San Diego zoo and safari park
Family friendlyblog.categories.trip-and-advice
Casey Makovich

San Diego Zoo vs Safari Park: Comparing the Differences Between the Two Parks

What's the difference between the San Diego Zoo vs Safari Park?

Though often confused as the same park, the two parks offer very different experiences. We've broken down the differences between the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park into different categories so you can choose which park suits you and your visit to San Diego best.

Use this guide to make the most of your pass. So, which one will you choose – San Diego Zoo or Safari Park?

San Diego Zoo General Admission:

  • One ride on the Guided Bus Tour
  • Unlimited use of the Kangaroo Express Bus
  • One ride on the Skyfari Aerial Tram
  • Scheduled Zookeeper talks throughout the day
  • General admission exhibits and shows
  • Free parking

San Diego Zoo Safari Park:

  • One ride on a guided safari-like tour on an open-air tram through the park's African Savannah field where animals roam free
  • Scheduled animal shows throughout the day, including Cheetah Run, Frequent Flyers Bird Show, Elephant Keeper Talk, Trainer Talk, and more
  • General admission exhibits and shows

Please note: Parking is not included with your pass for Safari Park and ranges from about $12-$17 per vehicle.


Image of Chart, Plot, Map, Atlas, Diagram,

Sometimes when deciding whether to visit the San Diego Zoo vs Safari or both, it just comes down to logistics and what fits in best with your San Diego sightseeing itinerary. One common misconception is that Safari Park is near to the San Diego Zoo; on the contrary, Safari Park is not in Balboa Park but is actually a decent drive north of downtown San Diego. However, even though the Safari park is a little outside of San Diego, it is still included with our pass.

San Diego Zoo location:

Centrally located right in Balboa Park near downtown San Diego, the San Diego Zoo is very easy to get to by car, bike, walking, public transportation, etc. And while driving in downtown San Diego can be challenging, remember that parking is free at the zoo. It's also located near lots of other Balboa Park museums & attractions that are included on your pass so you can check off some other attractions while you're in the area, too.

Safari Park location:

Safari Park is located in Escondido, about a 40-60 minute drive north of downtown San Diego. Public transportation to Safari Park exists but would be over 2 hours each way from downtown San Diego. Plan on taking a car and be sure to factor in the extra cost for parking.

Comparing the Animals & Exhibits

Image of Animal, Wildlife, Bear, Mammal, Cow,

Which has more animals -- San Diego Safari Park vs Zoo: To sum it up succinctly, the San Diego Zoo has more animals both in quantity and variety. The San Diego Zoo has animals from all over the world, including Australia, Asia, Africa, Central America, South America, and more. Whereas the Safari Park focuses on animals from mostly arid environments, like the African and Asian Savannas.

Visitors can easily spend a full day seeing all the animals at each park. The exhibits at Safari Park are larger and more spread out, while the exhibits at San Diego Zoo are situated closer together throughout the park.

San Diego Zoo:

Image of Animal, Wildlife, Mammal, Kangaroo, Koala,

  • Animals from All Over the World: these animals include polar bears, pandas, koalas, apes, gorillas, penguins, elephants, giraffes, grizzly bears, hippos, birds, reptiles, lions, zebras, tigers, and more.
  • Animal Habitats: animal enclosures are generally smaller than those at Safari Park to ensure that visitors see lots of animal activity
  • Exhibits & Attractions:
    • Guided Bus Tour: Narrated double-decker bus tour of the entire zoo.
    • Panda Canyon: A panda exhibit with a zookeeper always there to answer questions and talk about the famous icons of the zoo.
    • Northern Frontier & Polar Bear Plunge: Home of the zoo's polar bears, where you can get a unique underwater view of the playful bears, see snow white foxes, caribou, maned wolves, and more.
    • Elephant Odyssey: See lots of elephants and other California-native animals of the past and present, including large birds, cheetahs, lions, and meerkats, among others.
    • Lost Forest: Home to tigers, hippos, monkey's gorillas, Scripps Aviary and Owens aviary, this is one of the livelier exhibits.
    • Urban Jungle: Visit giraffes, kangaroos, koalas, flamingos, rhinos, and plenty of other creatures.
    • Discovery Outpost: Kids can run around in the playground, interact with animals in the petting zoo, and see lots of reptiles, insects, and birds.
    • Skyfari® Aerial Tram: Take a ride over the exhibits for an aerial view of the zoo and surrounding Balboa Park.
    • Nighttime Zoo: San Diego Zoo is open late during the summer months, with live music and entertainment all evening

