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10 Best Zoos for Kids

See recent posts by Sharon McDonnell

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

At St. Louis Zoo's Penguin and Puffin Coast, four penguin species and seabirds strut a shoreline of rocky cliffs and icy water amid sea barking sea lions and sea gull cries. In its kids zoo, children enjoy close encounters with fennec foxes (whose huge ears make them look like cartoon characters) and tree-dwelling kangaroos, native to Papua New Guinea. They can also slide through a transparent tube into a river otter exhibit and check out the new Tasmanian Devil Den. Kids can also mimick the way animals move by climbing and digging, measure their height against gorillas and llamas, and pretend to drive a jeep across a savanna.

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.

The Bronx Zoo, which is the biggest metropolitan zoo in America, features the Congo Gorilla Forest, where almost 20 of the world's biggest primates (along with some of the tiniest) live. You'll see five-inch pygmy marmosets that weigh half a pound, and okapis, which sport zebra-striped hindquarters -- all from treetop lookouts in this replica of an African rainforest. Ride the Wild Asia monorail (May through October) to view elephants, rhinos, red pandas (who are two feet high and look like raccoons) and herds of antelope, deer and wild cattle who roam 40 acres of forest, pasture and river banks. In the Madagascar exhibit, see lemurs, mongooses and crocodiles amid odd-looking baobab and octopus trees.

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

The nation's first zoo, which opened in 1874, is also the first to introduce Zoo360 animal exploration trails, which allow animals to roam around the zoo and enjoy more variety and choices. The Treetop Trail, which first debuted in 2011, is made of high steel mesh pathways and serves as a lookout for lemurs and monkeys. The Great Ape Trail, where orangutans can roam treetops, came next in 2012. More than 100 bird species fly over four distinct open-air habitats in the McNeil Avian Center, and include rare breeds, such as large blue Victoria crowned pigeons, pure white Bali mynahs and rainbow-colored Violaceous Turacos.

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

It's surprising to find the world's largest indoor desert under a 13-story geodesic dome in Omaha, Neb., alive with meerkats, cobras, peccaries and other heat-lovers in replicas of three deserts in Africa, Australia and the southwest U.S. You'll find a similar replica of the tropical rainforests of South America and Asia's Lied Jungle, where monkeys swing, macaws fly, and pygmy hippos and tapirs roam amid waterfalls and rope bridges.

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

The nation's second oldest zoo, opened in 1875, is often ranked one of the best zoos for kids. Gorilla World explores endangered gorilla and allows families to explore an African Jungle at the outdoor exhibit. An indoor expansion of Gorilla World will have families visiting the primates year round too. The Rhino and Elephant reserves are great outdoor exhibits that offer families the opportunity to see the Indian Rhinoceros and Asian Elephant.

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.

One of four U.S. family zoos to have giant pandas, the Memphis Zoo places them in a three-acre exhibit about China. The exhibit also showcases authentic and beautiful Chinese architecture, like a 50-foot pagoda, flowers native to China and other Chinese fauna. Polar bears and sea lions can be viewed underwater, thanks to giant tanks, and sea lions perform in a 500-seat amphitheater in the Northwest Passage exhibit.

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.

The Brookfield Zoo takes your typical petting zoo up a major notch. Toddlers and kids up to age 10 can play with more than 300 animals, from cute lemurs to barred tiger salamanders, in its Hamill Family Play Zoo. They can also view animal X-rays, build animal homes and don animal costumes. In Great Bear Wilderness, grizzly bears, polar bears, bison and gray wolves prowl. In Tropic World, one of the world's biggest indoor animal exhibits, gorillas, spider monkeys, mandrills and anteaters roam, while fragrant gardenias, orchids and waterfall cascades heighten the sensory appeal.

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

Widely known as one of the world's best zoos for kids, the San Diego Zoo was one of the first to develop moats and open settings for its 4,000-plus animals from more than 800 species. Highlights include Lost Forest, where gorillas, tigers, hippos and orangutans roam open meadows amid waterfalls; Elephant Odyssey, for elephants, lions, jaguars and pronghorn antelopes in marshy wetlands; Africa Rocks, showcasing Africa's diverse habitats; and Australian Outback, for koalas (the biggest koala colony outside of Australia), tree-dwelling kangaroos and wallabies.

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

America's most famous zookeeper, Jack Hanna, is the Director Emeritus at Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, where more than 10,000 animals represent more than 575 species. The family zoo is known for its gorilla breeding program, massive reptile collection and conservation efforts that support more than 70 projects worldwide. Several kid-friendly educational programs, held daily, teach animals' athletic abilities and extraordinary traits and how they adapt to various habitats. Almost 100 of the animals perform in shows.

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.

Kids will love the Great Ape House at the National Zoo where orangutans, gorillas, howler monkeys and other primates can be found hanging out. Plus, admission to this family zoo is free as it is part of the Smithsonian. Pet alpacas, donkeys and rare goats at the Kids' Farm. Show your kids how everything in a pizza originates in the ground -- from the sauce, crust and toppings to the takeout box -- in the Pizza Garden. Afterward, let them crawl over a giant rubber pizza, and through a huge olive in the Pizza Playground. Turn a carousel ride into a teaching moment on the Conservation Carousel; all 58 hand-carved animals are endangered.

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

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