San Diego Zoo or Safari Park - What is Better for You?

Can’t choose between visiting the San Diego Zoo or San Diego Zoo Safari Park? See what makes each attraction special and use our guide to help you decide!
Jess Tucker
Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. This means if you make purchases through them, I may be compensated at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain my own.
San Diego Zoo or Safari Park
Which is Better?
Park Costs
Bundle & Save
Location Comparison
Exhibit Comparison
Size Comparison
Tour Differences
Overall Winner

Highlights

San Diego Zoo vs Safari Park
Cost
Exhibits
San Diego Zoo vs Safari Park
Cost
Exhibits
Final Verdict

San Diego Zoo vs San Diego Zoo Safari Park: Which is Better?

Gorilla Statue at the San Diego ZooAnimals Grazing at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Any animal lover will enjoy a San Diego vacation, as there are countless ways to get closer to nature, from peering into the La Jolla Tide Pools to seeing marine life at SeaWorld San Diego and the Birch Aquarium at Scripps. Among these many options, the most popular attractions centered around animals are the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido.

Both of these attractions are tons of fun, but if you’ll only be in San Diego for a few days, you may not have time to check them both out.

Entrance Sign to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Entrance Sign to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Cheapest Ticket Options to Both Attractions

While both attractions are available through the All-inclusive version of the Go City San Diego pass (which you can purchase using our discount code GVSD5OFF for additional savings), the Explorer pass version includes admission for either the Zoo or the Safari Park, but not both on the same pass.

Whether you’re short on time or just trying to decide which attraction you’ll like best, use our comparison guide to decide whether the San Diego Safari Park or Zoo appeals more to you!

Local Tips
Arrive Early!
If you want to enjoy both places at its best, make sure you arrive early! Animals are more active, early mornings are the best time to visit.

Cost Comparison

San Diego Zoo Entrance
San Diego Zoo Entrance

Keep costs for your trip down when you pick up a Go City San Diego pass with our discount code GVSD5OFF. Both the San Diego Safari Park and San Diego Zoo offer visitors discounted admission when you visit with a Go Pass, either with an All-inclusive pass or with the explorer pass.

I really think in terms of value and what you get, both the zoo and safari park are reasonably priced, making them great picks for families on a budget. The San Diego Zoo is world-class and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is big and a unique experience.

To make this comparison tougher, the standard admission costs at both parks are the same! Base admission prices let you visit all major attractions, with optional add-ons for special experiences at each location. Let’s dive in a little deeper.

Zoo Admission Prices

San Diego Zoo ticket prices as of 2024 are:

  • 1 Day Pass: Adult $72, Child $62
  • 1 Day Pass Plus (Includes 4D Theater Experience): Adult $79, Child $69
  • 2 Visit Pass: Adult $124 Child $114

The San Diego Zoo has free on-site parking in a large lot. There is additional free parking available in Balboa Park if no spots are open at the zoo lot.

Safari Park Admission Prices

Prices for the San Diego Safari Park as of 2024 are:

  • 1 Day Pass: Adult $72, Child $62
  • 2 Visit Pass: Adult $124, Child $114

General parking at the San Diego Safari Park is $20 per car or $38 for RVs. Preferred parking is available for $38 as well. So while not the only factor, there is a difference here.

MTS Bus and Pacific Soul Statue
MTS Bus and Pacific Soul Statue

The Better Deal for Your Money

Since admission at both attractions is the same, the deciding factor comes down to the difference in parking cost. Since the zoo has free on-site parking, it’s the winner here, though if you’re using San Diego’s public transit, parking costs aren’t a concern.

Make sure to check the official website of each attraction for the most up-to-date information on ticket prices.

Safari Park+Zoo = Go Pass
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Visit this 1,800 acre park featuring over 3,000 animals in their natural habitats as you ride the African tram! Buy an All-Inclusive Go Pass and admission to the San Diego Zoo is included!
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Local Tips
What kind of deals does the Go City San Diego pass offer?

