I had the opportunity last week – thanks to the generosity of my boss – to visit Safari West in Santa Rosa. He had some relatives visiting and after researching the North Bay, the place that was at the top of their “must see” list was Safari West, a 400 acre wildlife preserve located between Santa Rosa and Calistoga.

When I started making plans for our group to visit Safari West, I wondered why our family had not ever gone there. Especially when our kids were younger, we made a point of taking advantage of all the educational experiences that are within driving distance of Petaluma… the Francisco Zoo, Academy of Sciences, Exploratorium, Lawrence Hall of Science, just to name a few…so how did we miss Safari West? I vaguely remembered looking it up but couldn’t remember why didn’t we ever go there.

Then I went to their website to order tickets and I understood why. It’s not a cheap outing for a half-day of entertainment. Adult tickets are $68 and children 3 through 12 are $30. In comparison, adult tickets to the SF Zoo are $15; Safari West tickets are almost in the same price range as Disneyland tickets.

However, what you are paying for isn’t just the chance to look at some animals but a totally very unique experience. It’s the way you see the zebras, antelope and wildebeests at Safari West that makes the price of admission seem reasonable.

Instead of standing in front of a cage and reading a little plaque that describes the habitat and behavior of the animal in front of you like at a zoo, visitors are put into groups of about 15 and everyone gets a guided tour. I can never retain any of what I read on the zoo do-it-yourself tours, but I remember almost all of what our personable guide had to say about the difference between cheetahs and leopards. (Cheetahs aren’t able to retract their claws which gives them more traction while running, they are about half the size of leopards, cheetahs catch their prey by outrunning them, leopards stalk their prey, and on and on…)

After a 45 minute walking tour that takes you past the cheetahs, monkeys and through an aviary, each group boards an open-air safari jeep for a two-hour ride through the Sonoma hills. It felt just like the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland but this was the real thing, very bumpy and a little bit thrilling but still totally safe.

On the jeep ride we saw some really cool herds of animals. My favorite was the Watusi cattle, some of which had horns that are so huge that they resemble goal posts. Jennifer’s favorite…and how could it not be…was the one-day-old zebra standing next to his mom across the road from the dazzle of zebra. Yes, I learned that is what a group of zebras is called.

Because the animals have huge enclosures, visitors see things that they would never see at a zoo. It was so cool to see a playful five-week-old giraffe running at full speed just because he could.

And while the price of admission may be close to Disneyland, the atmosphere is totally different. You aren’t herded into zig-zagging lines and it’s not survival of the fittest when it comes to buying a bottle of water. Although like Disneyland, I did appreciate the well-maintained grounds and friendly staff.

There’s no getting around the fact that Safari West is a pricey outing, but where else in this part of the world can you come eye to eye with a giraffe?