A loud bird-like squawk breaks the night silence.
Then the unmistakable sound of a lion's roar. An angry lion.
The lion sounds close by but not as close as the snoring from the tent next door.
The first thing to know about the appropriately named "Roar and Snore" sleepover program at San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park is that very little sleeping occurs. But the morning vista from the door of our tent more than makes up for the sleepless night.
Once dawn's first light illuminates our tent, we step out onto a bluff overlooking an 88-acre African savanna teeming with gazelles, impalas, giraffes, a few rhinos and wildebeests. The morning air is cool and smells of wet grass. On a hill in the distance, a herd of Arabian oryx — the hoofed beast believed to be the source of the unicorn myth — grazes in spring pastures.
I've dreamed of going to Africa to see wild animals in their native habitat. But "Roar and Snore" is about as close as I'm going to get without renewing my passport.
Accompanying me on this sleepover in May are my 8-year-old daughter, Isabella, and her bubbly classmate Grace. Both girls are excited about camping in a zoo, less than a football field's distance from troops of African elephants, Sumatran tigers, African lions and curvy-horned cape buffaloes. What kid wouldn't be?
The program is understandably popular and fills up quickly on weekends and holidays, and the prices rival a stay at a mid-priced hotel ($89 to $209 depending on age, tent choice and time of year).
In Southern California, zoos, aquariums and museums began sleepover programs nearly 20 years ago to educate and entertain schoolchildren. In recent years, many programs have evolved to serve those kids' comfort-conscious parents.
We witness that at the Wild Animal Park, which recently added eight "premium" tents with queen-size platform beds, refrigerators, nightstands, a heater and a fan. At the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, the adult-only sleepover program offers guests gourmet pizza, wine, beer, yoga and meditation in the glow of a 350,000-gallon tropical aquarium.
Sleepovers have caught on elsewhere too. Two years ago, the San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum launched an overnight program on the USS Midway, letting visitors doze in the same bunk beds where sailors slept in World War II and the Vietnam War.
Zoo, museum and aquarium officials say they are giving guests what they want: greater access to popular attractions. With prices ranging from $60 to $200 a person, visitors get that extra access, plus scavenger hunts, animal presentations, behind-the-scenes tours and, at the USS Midway, even the use of aircraft simulators.
A front-row viewOUR sleepover begins with a 5 p.m. check-in at the "Roar and Snore" campground at the Wild Animal Park in Escondido. As we walk in, most of the park's day visitors are heading for the exits.
Our tent — 9 by 14 feet — is one in a row of tall, aluminum-frame tents on a bluff overlooking the "African Field Exhibit." I had reserved a "Vista" tent to get a front-row view of the wide, flat grassland. (The premium tents are grouped a few hundred yards away.) Ours is stocked with several foam sleeping pads, folding chairs, a lockable chest and a battery-powered lantern. It is big enough for the three of us and our luggage, but there is a drawback: We share public bathrooms nearly 100 yards away. We will worry about that later.
Grace and Isabella look out over our expansive African frontyard and try to name each animal.
"Is that a caribou?" Grace asks.
"I think I see a buffalo," Isabella says.
I nod and pretend to know the difference until I spot a park educator and get a rundown on the savanna residents. (No caribou but lots of wildebeests and cape buffaloes.)
The program starts with a simple dinner of hot dogs, hamburgers and chicken at a group of picnic tables on Kilima Point, a raised shelf of earth overlooking the savanna. We join about 150 others, half of whom are children younger than 12. Most of us are from Southern California, parents with kids still young enough to enjoy spending time with Mom and Dad.
As we finish eating, eight graceful giraffes, including two baby giraffes, gather at the edge of the overlook to eat leafy branches that park workers have tied to two telephone poles. The kids crowd around to watch. "Look at the babies!" someone shouts.
