The San Diego area is fortunate to have not one, but two renowned destinations where you can get up-close looks at the world’s rarest and most magnificent animals. No one knows the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido better than Rick Schwartz, spokesman and ambassador for these remarkable attractions and wildlife conservation facilities. Schwartz recently appeared on the California Now Podcast and shared a collection of tips for animal lovers heading to the southwest corner of the Golden State. Below are a few of the highlights. 

Two Unique Experiences

Long considered the world’s premier zoo, the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park spreads across 100 lush acres (it’s also an accredited botanical garden). The Zoo’s innovatively designed enclosures strike a balance between creating natural environments for animals and intimate viewing opportunities for visitors.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park encompasses 1,800 acres, where animals range freely across habitats as large as 60 acres. The experience truly is akin to a safari, says Schwartz: “On the Caravan Safari, you get in the back of a truck with a guide…and the truck drives into the field enclosure and habitat. The animals come up to the truck because they know that there’s food and fun things to have.”

Planning Your Day: Tips From a Pro

With more than 3,500 animals at the Zoo and the Safari Park’s huge expanses, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Schwartz suggests that if there’s one animal you absolutely have to see, go visit it first. And arrive early because animals are most active early in the morning and again in the evening. “But if you wait until later,” says Schwartz, “a lot of times the animals are sleeping or you’re exhausted by the end of the day and just like, ‘You know what? I don’t want to walk all the way over there to see them.’”

Tours and Adventures

After visiting your favorite animal, Schwartz says the Zoo’s Guided Bus Tour and the Safari Park’s Africa Tram (both free with admission) will help you get oriented and plan your day. In addition to those overviews, the Zoo and the Safari Park offer more focused experiences.

The outings are always changing, so Schwartz recommends checking the websites to see the latest visitor opportunities. Experiences can include sit-down breakfasts featuring talks by keepers and close-up looks at such animals as tigers and penguins. There are also behind-the-scenes koala tours at the Zoo and even Roar & Snore sleepovers at the Safari Park. “Can you imagine waking up to the sounds of lions doing their morning roar?” asks Schwartz.

A Vital Global Role

While visitors will leave with treasured memories, Schwartz says the Zoo and Safari Park are much more than havens for cute creatures. These institutions help preserve rare and endangered species, including the California condor, whose numbers have rebounded from just 22 individuals in the 1980s.

“A lot of people know us as a zoo that’s a wonderful place to visit, or a safari park that is great for experiences and a wonderful place for families,” he says. “Then, once they’re here, they learn that we are very much a non-profit conservation organization that also just happens to run these world-class facilities you can come visit.”

To hear more about the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, listen to the latest California Now Podcast.