Safari Park:

Image of Field, Grassland, Nature, Outdoors, Animal, Giraffe, Mammal, Wildlife,

  • Animals from Arid Environments: these animals include rhinos, camels, cheetahs, gorillas, herons, giraffes, lemurs, lions, meerkats, river hogs, tigers, warthogs, wild cattle, zebras, insects, and more.
  • Animal habitats: animal enclosures are generally larger with more free-range enclosures so that visitors can see animals in more naturalistic settings.
  • Exhibits & Attractions:
    • Africa Tram: Take a 20-30 minute ride on the covered, open-air tram to see lots of animals, including giraffes, rhinos, and more.
    • Elephant Valley: Visit the park's elephants and catch an educational talk at the amphitheater to learn about elephant care and see their abilities.
    • Gorilla Exhibit: Get an unobstructed view of the large and active gorilla family.
    • Lion Camp: See lions interact and play in their open space den.
    • Cheetah Run: The famous cheetah run, where visitors can watch Shiley the cheetah race 330-feet and reach speeds of up to 70-miles per hour.
    • Tiger Trail: Follow the guided trail through the bamboo forest and see several Sumatran tigers along the way.
    • Petting Kraal: Kids and adults can take their turn petting and brushing the gentle resident goats in their enclosure.

Comparing the Park Sizes

You'll be walking a lot at both parks, but the San Diego Zoo provides a convenient hop-on hop-off bus that can take visitors around to each area of the park. On the other hand, Safari Park is larger due to the larger animal enclosures and requires more walking between exhibits.

San Diego Zoo:

  • 100 acres of animal exhibits
  • Over 3,700 animals and more than 650 species

Safari Park:

  • 1,800 acres of wildlife sanctuary
  • Over 2,600 animals and more than 300 species

Tips for Visiting the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park

San Diego Zoo Tips:

  • Check out the plant life there too. Little known fact: the zoo also qualifies as a botanical garden.
  • Get there early and do the included Guided Bus Tour first to get a lay of the land and make a note of the exhibits you want to plan your day around.
  • Wear comfortable footwear, pack a water bottle, and plan to do a lot of walking.
  • Check out our post for even more San Diego Zoo tips for visiting.
  • If you're a big animal lover and are considering how this zoo relates to other big animal parks in the San Diego area, we also compare San Diego Zoo vs SeaWorld here.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park Tips:

  • Bring binoculars to Safari Park if you have them. Because the animals are in more open, natural settings, sometimes they're hanging out a considerable distance away from viewing areas.
  • Get there early and do the included tram ride when you first arrive. Wait times tend to increase throughout the day and are busiest between 11 am and 3 pm.
  • Wear comfortable footwear, pack a water bottle, and plan to do a lot of walking.
  • Check out our post for even more San Diego Zoo Safari Park tips for visiting.
  • The Okavango Outpost restaurant in the park has a unique vantage point where you can see the giraffes roam and be fed.

Upgrades & Interactive Experiences

Image of Glove, Vegetation, Boy, Child, Male, Person, Female, Girl, Indoors, Handbag, Shoe, Outdoors, Land, Nature, Rainforest, Tree, Shorts,

Jungle Ropes Safari Experience at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Interactive experiences are available at both parks for additional fees, not included with Go San Diego. You can ask about upgrades and age requirements when you arrive at the parks. Prices for upgrades and interactive experiences range from about $29-$599, in addition to park admission.