The Go City San Diego pass gives visitors the ability to save up to 55% on attraction admissions.

Combine our exclusive 5% discount to save even more and consider the All-Inclusive pass to maximize your savings. Plus the pass gives you the ability to skip the line when visiting select attractions.

Use our exclusive discount code GVSD5OFF to save an extra 5%!

Comparing the Locations of the Parks

Looking for other fun things to do around each attraction? Here’s the inside scoop from our team of locals!

Hiking the trails of the Desert Garden Path at Balboa Park
Hiking the trails of the Desert Garden Path at Balboa Park

What’s Around the Zoo

The San Diego Zoo is part of Balboa Park, a sprawling area near Downtown San Diego that’s filled with walking trails, gardens, and spots for picnics. It’s the perfect area to rent a bike with a Go City San Diego pass and enjoy San Diego’s warm weather and clear skies.

Balboa Park is best known as being a hub for San Diego’s biggest attractions, especially its museums. The 1,200-acre park includes 18 different museums with standout picks for families like The Fleet Science Center, Natural History Museum, and Air and Space Museum.

Other activities in Balboa Park include going on a walking tour, watching a performance at the Old Globe Theater San Diego, and admiring the Japanese Friendship Garden.

Check our article on the Best Hotels Near the San Diego Zoo for great places to stay nearby, like the 4-star Paradise Point Resort & Spa.

Entrance to the Mission San Luis Rey
Entrance to the Mission San Luis Rey

Nearby the Safari Park

Located in Escondido, there’s no shortage of ways to keep busy near the Safari Park either!

There is hiking in the area and you’re not that far from the coast where you can go fishing on the pier, try out water activities like jet skiing and kayaking, and learn about Southern California’s history at Mission San Luis Rey.

Right on the Pacific Ocean coast, the nearest beach, Oceanside has spots like North Jetty, Harbor Beach & Breakwater Way Beaches providing an excellent excuse to rent a surfboard and spend the day riding waves.

There are some exceptional hotels in Oceanside too, like The Seabird Resort. This is a beachfront hotel with upscale amenities such as its large outdoor pool deck and on-site spa.

Escondido is part of North County San Diego, which puts it near Carlsbad and Encinitas as well. Pop over to the Carlsbad Ranch to see the flower fields in the spring, or check out the beaches of Encinitas.

Which Location Is Our Favorite?

Though there’s lots to do around Escondido, the San Diego Zoo’s location in the middle of the action can’t be beat, making it our preferred place to spend the day.

Comparing the Exhibits at the San Diego Zoo vs San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Both the zoo and safari park have dozens of species of animals living in awe-inspiring habitats. See what makes the residents of each park unique.

Closeup of a Baby Orangatang at the San Diego Zoo
Closeup of a Baby Orangatang at the San Diego Zoo

The Animals of the San Diego Zoo

The San Diego zoo has hundreds of animals in their own exhibits, plus a few exhibits themed around different habitats around the globe.

Mother Hippo Helping Baby Swim at the San Diego Zoo
Mother Hippo Helping Baby Swim at the San Diego Zoo

Animal Exhibits

As one of the most diverse zoos in all of the U.S., the San Diego Zoo contains over 700 different species of animals housed in dozens of carefully crafted exhibits. See everything from amur leopards to zebras!

Animal species you won’t want to miss include:

  • California condors
  • Rhinos
  • Penguins
  • Snakes
  • Bears including polar bears, grizzlies, and sun bears
  • Sloths
  • Big cats like cheetahs, jaguars, tigers, and lions
  • Apes including bonobos, lemurs, and endangered species of monkeys

Giraffes Reaching for Food at the San Diego Zoo
Giraffes Reaching for Food at the San Diego Zoo

Urban Jungle

The Urban Jungle exhibit is a recreation of an African plain right in San Diego. See Masai giraffes and Soemmerring’s gazelles. Kids can offer food to the animals using the exhibit’s feeding stations.

