14 Awesome Safari Experiences That Aren’t the Zoo

14 Awesome Safari Experiences That Aren’t the Zoo

Lions and tigers and… cars? If seeing the zoo on foot doesn’t cut it for your animal-loving brood, there are plenty of immersive animal experiences that’ll give you the feeling of an authentic wildlife safari park from the comfort of your (or someone else’s) car. Whether you want to gaze at giraffes from a double-decker safari truck or see the wild from the comfort of your own front seat, here are the best safari park experiences in the U.S.

Safari West

Safari West - Santa Rosa, CA

While a three-hour tour through the Sonoma wine country usually conjures up visions of gorgeous grapes ripening on the vine, Safari West will have you rethinking those expectations. Here, you'll board a double-decker safari truck and log some serious face time with zebras, giraffes, water buffalo and any number of the other 800 animals that call this preserve home.  Expect learning to happen, too. Safari West guides love actively engaging guests, promoting conservation and education efforts on their tours, as they expertly weave the open-air jeep in for a closer look. When tummies rumble, belly up to the Savannah Cafe that overlooks the park; the authentic food, beautiful scenery and grown-up grape juice from the region hit the spot after a long safari.

Wildest Extra: Want to make a weekend out of it? Spend the night in one of Safari West's 30 authentic African safari tents, with polished hardwood floors, en-suite bathrooms (with hot showers and real toilets), hand-hewn furniture, and ultra-plush linens atop comfortable beds.   

Online: safariwest.com

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

San Diego Zoo Safari Park - Escondido, CA

The San Diego Wild Animal Park (a branch of the San Diego Zoo) has everything a zoo has to offer, with a plethora of ways to see it all. Rather than keeping animals in small cages, this place opts to let the animals roam free—and puts the people in various vehicles to go out and see them. Families can commune with exotic wildlife from golf carts, African trams, zip lines, behind-the-scenes truck tours, or, even in a hot air balloon for a spectacular bird’s eye view of it all. Add in a ropes course for adventurers as young as seven, and you could spend days taking it all in. But at the heart of this animal wonderland is a mission to save the critters of the world, with its researchers and activists leading conservation efforts in 45 countries, with 380 partners in its conservation work, five conservation field stations and 200 conservation scientists working in the field or the lab, according to this article

Wildest Extra: Want to really wow your wildlife-loving kiddos? Opt for an overnight in an authentic safari tent. At the Wild Animal Park's "Roar and Snore" overnights, you'll get a nighttime tour of the zoo (with up-close animal encounters), then fall asleep to the sounds of lions' roars in the distance.

Online: sdzsafaripark.org

Virginia Safari Park - Natural Bridge, VA

Gas up the family wagon and grab a bucket of tasty grains for the “locals” at the gate before taking off along the three-mile paved drive through this natural animal habitat. Expect a few delighted shrieks from the littles as ostriches, llamas and zebras poke their heads through the windows to say hello and help themselves to tasty treats. When you’re done with the drive, be sure to check out the Village Walk-Thru where the kidlets can spend some QT with potbellied pigs, chickens and goats and more. Let the good times roll!

Wildest Extra: For an added fee, you can feed giraffes from a special platform, get up close and personal with the penguins or feed and pet the rhinos—all while learning how zookeepers take care of the animals and how the Safari Park is helping the animals in the wild. 

Online: virginiasafaripark.com

Hidden Valley Animal Adventure - Varysburg, NY

What’s not to love about a family-owned and operated animal park where it’s all about the beauty of the land and the animals that make their home there? Drive your car or hop on the bus to get a rolling tour of this bucolic oasis. Little rangers can be on the lookout for llamas, bison and ostriches, all of whom may cautiously approach the tiny outstretched hands looking to feed and interact with them. It’s a ring-side seat your sidekick won’t soon forget. Add in dinner at the Trailside Grill and you’ve got the whole day planned. The park opens in May and runs through October before closing for the winter.

Wildest Extra: Winter sleigh rides through the lower park make for a magical, snowy, family-friendly outing. Sleigh bells ring!

Online: hiddenvalleyadventure.com

Katie Cotterill/ Northwest Trek Wildlife Park

Northwest Trek - Eatonville, WA

With a focus on preserving and encouraging the repopulation of native Northwest wildlife, this sanctuary, just 60 miles south of Seattle, is a surprisingly perfect place to be on a rainy day. In the true spirit of the Pacific Northwest, the bison, elk and bighorn sheep (and moose, if you can spot one) are a little less camera shy when it’s overcast and drizzling. The park's all-new "Wild Drive" premier tour lets you drive your own car through the Trek's Free-Roaming, where you'll cruise by herds of Roosevelt elk, bison, moose, caribou, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, swan and deer.