By now, we overnighters are the only visitors in the park. After dinner, the park workers divide us into groups. Our group heads to a small stadium nearby, where a park educator gives us a show-and-tell with a blue-tongued skink (a lizard from Australia), a tawny frogmouth (an Australian bird that resembles an owl) and a springhaas (an African rodent that looks like a cross between a mouse and a kangaroo).
The presentation has an elementary-school feel to it, but even the adults look fascinated and ask pertinent questions.
"How can we tell if the springhaas is part of the rodent, kangaroo or rabbit family?" the educator asks.
Most of us are stumped by the question, but Grace shoots up a hand.
"You compare the characteristics they have in common with the other animals," she offers. She is right, and we learn that the springhaas is a member of the rodent family.
At the end of the presentation, the kids reach over one another to pet the furry critter. They giggle and point when it rolls on the ground like a dog.
After a tour of the cages where the lions sleep, we return to Kilima Point, where we arrange our folding chairs around a huge blaze crackling in a fire pit. We fill up our complimentary commuter mugs with cider, hot chocolate and coffee from dispensers nearby. Park workers offer us a tray of s'mores, the melted chocolate dripping off the graham cracker. Kids and adults alike munch on the gooey treats in the glow of the fire.
It's almost pitch dark when another park educator, a young woman named Deanna, gives us a presentation on the difference between animal bones, tusks and horns.
In the distance, we hear squawking, crowing and roaring, although we can't distinguish which noises are coming from which animal. Deanna passes around animal skulls, a rhino horn, muledeer antlers and elephant tusks for the kids to examine.
Grace, licking her chocolate-covered fingers, raises a hand. "Can we have more than one s'more?" she asks, drawing laughter from the fireside audience.
Just after 10 p.m., we are given a choice between going back to our tents for the night or visiting the village area, where most of the smaller animals are kept. Isabella and Grace, crashing from a hot-chocolate-and-s'mores sugar rush, decide to call it a night. Back at our tent, we hear the sounds of other visitors setting up folding chairs on the bluff's edge, watching the animals graze and sleep in the man-made savanna by the silver light of a three-quarters moon.
On the drive to the park, I warned the girls that the nighttime animal noises might be frightening but not to worry. In the tent, the girls fall asleep quickly, but rest comes harder for me as I listen to that as-yet-unidentified piercing squawk, the roar of the lions and the snorer in the next tent.
Meet the gorillasAT 6 a.m., we awaken to the sound of a park worker announcing that breakfast will be ready in an hour. In the grassland outside the tent, the giraffes, wildebeests and impalas sit in packs, enjoying the cool morning air.
The lion exhibit is about 500 feet from the savanna enclosure, close enough so the lions can smell the creatures they would usually hunt in the wild. By keeping the prey and their predators close, park workers say this ensures that neither loses their survival instincts. That is why the hoofed animals sit in circles, one animal keeping watch in each direction.
We hike from our tents to the picnic tables at Kilima Point for scrambled eggs, sausage and fruit. Before the park opens to the day-tripping public, a park educator leads us to the lowland-gorillas habitat.
We arrive just as a dozen gorillas are released from their indoor enclosure to eat vegetables that workers have scattered throughout their outdoor area. The head of the ape clan, a huge silverback with shoulders like a fullback, eyes us briefly, then turns his back to munch lettuce leaves and celery. It's a sign, our tour guide says, that he is not happy with the human gawkers watching him eat.
On our way back to the campgrounds, we stop by a tall wooden structure enclosed by metal fencing. Inside, a family of Gabriella's Crested Gibbons swings effortlessly from the fencing like circus acrobats. When a few of the gibbons get into a tussle, they begin to squawk.
I recognize that bird-like cry. That's what kept me awake the previous night.
As we head for the exits, I ask the girls what they liked best about the visit. Not surprisingly, Grace chooses the campfire and the s'mores.
Says a giddy Isabella, "They should call this the happiest place on Earth."
Not if you're a light sleeper.
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