Aviary Inside the San Diego Zoo
Aviary Inside the San Diego Zoo

Scripps Aviary

Scripps Aviary contains over 200 species of birds, all of which are native to the jungles of Africa. With everything from tropical parrots to lesser-known endangered species, watch birds fly overhead as you trek through an indoor rainforest.

Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo
Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo

Elephant Odyssey

See both Asian and African elephants in the Elephant Odyssey exhibit. This habitat also includes reptiles, birds, amphibians, and exotic creepy-crawlies.

The Habitats of the Safari Park

Rather than creating individual exhibits for each animal species, the San Diego Safari Park’s exhibits are designed for many species of Asian and African animals to share the same space. Seeing the wild animal park’s recreations of jungles, savannas, and plains habitats feels like touring the world without ever leaving San Diego.

While many exhibits at the safari park are similar to zoo enclosures on a grander scale, the big star of the show is the sheer size of exhibits there, especially the open Savannah area. Since the safari park is much larger, its exhibits let you feel like you’re experiencing the wilds of Africa and Asia firsthand.

Cheetahs Relaxing at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Cheetahs Relaxing at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

African Plains

The African Plains exhibit spans hundreds of acres and includes dozens of species, from giraffes and zebras to lions and cheetahs.

Rhino at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Rhino at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Asian Savanna

Step across the globe to see animal species native to the savannas of Asia. Take photos of antelope, rhinos, various bird species, and more.

Majestic Tiger at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Majestic Tiger at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Tiger Trail

The Tiger Trail is one of the San Diego Safari Park’s most popular exhibits. Enter a tropical Asian rainforest to see these majestic big cats as well as storks, tapirs, birds, and fishing cats.

Elephant Statue at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Elephant Statue at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Elephant Valley

The Elephant Valley is a special enclosure just for the park’s herd of elephants. Guests can see these massive animals from an observation deck and overhead walkway.

Where to Find the Best Animal Exhibits

Both parks put animals at the foreground of their exhibits. While the sheer scale of the safari park is impressive, the San Diego Zoo’s variety and dedication to conservation have made its exhibits truly iconic, making it our top choice.

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How Big Is the San Diego Zoo vs San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Tons of Things to Do at the San Diego Zoo
Tons of Things to Do at the San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Safari Park is much larger than the zoo, but both have their fair share of things to do and see - and plenty of options for food, drinks, and even taking a quick break while inside the park.

Navigating the Zoo

Compared to the safari park, The San Diego Zoo is a little more condensed, making it easily walkable.

If you’re trying to fit in a visit on a limited schedule, I think the San Diego Zoo is the better choice, as most of the park’s exhibits can be seen within about 3-4 hours. While you could certainly spend longer here if you prefer, even up to a full-day trip, this is enough time to get a good overview of the park and see a decent selection of animals.

View Point at Condor Ridge at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
View Point at Condor Ridge at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Exploring the Safari Park

In terms of sheer size, the San Diego Safari Park is three times bigger than the San Diego Zoo, spanning over 300 acres compared to the zoo’s 100 acres! But neither are small by any means.

The exhibits at the safari park are designed to evoke the feeling of going on a real safari, so exhibits are larger with space for the animals to roam. They’re designed to be viewed via a tram tour, though there are plenty of spots to get out and stretch your legs too.

Visits to the San Diego Safari Park average a little longer than the zoo at about 4-5 hours, or more if you’re hoping to see every exhibit. It’s a good pick for groups who want to spend the day at one location, as there are more than enough tours and animal experiences.

It’s also about 40 minutes outside of the city versus about 5-10 for the San Diego Zoo so you may want to consider travel time depending on where in town you’ll be staying.

Our Winning Choice

If you’re looking to visit multiple attractions in one day (and don’t forget your Go City San Diego pass if so), you can’t beat the San Diego Zoo. It’s an unforgettable experience no matter how long you stay at the park!

Which Fits Your Adventure?

