The San Diego Wild Animal Park is like no other zoo. Here, large wild animals are free to roam within huge enclosures that replicate the wilds of Africa.

Clustered in these fenced-off acres are water buffalo, giraffe, wildebeest, rhino, and several other impressive herds of different species. The animals mingle and romp up hills, through gullies, around waterholes and under trees. A motorized tram tour takes visitors around the perimeters of the enclosures, and for an extra fee, guests can ride on the back of a truck into the world of Africa itself on a Photo Safari.

Before your safari, however, stop for breakfast at the Center City Café, a classic diner in Escondido renowned for their gigantic, reasonably priced breakfasts. If you go on the weekend, be prepared for a wait, or get there early.

All sorts of food, drinks, imported and domestic beer, and wine are available at the Wild Animal Park, but highly recommended is bringing a picnic lunch, since tables are plentiful. Plus, dining al fresco in Southern California’s beautiful weather is a treat, and outside food is permitted in the park.

When you enter the park, you will receive a park map that includes shows, so make note of their times so you don’t miss them. The Frequent Flyers show is a great show featuring freely flying birds, like tropical species and birds of prey, zooming around the stadium. The Animal Trackers show is new game show featuring African animals.

Take another look at your map; you’ll see a red line leading you through the center of the village to Journey Into Africa, the tram tour around the large African exhibits. Follow this red line, but feel free to enjoy any of the exhibits along the way.

The African Aviary close to the entrance is a delightful area; it is filled with colorful birds that swoop or hop across your path. It will lead out into a larger plaza; to the left is the Conservation Carousel, an attraction kids love because they can pick out their favorite endangered animal to ride. Straight ahead is a huge gift shop, the Bazaar, and the restaurant Thorntree Terrace, which serves kid’s meals, hamburgers, salads, fish and chips, and various sandwiches.

Turn right and walk south underneath the pergolas.You’ll pass the waterfall of the Congo River Fishing Village on your right and several small animal exhibits. If you continue under the pergolas,you will have a chance to see baby animals in the nursery and to visit the petting zoo. If you veer to the right-hand path, you can explore the water’s edge on a series of wooden sidewalks that lead to many animal enclosures, including the lemurs from Madagascar.

At the southern end of the lagoon you’ll pass Mombasa Cooker. This restaurant serves Italian food, Asian rice bowls, burgers, sandwiches, wraps, salads and kids meals. If you didn’t bring a picnic, stop here for lunch where you can score a table by the water for aspectacular view of pelicans and shoebills hunting for fish.

Continue south following the red line, but pause when you see the large aviary called Lorikeet Landing. This enclosure houses mischievous lorikeets, small green parrot-like birds that will land on your arms,shoulders, and head if you buy a small cup of nectar. The nectar is $3.00 a cup, but entrance is free regardless. Lorikeets may still land on you without nectar! Since this is the case, it is best to have a hat or hood andlong-sleeves because the birds are indiscriminate about where they leave their droppings.

When you exit continue to follow the red line southeast,veering to the left past Gabriella’s Crested Gibbons, energetic apes that swing around their netted exhibit. You will come out on a wooden platform at apair of elevators. Go around the elevators to the far side of the deck and take in the gorgeous view of the African exhibits and surrounding San Pasqual Valley from a bird’s eye view.

Next, ride the elevators down to the ground floor and continue on past the Balloon Safari. This giant yellow balloon is impossible to miss; you can ride it up 400 feet into the air and see the entire valley for a nominal fee. Since the Journey Into Africa tour also requires the price of a ticket (unless you have purchased the best value pass) I recommend going on the tour before going on the balloon.

The red line takes you away from the lions, so make a detour to see them by continuing east on the path and then turn right to African lions exhibit, it is unlike any lion exhibit you’ve seen. The big cats arerotated from the exhibit often so they are rarely complacent; they always roam their enclosure and explore, or the trainers are entertaining the lions with exercise or stimulation such as treats, toys, or scents. Very often, the lions rub up against a huge Plexiglas window, so close that you could touch them.

