One of the most popular and well known tourist attractions in Southern California is the San Diego Zoo. Most people outside of California, however, aren’t aware of an even better wildlife experience which is just a short drive from the Zoo, in the northern part of San Diego County, the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Like the San Diego Zoo, the Wild Animal Park is operated by the Zoological Society of San Diego which is a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation and education of endangered species and their habitats. I’ve been to the Park many times while growing up in Southern California, but my last visit was special because it was with my five year old daughter who has never been there before. It was an experience that yielded many cool pictures and a great time that I won’t soon forget.The San Diego Wild Animal Park opened in 1972, and many of the attractions that were there for the opening are still around today. The Park is not set up like a traditional zoo because most of the exhibits are in an open area on acres of land. This allows the Park to keep herds of different species that interact with each other in an environment that simulates their natural habitat. Because of this, the animals display many of their natural behaviors, providing Park visitors with a better understanding of how they live.The Wild Animal Park’s most popular attraction is the Wgasa Bush Line Railway which takes visitors on a 3 mile, 40 minute journey through most of the Park’s main areas and then into the San Pasqual Valley. The valley is divided into different areas, each representing different regions such as North Africa, South Africa, the Asian Plains, and the Mongolian Steppe. The tour also offers a live narration by the tram driver which really succeeds in educating the riders about each species on display. For instance, I never knew that a herd of rhinos is known as a crash. This attraction is perfect for older kids and adults, but younger children may become a little restless due to the ride’s length of time. In the spring of 2007, the old railway is going to be replaced by a new and more modern transportation system.Much of the Wild Animal Park’s charm comes from the over 3,500 plant species on display along with the Nairobi Village theme. Our visit was on a somewhat dreary day which made the Park seem like a rainforest with babbling brooks and misty walkways. The one exhibit that my daughter couldn’t get enough of was Lorikeet Landing. For two dollars, you can buy lorikeet food (nectar) and the colorful birds will actually land on you when you enter the atrium. From there, we saw another one of my daughter’s favorites, Lion Camp. This new attraction lets you see the lions from several different angles and also provides an up-close view when you approach the glass barrier, which is the only thing separating you from the king of beasts. I’m a big fan of carousels and the Conservation Carousel was one of the most unique that I’ve ever seen. Instead of horses, it featured many of the endangered animals that can be seen throughout the park. Our final attraction of the day was an Animal Encounter, where we got to experience a Caracal Cat up-close along with its trainer.For a little bit more than the price of a one-day ticket, you can purchase one of several packages that allow you to become a member of the Zoological Society of San Diego. As a member, you get such benefits as unlimited visits to the San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park for one year, a ZOONOOZ magazine subscription, a membership card, and monthly member specials featuring discounts on food and merchandise. Since The Wild Animal Park is operated by a non-profit organization, a visit to the gift store not only gets you some really cool stuff, but also allows you to contribute to a worthwhile cause. This was the first of many visits that my daughter and I intend on making to the Park over the next year. Hopefully, on your next trek through Southern California, you take the time to experience the San Diego Wild Animal Park for yourself.