Zoos have certainly evolved over the years. Today, instead of viewing listless creatures in cages, you’ll see wild animals prowling open-air settings that resemble their natural habitats, separated from visitors by moats or other creative barriers. Many zoos are at the forefront of animal conservation, saving species from extinction. These family zoos meet the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ standards for animal care and enrichment, and provide a quality experience for families who visit.
Written by Sharon McDonnell
St. Louis Zoo - St. Louis
Other standouts include Bear Bluffs, featuring grizzly and sloth bears, the Primate House, and Big Cat Country.
Recommended Hotel: Homewood Suites St. Louis Chesterfield
Bronx Zoo - Bronx, N.Y.
In the children's zoo (late spring through October), kids can climb into animal homes, such as turtle shells and prairie dog burrows. They can also feed llamas, sheep and goats. On the Bug Carousel, ride a praying mantis or a dung beetle chariot. One- or two-week day camps for children ages 4 to 12 and sleepovers for kids age 5 and up are also offered.
Recommended Hotel: Hotel Giraffe
Philadelphia Zoo - Philadelphia
Philly's children's zoo and family education center, KidZooU, teaches conservation and allows kids to meet, feed and groom sheep, goats, ducks, butterflies and a baby miniature horse, while learning what it means to be eco-friendly. Saving water helps protect migrating animals, saving energy helps fish, and recycling helps budgies. Its very design is a lesson in conservation; it is LEED-certified with a "green" roof and geothermal heating and cooling. Kids can groom and feed rare sheep, goats and a miniature horse, and coo at animal babies in the nursery. KidZooU's summer camp's week-long programs have different spy-like "missions," where kids gather information, conduct science experiments, and meet challenges to reach eco-friendly goals.
The Treehouse, located in a whimsically designed indoor space, beckons children to climb through it, as does a giant honeycomb.
Recommended Hotel: The Logan
Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium - Omaha, Nebraska
Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium also features a Madagascar exhibit, with adorable lemurs and [less adorable] giant jumping rats. It also features the world's biggest nocturnal animal exhibit, Kingdom's of the Night, inhabited by bats and giant salamanders. Orangutans and gorillas prowl open-air habitats, while the 14,000-square-foot Butterfly & Insect Pavilion is a-flutter with 20 to 30 butterfly species. Classes for kids, day camps, sleepovers and clubs that focus on one animal a week are available, too.
Recommended Hotel: Holiday Inn Omaha Downtown/Airport
Cincinnati Zoo & Botanic Garden - Cincinnati
In its children's zoo nursery, kids can see baby llamas, alpacas, wallabies and other infants -- some in diapers -- and gently brush baby sheep and pygmy goats. "Stroller safaris" -- guided tours plus animal demonstrations for toddlers -- are part of a rich education program for kids, featuring themed classes, Family Night Hikes, sleepovers, day camps and even a four-year college preparatory program, Zoo Academy. Visitors will also love feeding the giraffes from a platform, and seeing the lovely botanic garden, which explodes with 80,000 tulips in the spring.
Recommended Hotel: Renaissance Cincinnati Downtown Hotel
Memphis Zoo - Memphis, Tenn.
Some of the zoo's 3,500 animals from 500-plus species on 70 acres are featured in Cat Country, where you'll see lions, tigers and cougar roaming rocky outcroppings and grassy savannas. You'll also see 10 monkey species in the open-air, five-acre Primate Canyon, and three Komodo dragons -- the world's largest lizard -- in Dragon's Lair. Fun fact: The MGM lion's roar was recorded at the Memphis Zoo.
Recommended Hotel: The Westin Memphis Beale Street
Brookfield Zoo - Brookfield, Ill.
Despite a small(ish) number of animals (a little more than 2,000), the variety ranges from snow leopards, tigers and lions in the Big Cats exhibit, to kangaroos, emus and wombats in Australia House, as well as performing dolphins. Sleepovers, week-long day camps, animal-themed crafts, games and songs, "zoo chats," specialized tours with keepers, and "critter carts" (where staff members take animals around the zoo to meet visitors), are part of a rich education program. Recommended Hotel: Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel
San Diego Zoo - San Diego
Weekend talks and animal encounters with, say, Galapagos tortoises or Sichuan takins, are geared toward kids and toddlers. At the 2,200-acre Safari Park, you can watch herds of zebras, rhinos, gazelles and ostriches, see lions and gorillas, pet gentle antelopes and deer, and learn at the Discovery Station. A choice of safari adventures features behind-the-scenes cart tours, ropes courses and zip lines, and summer camps for kids up to age 17.
Recommended Hotel: Omni San Diego Hotel
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium - Powell, Ohio
An added bonus: Zoombezi Bay, a 22-acre outdoor water park, has an entrance at the Columbus Zoo, and features 17 slides, an 18,000-square-foot pool, wave pool and kiddie pool sporting marine animal-shaped play structures for summer fun.
Recommended Hotel: Drury Inn & Suites Columbus Northwest
Smithsonian's National Zoo - Washington, D.C.
Almost one-fourth of the zoo's 2,000 animals from 400 species are endangered, including the Asian elephants in the 29,000-square-foot, mostly outdoor Elephant Trails exhibit. Also endangered are the gorillas and white-naped cranes.
There are daily zookeeper talks and feeding demonstrations, plus classes for children up to age 14 on topics including how fur, feathers and scales protect animals, and what animals like to eat.
Recommended Hotel: Omni Shoreham Hotel