Although San Diego has a number of amazing tourist destinations near the city center, one of its oldest and most spectacular destinations, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (formerly known as the Wild Animal Park), is located outside of Escondido, California in the San Pasqual Valley. Established in 1972, the principal purpose of the park was to promote conservation, mainly by the breeding of rare animals for the world. From that point on, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has made an impact in the lives of a number of species, including the California Condor.
While the conservation goals of the Safari Park are and have been notable, what is also interesting about the facility is the enclosures it has had for the animals since 1972. Since its inception, the Safari Park has comprised some 1,800 acres of land, and unlike other facilities, the animals in Safari Park are allowed to roam across the land in a semi-free state. While the park has always offered visitors the opportunity to enter the enclosures in first a monorail, and now in a Jurassic-park style tram, the park has not always provided an overarching view of the scope of its facility.
Over the last ten years, in conjunction with the re-brand from Wild Animal Park to San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the park has developed a number of more interactive activities for visitors. One of these activities, the Safari Balloon ride fills the gap of allowing visitors to view the entire facility, while providing a unique hot air balloon ride experience. The Safari Balloon is a tethered hot air balloon that rises four hundred feet above the San Pasqual Valley. Modeled after the hot air balloon tours of the Serengeti, the balloon features a large, circular basket that visitors can walk around in during the duration of the tour.
Recently, I found myself at the Safari Park, and as the balloon looked empty, decided to give it a try with my family to see what the bird’s eye view of the park was like. Although the balloon holds thirty people (no seats), my group was fortunate enough to have most of the compartment to ourselves. As the balloon slowly ascended the four hundred feet, we were treated to amazing three hundred and sixty degree views of the park, and of the neighboring San Pasqual valley. To me, it was fascinating to see how the animals moved from a distance, and it gave me greater insight into how the herd mentality in the wild kingdom works. In addition to the great views of the animals and the surrounding area, I also found the engineering feat of keeping a large balloon tethered to the ground with minimal movement interesting. At the high point of the tour, we were able to walk around the balloon platform unobstructed, imagining we were birds. Below, we were able to see circling turkey vultures, falcons, and ravens also watching the animals at the park. After fifteen minutes, we descended smoothly to the ground chattering happily about the experience, before heading whether the elephants looked as big at ground level as they did from the air.
Tips/Fees. The tour lasts between ten and fifteen minutes, and is a great break from walking around the park. The balloon entrance is located near the lions, and is also near the entrance to the tram. Sadly, the balloon ride is not included with park admission, and is an additional $18.00 for adults and $12.00 for children. On the positive side, as of 2016, if you visit the balloon before noon, it is a flat rate of $12.00 per person. The ride is suitable and safe for all ages, and the only people I would not recommend the ride for are people with a fear of heights, or high places. Even then, it’s a great place to attempt to get over such fears, as it is a very safe and low stress experience with great views. Overall, I would definitely recommend the experience for either long term, or first time visitors looking for a unique experience within the park.