After that, stretch your legs on the Animal Walking Paths as you check out grizzlies, cougars and more. Kids will love the "Kids Trek," a nature-inspired playground with ropes, slides, sand, cabins and a massive “tree trunk" to climb. Up for a hike? Access to more than five miles of paved and primitive walking trails is included in admission. 

Wildest Extra:  Don't miss Eagle Passage, an immersive experience that allows visitors to see majestic bald eagles close up while giving the rescued birds—all of whom have some degree of long-term wing injury—a safe passage between habitat sections. 

Online: nwtrek.org 

Stewart Deats/ Bearizona

Bearizona Wildlife Park - Williams, AZ

Drive your car on a three-mile gravel trail to see some of our country's most popular wild natives, including bison, black bears and wolves. When you're ready to stretch your legs, the winding walk-through, Fort Bearizona, will give you the perfect view of the park's resident jaguars, grizzly bears, and more. Craving cuddles? Creepy-crawly lovers can see bugs, spiders and nocturnal animals at the Mine Shaft Experience.

Wildest Extra:  Want a peek at the resident bears... right now? Check out the park's Grizzly Cams!

Online: bearizona.com

African Safari Wildlife Park - Port Clinton, OH

Alpaca, bongos and camels are waiting to say hello to kids and their parents as they drive through the African Safari Wildlife Park. Cup in hand is the way they roll here. And when the drive comes to an end, be sure to check out the Walk-Thru Safari, where kidlets can come face to face with white alligators, ocelots and playful gibbons as they stroll along. In warmer months, the park brings out its giraffes for up-close encounters that let you feed these long-necked beauties a snack. 

Note: The park is closed from Dec. through Apr. Check the online calendar for details. 

Wildest Extra: Want to come face-to-tongue with a giraffe? Sign up for the 30-minute Giraffe Encounter, which lets you feed and mingle with the giraffes, Matata, Rudy, Poptart, and Harrison. 

 Online: africansafariwildlifepark.com

Wildlife Safari

Wildlife Safari - Winston, OR

Be sure to slap your “Will Break for Bison” bumper sticker to the back of your ride before driving the gang through this open-air Safari park in Oregon. Families can get up close and personal with mammals, reptiles and birds as they check out the sights and feed a few of the residents in this 600-acre park. When your little animals get restless, take a break at Safari Village, a walkable area with trains, playgrounds and a petting zoo to keep kids busy and happy. As for conservation, Wildlife Safari’s staff works hard to protect animals both internationally and domestically. They’ve helped bring over 235 cheetah cubs into the world as part of their super successful cheetah breeding program. Hooray!

Wildest Extra: Want some wine with your wild? Be sure to get tickets for the park's "Sippin' Safari," which will honor the park's 50th anniversary on July 22 with live music, wine and beer tastings, and local food trucks. 

Online: wildlifesafari.net

Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park & Wildlife Safari - Ashland, NE

The winner of USA Today's Best Safari Park two years in a row, this Nebraska wildlife park (which is owned and operated by Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium) lets you enjoy a four-mile, drive-through experience showcasing North American wildlife. You'll see a menagerie of animals, including American elk, bison, waterfowl, raptors and white-tailed deer. At Wolf Canyon, guests can get out of their cars to gaze at grey wolves and American black bears. After the drive, take a hike to one of the park's overlooks to view the animals from above.

Note: Due to a current Avian Influenza (HPAI) outbreak in Nebraska, the American white pelicans in the Pelican Wetlands, the sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans in Crane Meadows and the chickens at the Hands-on Corral will not be on display until further notice. The Eagle Aviary will be closed, but the eagles are still viewable to the public. The whooping cranes will be off display.

Wildest Extra: For an extra $65 per person, you can book a Backstage Experience to see the animals and their keepers up close. Experiences include a Cheetah Conservation Experience, which gives visitors a backstage look at the state-of-the-art Cheetah Conservation Breeding Facility to see and learn how keepers care for the park's 20 cheetahs; and the Tiger Conservation Experience, in which visitors will get the chance to tour and meet the tigers at the Tiger Conservation Breeding Center.  

Online: wildlifesafaripark.com

Grahm S. Jones, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

The Wilds - Cumberland, OH

A sprawling sister property of the award-winning Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, the Wilds lets visitors get an unfettered glimpse of the animals who call this 10,000-acre park home. Here, it's the humans who go in the "cages" and the animals who get to roam free. To see the wildlife, visitors must board the park's open-air safari vehicles to see the resident rare and endangered animals roaming in their large, natural settings.  