After viewing the lions, continue south to Simba Station,where the Journey Into Africa tour begins. If you do not have a Best Value Ticket, purchase a separate ticket for the tour at the ticket booth located west of the station. This tour is approximately 25 minutes long, and it passes the cheetah exhibit before circling all of the natural-looking African lands. The tour guide will provide interesting facts and will identify all of the animals you see.

After Journey Into Africa, wander into the Heart of Africa, a large open collection of exhibits built around a lagoon and along shady, winding paths and wooden walkways. To get there, continue south past Simba Station and veer to the left towards Okavango Outpost. This restaurant serves salads, wraps, nachos, hot dogs, and kids meals, along with beer, wine by the glass, and espresso drinks. Past Okavango Outpost you can see the cheetahs up close, and then continue along the southern most path to the water. Hereyou’ll see flamingos and primates and you can feed the waterfowl. Follow the path and it will start heading north among several exhibits featuring a number of endangered species. The most fascinating of these is the reclusive okapi, not quite giraffe, not quite horse.

At the entrance of Heart of Africa you can choose to go back up the elevator or up a steep slope to Samburu Terrace, a restaurant that serves barbecue ribs, tri-tip sandwiches, and ‘south of the border’ entrees. There is also a safari-themed playground behind the restaurant, and ahead is the Benbough Ampitheater where two different shows take place daily. But the main attraction on this side of the park is the panoramic gorilla exhibit, where a shrewdness (yes, that’s the collective noun) of these fascinating apes live. Be aware to keep your voice down and to avoid direct eye contact; gorillas are just as offended by rude behavior as we are!

By this time, you will have covered almost the entire park. If you have any energy left, a trip to the sprawling and largely undevelopedeastern side of the park may be in order. Here you’ll find the delightful Asian and African elephant exhibits, of which you had a glimpse on the Journey Into Africa tour, and the tigers. Be aware that at times the tiger exhibit is closed, so it’s best to ask as you enter the park. Condor Ridge is an interesting glimpse into the species of Southern California and the conservation efforts of the park to breed the endangered California Condor.

For dinner, there are several restaurants within 10 miles ofthe park, ranging from high to low pricing. The most family-friendly is Hotshot Burgers: an unassuming storefront hiding a fifties-style diner with checkerboard floors, red booths, gumball machines and a jukebox that kids love. They make fresh burgers and real ice cream milkshakes, and on Friday nights the waitresses wear poodle skirts.

For a fancier meal try the seafood restaurant Brigantine.Try the signature swordfish, unchanged from its original recipe when Brigantine first opened in 1969. Hacienda de Vega, also in Escondido, is a fine traditional Mexican restaurant with a large garden dining patio in an adobe home built in the 1930’s. Authentic recipes like Mole Plobano and Tequila shrimp coupled with specialty margaritas are a relaxing way to finish off a day in the evening air of Southern California.

After a day exploring the Wild Animal Park, make sure to visit the San Diego Zoo. The two sister parks are different in size, scope,and range, but their missions are united: to be a conservation, education, and recreation organization dedicated to the reproduction, protection, and exhibition of animals, plants, and their habitats. Once you visit, you will surely admire and applaud the work the San Diego Zoological Society does and it is likely you will return.

What & Where:
Center City Café (2680 SEscondido Blvd, Escondido; 760-489-6011)
Hacienda de Vega (2608 S. Escondido Blvd, Escondido;760-738-9805)
Brigantine (421 West Felicita Ave, Escondido; 760-743-4718)
Hotshot Burgers (2250 S Escondido Blvd, Escondido; 760-746-1500)
San Diego WildAnimal Park (5500 San Pasqual Valley Rd, Escondido; 760-747-8702)

Getting There: To get to the Wild Animal Park fromdowntown San Diego, take I-5
North to 163 North,which merges with I-15 North. Exit Via Rancho Parkway, proceed east and followthe signs.

Helpful Hints:
Parking is $9.

The best value ticket includes the Journey Into Africa tour and the Conservation Carousel and is highly recommended. Check the park’s website for specials and coupons.

Arriving in the morning is recommended as parking will be easier to find and the animals will be livelier in the cooler air.