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Exotic Family Experiences For Tighter Budgets & Timelines

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Swap the Serengeti for San Diego

san diego

The Serengeti is 10,000 miles from my home in LA, and San Diego is a two-hour drive away. When I decided to show my kid the wonders of the world without having to remortgage the house, this swap was a no brainer.

It might seem like an odd swap—the Serengeti is in northern Tanzania in Africa, and San Diego is in Southern California. But they are more alike than you might think. Your child can get a feel for a wonderful safari experience without needing shots or enduring a super expensive long haul flight halfway around the world.

San Diego may not cover 12,000 square miles like the Serengeti and the people may not speak Masai, but it’s much easier to experience safari camping in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. We packed a “trunk” for our sleepover adventure in the Safari Park, where we slept in comfy tents surrounded by the sounds of lions roaring through the night.

The program we signed up for was aptly named “Roar & Snore Safari” and is offered throughout most of the year with a variety of themed programs. We enjoyed a campfire cookout, and an after-hours guided walk to look at the lives of wild animals including giraffes, lions, rhinos, and zebras. After our walk, we were treated to fireside s’mores and the unique ability to experience the park late at night. The park supplied night vision goggles for additional animal spotting (a huge hit with our son and most of the young boys). We woke at dawn to watch the lions feed, and then marched off to a hot breakfast shared with other guests at the campsite. For our morning tour, we signed up to learn about bats and visited them in their habitat.

The highlight of our visit was the caravan safari ride to feed giraffes. I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten so close to a giraffe, and it was a magnificent experience. Our son’s only complaint about our San Diego Wildlife Safari? “Oh, too short. Can’t we stay a few more nights?” We packed up our bags and got out of Africa in less than 1 hour, making it an easy and perfect family adventure.


This is a great entree to nature. Make sure your little camper will know there will be a few bugs, strange smells, and precautions they need to take for everyone’s safety.

Bring extra batteries for your camera or iPhone. You’ll want to shoot lots of photos and there are no electrical outlets to charge your devices along the way (although they are available to share at a central group gathering area).

If you’re a light sleeper, you might want to bring ear plugs. We enjoyed the roaring sounds of the lions through the night, but the snoring sounds of our camp site neighbor…not so much.

For more family-friendly travel tips from Margot Black, check out:

By Margot Black for