What else? Want something extra special? Select from a variety of specialty tours to soak in The Wilds’ stunning scenery. Whether you want to float the day away during a relaxing Fishing Safari on one of nearly 100 lakes; whoosh above it all on a Zipline Tour; saddle up on a Horseback Safari through the quiet prairies; snap some Insta-worthy shots during one of the park's gorgeous Sunset Tours, or get a behind-the-scenes look at the animals with a Wildside Tour—there’s an adventure for everyone! 

Note: The Wilds is open May through Oct. 

Online: thewilds.columbuszoo.org

Courtesy of Lion Country Safari

Lion Country Safari - Loxahatchee, FL

The original drive-through safari park in the U.S. (and believed to be "the first cageless zoo in the country"), this safari spot has been serving up African game park experiences for the whole fam since 1967. It’s four miles of drive-through meetings with oryx, giraffes, rhinos, wildebeests and a whole slew of animals we’ll bet you’ve never heard of (with more than 900 total, we’re pretty confident taking that bet), each living it up in an area that replicates their natural habitat. And the lions for which the park is named? Well, they’ve got their special spot where they can’t get up to too much mischief. Ice this cake with an adjacent KOA campground where you can fall asleep listening to the nighttime sounds of the animals outside your tent, just like a real safari!

Wildest Extra: The get-up-and-move activities that are available after your car safari are awesome perks. Mini golf, a safari cruise, plenty of rides and even a splash park are all part of the day’s adventures at Safari World, the 55-acre amusement park portion of this preserve.

Online: lioncountrysafari.com

Fossil Rim - Glen Rose, TX

Born out of a desire to help dwindling animal populations, Fossil Rim found its roots and eventual footing in propagation programs for threatened and endangered species. Thirty years later, families still flock to this Texas park, where they can take their own vehicles around the 9.5-mile Scenic Drive, or get insider deets and educationally potent tidbits when they ride along on a Guided Tour. We love that The Overlook is smack dab in the middle of this drive, as it's the perfect stopping point for antsy toddlers. Get out and interact with friendly tortoises and curious goats at the Children’s Animal Center, or grab grub at the snack bar.

Wildest Extra: A two-hour nighttime tour through the park to see what wild antics the animals are up to once the sun sets is as thrilling as it sounds! Want to stay even later? Adventurous explorers can also spend the night at the Fossil Rim Lodge, which was the original home for original Fossil Rim owner Tom Mantzel; or at one of the safari cabins overlooking one of Fossil Rim's most popular wildlife watering holes. 

Online: fossilrim.org

Courtesy Out of Africa

Out of Africa - Camp Verde, AZ

Nominated as one of the top 10 Best Safari Parks in the U.S. by USA Today, this 100-acre park is home to hundreds of exotic mammals, birds and reptiles from all over the world—with an assortment of fun ways to see them. Climb aboard the open-air safari truck—or upgrade to a"Supermog" (an all-terrain, safari vehicle modified from a medium-size Isuzu truck)—and set out on a bumpy ride into the Serengeti preserve to see zebras, sable antelope, gemsbok, and more. You may even get a chance to feed a giraffe along the way! When the ride is over, there's plenty more to see, including the "Tiger Splash" show, which lets you spy on Bengal and Siberian tigers as they splash around in their pool and interact with their keepers; and the "Predator Feed," where keepers throw 800 pounds of raw food to eagerly-waiting carnivores.

Wildest Extra: Adrenaline junkies will want to sign up for a zip-line tour over the rolling hills. The "Racing Raptor" features three parallel lines—so you and your kids can zip the more than 1,000 feet together above the animals; the Predator zipline tour gives brave riders a course of five zip line runs above it all (Children must be 8 years old to ride.).

Wild Animal Safari - Pine Mountain, GA

Whether you drive your vehicle, rent a zebra bus (you know you want to) or take advantage of the guided bus tour, your pack will have a grand time spotting many (and even touching a few!) of the 65 different species that roam this 250-acre Serengeti adventure park. Think zebras, elk, bison, camels and more. When the park first opened, it was specially designed to capture the imagination of the littles and engender a lifelong love of animals. Not much has changed since then. Kiddos of all ages love the personal attention they get from the curious animals here! Don't miss the park's newest resident: Malaika, a giraffe calf born in January. 

Note: The Wild Animal Safari also has locations in Strafford, MO and Aggieland, TX.

Wildest Extra: The chance to hand-feed animals at the park's Walkabout Adventure Zoo is a hoot for the tot lot. "The animals are sociable, and you may be slobbered on if you are too close," warns the website (in other words, animal-loving kids will be in heaven). Fuzzy, friendly and hungry, these animals are sure to elicit some giggles from the little ones who feed them.

Online: animalsafari.com

—Allison Sutcliffe & Melissa Heckscher

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