The World Famous San Diego Zoo
The World Famous San Diego Zoo
Discounts Available
Learn More
Visit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Visit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Discounts Available
Learn More

What Different Tours can you Take at the San Diego Zoo vs San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Looking for tours and animal experiences? Both parks offer them, but there are some key differences to consider when comparing the two.

Back of Double Decker Tour Bus at the San Diego Zoo
Back of Double Decker Tour Bus at the San Diego Zoo

Tours at the Zoo

Upgrade your admission at the San Diego Zoo with these tours that let you get up-close and personal with wildlife, or to take a look behind the scenes at the zoo’s daily operations.

Inside Look Tours

Inside Look Tours are guided experiences for families offered at different animal exhibits depending on the day. Get an inside look at different exhibits, including Wild Africa, Underwater Wonders, Paws & Claws, Crazy About Cats, and more.

Discovery Cart Tour

Take an hour-long tour of the zoo in a cart driven by an animal expert. Discovery Cart Tours are fun for the whole family.

Safari Park Trainers Walking Around Animals at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Safari Park Trainers Walking Around Animals at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Animals in Action Experience

Meet animal ambassadors at the Animals in Action Experience, where you’ll get to learn about big cats from a wildlife care specialist. This is a 1-hour tour that is family-friendly, but all attendees must be 5 or older.

Exclusive VIP Experience

Want to see the very best of the zoo with a tour guide? The Exclusive VIP experience is a full-day tour that spans all corners of the park. The experience also includes lunch in the zoo.

Early Morning Explorers

The Early Morning Explorers Tour is for kids ages 3-12. This is an hour-long educational experience with crafts and games that inspire a love of nature in young kids. These tours take place before opening hours are held on select days.

Tours at the Safari Park

Take guided tours of the safari park to learn more about the dozens of animal species that call the park home.

Safaris

The San Diego Safari Park offers various themed safaris where guests can kick back in a safari cart while taking in their surroundings and learning some fun facts about the animals they pass.

Safaris offered include:

  • Wildlife Safari
  • Cart Safari
  • Behind-the-Scenes Safari
  • Roar Snore Safari
  • Sun Up Cheetah Safari
  • Wildlife Trek
  • Ultimate Safari

Africa Tram

The African Tram is a 25-minute guided tram ride through the park’s savanna exhibit. Tours depart from African Outpost and are offered at no additional fee to guests.

Soaring Safaris

See the safari park from overhead on one of two different tours. The Balloon Safari takes you up into the air on a hot air balloon, while the Flightline Safari lets you soar overhead on a zipline.

Which Tours Are Better?

I love how the Safari Park lets you get up-close with the animals while touring the park from the comfort of a car. The immersive experience of driving right alongside the animals is incredible, and it’s our choice for the better tour.

Tips for Visiting the San Diego Zoo vs San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Giraffe at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Giraffe at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Before you make your decision, here are a few tips that might affect which park you choose to visit.

Additional Info About the San Diego Zoo

  • While both parks have family-friendly experiences, the walkability and denser layout of the zoo makes it a favorite for parents with younger kids.
  • Animals are more active in the early mornings, and you’re more likely to catch feeding times early in the day too.
  • The San Diego Zoo’s Guest Services Center is next to the Bus Tour entrance. It shares hours with the zoo, open from 9 AM–5 PM daily.

What Else to Know About the Safari Park

  • The safari park is a unique experience so for families with older kids, I think it would be my choice!
  • Like at the zoo, early mornings are the best time to visit.
  • The safari park’s guest services are available during the same hours as the park itself, from 9 AM-5 PM. The booth is located at the Park Base.

Who Wins Overall?

San Diego Zoo Map Sign
San Diego Zoo Map Sign

Animal lovers will have an unforgettable day at either park, but our team agrees that the San Diego Zoo is iconic for a reason!

If you can only see one, the zoo is our overall choice for the best attraction to visit.

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Which One is Best for You?
The World Famous San Diego Zoo
The World Famous San Diego Zoo
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Visit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Visit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
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