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Roars and snores on sleepover safari

Zoo overnight camps let you wake up to the call of the wild, without having to go to Africa.

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The first rays of the morning sun glance off the top of our khaki tent, delivering that inimitable message of safari country: Expect withering heat. There is no morning quiet. A lusty, disorderly array of birdcalls speckle the aural landscape. Trilling cacaws, sawing hoots – it's as if their songs had been written by Mozart … or Philip Glass.

Suddenly one sound eclipses others – the roar of a lion. I nudge my 12-year-old, Matthew, in the sleeping bag next to me. This is what we've come for. How often in our lives are we going to hear a lion roar before breakfast?

Actually, it could be several times a year if we wanted, because we're just outside San Diego. Here, you'll find a great American tradition – the sleepover – in the setting of a remarkable Western institution – the zoo. We're part of a group of 45 who've come for "Roar and Snore," an overnight mingling with the menagerie of the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park. The idea is simple – spend a night among the park's unique beasts, with the promise of secret knowledge that could never be had during the day. By its nature, the program targets families.

Sleepovers at zoos, aquariums, and museums have sprung up all over in recent years. The Wild Animal Park's sleepover program began in 1994 and is one of the oldest in the nation, says operations manager Laura Choukri. It runs year-round, except in January. Weather canceled the sleepover just once, as did recent wildfires which caused damage from the blaze and closed operations for a week.

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Matthew and I arrive a couple of hours after the 4 p.m. start time. But our timing is perfect. We're heading in while day-visitors are filing out; going against the flow right away gives us a heady sense of being card-carrying members of the after-hours cognoscenti.

The program begins with the standard rite of an overnight stay – check-in. But the ordinary ends there. First, we're assigned a tent. An extra $30 – on top of the basic $129 per adult and $109 per child – has secured us a tent with a view. Perched on a small bluff by Kalima Point, it affords a splendid vista of gentle hills, where two giraffes tuck in to a leafy dinner, rhinos loaf nearby, and half a dozen gazelles stake out their position on a far slope.

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