I’ll be honest with you. I wanted to attend the Roar & Snore sleepover at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (formerly the San Diego Wild Animal Park) because I was looking for an easy way to go camping with my daughter, not because either of us had a hankering to sleep near lions or attend hands-on encounters with animals. I had been toying with the idea of escaping suburban life for a camping getaway to reconnect with nature but I was daunted by the prospect. I don’t own any camping gear or know how to pitch a tent. I didn’t want to plan a camping menu and pack all of the food and other necessities we’d need. This program seemed like a manageable and unique way to experience camping with a child.
Campers sleeping near the lion enclosure may wake to the roaring of these huge cats in the morning
As members, my family has spent a tremendous amount of time at both the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and its sister location, the San Diego Zoo. The camping tents on a hill near the lions at the Safari Park piqued my curiosity during one visit. I learned the tents house Roar & Snore sleepovers. Participants are outfitted with a pre-assembled tent, sleeping pads, and camp chairs. Pricing includes all snacks, meals, activities, and crafts. For an extra charge, beds, wood floors, and electricity are available in the fancier Premium tents, but that seemed too posh to count as camping to me.
I suggested attending a Roar & Snore to my 4-year-old daughter, Karissa. She was familiar with the idea of camping from bedtime stories like Curious George Goes Camping and Just Me and My Dad, about Little Critter’s father-son camping adventure. With my daughter’s enthusiastic approval, I signed up!
My daughter, Karissa (age four), in our tent
Since I was leaving my husband and baby boy at home, I invited my friend, Vessa, and her son, Tanner (age 4), to join us. The four of us checked-in during the late afternoon. We made our way to our assigned tents to explore our temporary digs. Each family got its own tent cabin, which slept up to four. Karissa and I had plenty of room to spread out, with our friends housed just next door. We unrolled our sleeping bags (purchased especially for this excursion) and donned the blue Roar & Snore t-shirts provided as part of the package.
Tanner Phillips (age 4) peeking out of a Roar & Snore tent
Due to our late start, we had to rush a bit to attend the first of several animal encounters. A zoo employee brought out an animal, like a great horned owl or a spring haas (a rodent that looks like a cross between a rabbit and a kangaroo). Then she discussed it at length before allowing everyone to get an up-close look and maybe even pet it.
At dinnertime, we were served a buffet of hot dogs, chicken, hamburgers (and veggie burgers for vegetarians), macaroni and cheese, baked beans, and an ice berg lettuce salad with fruit punch or water to drink.
Afterwards, it was time for a craft activity. Kids were given paper grocery bags cut into wearable vests to decorate with colorful paints. While the creations were hung to dry, the children ran wild, self-directing themselves to crawl, hop, and growl like animals.
Next, zoo employees led small groups on walking tours, giving campers a behind-the-scenes peek at animals like tigers, elephants, cheetahs, and lions.
A fellow camper, Jameson Cooper (age 9), carrying his wayward little brother Colston (age 2) back to the barbecue
After the animal walks, we reassembled to enjoy s’mores, popcorn, and hot cocoa or coffee. There were also grown-up beverages available for purchase. Vessa and I each enjoyed a cup of wine to take the edge off the whining that surrounded us. Most of the children were in the midst of major meltdowns by now because it was already later than 8 pm, past most of their bedtimes.
After the sun descended, it was campfire time. From the jubilant looks of it, this was the highlight of the event for most of the kids! The children donned their painted paper vests and paraded around a giant fire pit. Zoo workers stood guard around the fire for safety’s sake. Upbeat music played while the children were instructed to act like monkeys, elephants, snakes and more. They hopped, slithered, tooted, and growled in joyous, cacophonous circles.
Campers hanging out by their tents (Photo courtesy of San Diego Safari Park)
Time to Snore
Finally, it was bedtime. We got into our jammies and lined up to use the group bathrooms to ready for bed. Showers were available and some folks even used those. Toys, besides a favorite lovey, were not allowed but we did bring some children’s books to read. Karissa and Tanner took turns traipsing back and forth between the tents to say goodnight over and again. An orchestra of chirping crickets and croaking frogs lulled Karissa and me to sleep around 10:30 pm – after very long night for a little kid (and her mama!).
Here Comes the Sun
Around 4:00 am, we woke to the loopy calls of crazy birds. Karissa complained that it was too loud, but I convinced her to sleep some more. It felt as if we were at the center of a rock concert performed by nature’s creatures. Some participants with tents closest to the lions’ enclosure said they heard the sounds of lions roaring as the sun came up. Alas, we did not.
The first official wake-up call sounded at 6:00 am and breakfast was served an hour later. The breakfast buffet consisted of pancakes, sausages (and veggie sausages), scrambled eggs, and various breakfast beverages. Beware that coffee was served from the same large container as was fruit punch the night before. My daughter thought she was getting a cup of punch but instead burned her fingers with hot coffee.
After breakfast, we took part in more animal encounters and went on more walks to learn about animals. It was all very educational and the Safari Park staff went of their way to make sure we all got our money’s worth, but it proved to be too much for the kids in our party. After such a late night the evening prior, both Karissa and Tanner splayed out during one of the presentations and dozed off.
A San Diego Safari Park’s education department representative, Laurie Haven, showing a baby python to a group of fearless children
Did it satisfy my camping craving? Somewhat. Everyone enjoyed seeing the animals up-close and learning from the expert zookeepers, but I was seeking to connect with nature and with my daughter. Therefore, the high points of the sleepover for me were quiet moments away from all of the program’s activities, like pointing out the sparkling stars in the fiercely black sky to Karissa, and lying side-by-side in the tent with her as we listened to the rowdy sounds of nature’s nighttime chorus.
Would I recommend the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s Roar & Snore to other families? Absolutely! It is a one-of-a-kind experience that you and your child will always remember. A year later, Karissa still talks about her “camping trip” with her mama. Whenever we go the Safari Park she asks if we can sleep in the tents again, this time with her daddy and brother, Leo, too. I tell her yes, we can, just not until Leo is at least age six. Although children of all ages (including babies!) can attend, I suggest attending with older children who have the attention span and stamina for the jam-packed schedule.
Do you have any questions, tips, or stories about the San Diego Safari Park’s Roar & Snore sleepovers? Let us know in the comments!