San Diego Zoo:

  • Africa Rocks – San Diego Zoo’s new exhibit, Africa Rocks consists of six new habitats dedicated to African plant and animal life, including African penguins, baboons, lemurs, and more.
  • Animals in Action: This behind-the-scenes experience allows visitors to help feed, train, and touch special animal ambassadors.
  • Inside Look Tours: An educational two-hour experience that highlights how the keepers care for their charges.
  • Discovery Cart Tour: 1-hour guided tour that covers 70% of the zoo grounds highlighting all the plant and animal life.
  • Crazy About Cats: Go on an early morning behind-the-scenes guided tour of the cat areas and learn about each cat, how the zoo cares for them, and how you can help the species.
  • Early Morning Photo Expedition: Enjoy an exclusive, small-group cart tour of the zoo before it opens while you get the opportunity to take rare close-up photos of the zoo's inhabitants.
  • Sunrise Surprise Stroll: visit a surprise area of the zoo up close or behind the scenes and get a keeper talk, you won't know what you're getting until you get there (surprise!).
  • Keeper for a Day: This pricey but worthwhile special experience allows you to shadow a keeper for an entire day and learn what their work is all about.

Safari Park:

  • Africa Tram Safari – a 20-30 minute guided safari-like ride in a covered, open-air tram through the park’s African Savannah field to see the animals roaming around the grasslands. You'll see giraffes, rhinos, Cape buffalo, ostriches, gazelles, antelope, and more, and some animals might even come right up to your tram.
  • Elephant Valley – learn all about elephant care at this educational talk and demonstration in the park’s amphitheater.
  • Gorilla Exhibit – get up close to a large and active gorilla family peacefully interacting in their massive habitat – one of the park’s most popular. Then see how you measure up next to an adult male gorilla at the gorilla activity center.
  • Lion Camp – get a peek into a lion’s den and watch the playful creatures run and interact in the 33,000-square-foot Lion Camp.
  • Tiger Trail – this winding trail takes you on a guided walk through the bamboo forest where you'll see several Sumatran tigers along the way. There's even an underwater viewing spot where you can watch them swim.
  • Walkabout Australia - this backcountry road is shaded by eucalyptus trees and brilliant red bottlebrush blooms waving to you in the breeze. Follow the path of the 'roo as you're transported Down Under to walk among kangaroos, wallabies, cassowaries and more.

A Visual Guide Summarizing the Differences between the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park

Image of Advertisement, Poster, Animal, Bear, Mammal, Wildlife,

In Summary – the Biggest Differences between the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park

The San Diego Zoo and Safari Park are surprisingly very different and have lots of different experiences to offer visitors.

San Diego Zoo: They board a larger variety and quantity of animals, and the comprehensive guided tour bus and aerial tram ride are included. The park itself is considered a historic San Diego icon, located in downtown San Diego in Balboa Park. It's also officially recognized as a botanical garden. The zoo is close to lots of other popular San Diego attractions and offers free parking to visitors.

Safari Park: This attraction features a specific focus on animals from arid environments. It's a larger park in size which requires more walking between exhibits, but a guided safari-like ride is included with admission. It's located a 45-60 minute drive outside of San Diego, and there are more upgrades available for up-close animal encounters and enhanced experiences

What's Included with General Admission

For starters, both San Diego Zoo tickets and San Diego Zoo Safari Park tickets are included with a pass for San Diego by Go City®. This means you can visit both parks for one price, which means that you save on paying separately at the ticket booth. You'll get have a totally unique experience at each and if you love learning about animals and the environments they live in, you'll be sure to enjoy both, all using your pass.

You'll save on combined admission to your choice of attractions, including the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, LEGOLAND® California, SeaWorldTM San Diego, USS Midway Museum, theme parks, harbor cruises, bike rentals, tours, and more, using your pass for San Diego by Go City®.

Love this article? Why not share it:

Buy with confidence

Free cancellation

Plans can change, we get it. All non-activated passes are eligible for a refund within 90 days from your purchase date.

Find out moreChevron Icon


Confused? We're here to help!

See our FAQsChevron Icon

We're kind of popular, but don't just take our word for it.

Have a 5% discount, on us!

Sign up to our newsletter and receive exclusive discounts, trip inspiration and attraction updates straight to your inbox.

  • Thick check Icon