to get fairly close to a number of African animal species. I don’t expect I’ll ever go on a real African safari, and this was admitted probably very well short of that, but it was likely as close to an African safari as I’m ever likely to get. When you look at it from that perspective, I guess it was exceptionally inexpensive.
San Diego Wild Animal Park
If you read all of the above and said to yourself, “Jeez, that sounds exactly like the San Diego Wild Animal Park,” there’s a good reason for that. They are the same thing. The park changed its name in 2010 from San Diego Wild Animal Park to San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
In answer to someone’s question, the guide on the Caravan Safari explained that the reason for the name change was they wanted the park to show up when people Googled “safari.” Apparently, it worked. According to the guide, attendance shot up about 30 percent after the name change. It seems we are all beholden to the Great and Good Google.