Thirty-four miles north of San Diego, outside of Escondido, this "zoo of the future" will transport you to the African plains and other faraway landscapes. Originally a breeding facility for the San Diego Zoo, the 1,800-acre Zoo Safari Park (formerly known as the Wild Animal Park) now holds 3,500 animals representing more than 400 different species. What makes the park unique is that many of the animals roam freely in vast enclosures, allowing giraffes to interact with antelopes, much as they would in Africa. You'll find the largest crash of rhinos at any zoological facility in the world, an exhibit for the endangered California condor, and a mature landscape of exotic vegetation from around the globe. Although the San Diego Zoo may be "world famous," it's the Zoo Safari Park that many visitors celebrate as their favorite.
The park's "Journey into Africa" tour aboard the African Express (included with admission) replaces the old monorail ride as the easiest way to see critters. The African Express is an open-air, soft-wheeled tram that runs on biodiesel. Although it visits less park space than the previous tour, the 2 1/2-mile circuit (which takes about 30 min.) brings guests much nearer to the animals, in some places up to 300 feet closer. Depending on crowd size, trams leave about every 10 minutes. Lines build up by late morning, so make this your first or last attraction of the day (the animals are more active then, anyway).
There are also several self-guided walking tours that visit various habitats, including Elephant Overlook and Lion Camp, but why walk when you can tool around the park on Segway personal transporters ($80, minimum age 13)? The commercial hub of the park is Nairobi Village, but even here animal exhibits are interesting -- check out the nursery area, where irresistible young'uns can be seen frolicking, bottle-feeding, and sleeping; a petting station; the lowland gorillas; and the African Aviary. There's also an amphitheater where bird shows and other animal encounters are scheduled two or three times daily. Visitors should be prepared for sunny, often downright hot weather; it's not unusual for temperatures to be 5° to 10°F warmer here than in San Diego.
If you want to get up-close-and-personal with the animals, take one of the park's Photo Caravans, which shuttle groups in flatbed trucks out into the open areas that are inaccessible to the general public. There are a variety of itineraries (some are seasonal and have varying age requirements); prices start at $90 for a 2-hour caravan, and you'll need to make reservations ahead of your visit (tel. 800/407-9534 or 619/718-3000). The Savanna Safari is a deluxe, 50-minute tour for up to 10 people; you can choose to visit either the Asian or African exhibits on this personalized, intimate tour. Tickets are $35 (not including admission), and no reservations are necessary. You can also get unique aerial perspectives of the park from the Balloon Safari ($20), a tethered hot-air balloon that soars to 400 feet, and Flightline ($70, minimum age 10), a zip-line ride that scoots above the African and Asian enclosures.
Things That Go Bump in the Night! -- The Park's Roar & Snore sleepover programs, which are held year-round on most Fridays and Saturdays -- except in December and January, and with extended dates in summer -- let you camp out next to the animal compound and observe the nocturnal movements of rhinos, lions, and other creatures. There are family and adults-only dates available; prices range from $29-$219 per person. To request information by mail or to make reservations, call tel. 800/407-9534 or 619/718-3000.