Planning a family vacation with younger children isn’t for the faint of heart. Be it an excursion to a brand-new city or a trip to visit family, children can quickly become overwhelmed. As we all know, an overwhelmed child is an unhappy child.
When my children were little, I always tried to make sure to schedule an afternoon at the local zoo somewhere on the itinerary of any trip we took. We were enthusiastic members of the Fort Worth Zoo (still are!), and I discovered quite by accident that spending time at a zoo acted almost as a “reset.” Maybe there was a sense of the familiar in the act of visiting a zoo. Maybe it was the delight and wonder that the animal kingdom always invokes in children. Whatever the reason, a trip to the zoo always made a family vacation better.
Fortunately, there are incredible zoos across the United States. I asked David Geurkink, a former zookeeper with the San Antonio Zoo and Fossil Rim Wildlife Center (and, in the interest of transparency, my husband) what he considers to be some of the best family-friendly zoos in the U.S.
“First of all, I would suggest going onto the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ website (aza.org) to search AZA zoos in the city you’re visiting,” said David. “These zoos are held to higher standards of animal care than are required by law. They focus on conservation and education, as well as recreation. An AZA-accredited zoo is dedicated to ensuring future generations will be able to know and love the animals in its care.”
One zoo my children particularly loved visiting is the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Located in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood of Seattle, the zoo began as a small menagerie owned by local real estate developer Guy C. Phinney and pioneered the landscape immersion style of zoos, meaning buildings and barriers are hidden from the public. This urban zoo is small enough to walk in a morning or afternoon, even with a toddler on your shoulders, and provides plenty of both education and entertainment. We always ended the day with a ride on the classic carousel, which was retrofitted to run on solar energy.
Another zoo we loved visiting is Riverbanks Zoo & Gardens in Columbia, South Carolina. Built on the banks of the Saluda River, Riverbanks is a large zoo, and there is enough to see and do to fill an entire day. My children particularly enjoyed watching the otters swim and show off! In 2016, Waterfall Junction opened; similar to Safari Splash here in Fort Worth, this area has a waterfall, splash zones, giant treehouses, and more. It’s a great way to end your trip to Riverbanks.
Much like Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, The Wilds, located in Cumberland, Ohio, is a safari park and conservation center that offers drive-through zoo tours. “The beauty of a safari park is that it allows visitors to enter the animals’ world, instead of the other way around,” according to David. The Wilds occupies over 9,000 acres of reclaimed coal mining land and is a partner of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium (another amazing zoo to visit). The Wilds offers, in addition to drive-through tours, a zipline, camping and fishing, mountain bike trails, and more. (Please note, all tours are conducted in the zoo’s vehicles; personal vehicles are not allowed.)
A little closer to home, the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden is seven years older than the Fort Worth Zoo. Located in Oklahoma City’s Adventure District next to Science Museum Oklahoma, plan a trip that includes both attractions. (Native Oklahoman David suggests visiting the zoo in the morning and exploring the Museum in the afternoon.) The Zoo offers “Wild Encounters,” which allow private groups to go behind the scenes with zookeepers to get up close and personal with bears, rhinos, sea lions, bison, and more. (Please note, strollers are not allowed behind the scenes, and crying children may be asked to step away for safety reasons.)
It is worth noting that many AZA-accredited zoos offer a reciprocal zoo membership rate. If you are a member of the Fort Worth Zoo, you get a 50% discount on admission to over 100 zoos and aquariums across the U.S., including all the zoos mentioned here.
Traveling with your children is hard. It just is. Most children are wary of the unfamiliar, so adding a zoo trip into your itinerary is a great way to make the unfamiliar seem more like home.