9 Of The Best Family-Friendly Zoos In America

Plenty of monkey business.

by Zoe Weiner
Originally Published: 
girls in zoo with polar bear
flickr / Brian Hathcock

It’s rare to find an activity that appeals to the whole family. But zoos? Zoos get it done. A trip to see the animals is an event packed with everything from action (feeding time!) to comedy (ever see a hippo’s propellor fart?). And that isn’t even mentioning the sheer bliss of watching your kid’s favorite animal just doing their daily thing. Today, zoos are more incredible than ever, with classic displays and new exhibits fine-tuned for optimum emotional-payoff. Here are 9 of the best zoos in America you and your kids need to experience. And if your kids aren’t entertained, just take them to see the monkeys. Watching some good old fashioned poop-flinging brings families together.

Saint Louis Zoo, St. Louis, MO

The biggest draw for families at this 86-acre sanctuary is the Emerson Children’s Zoo, where kids can pet everything from insects to alpacas. Must-sees there are the Tasmanian Devil Den (no, they don’t actually whip into a tornado-like frenzy) and the otter habitat, where there’s a clear slide that runs through their watery home. In 2016, the St. Louis Zoo upped their cool factor — literally — with the addition of the 40,000-square-foot McDonnell Polar Bear Point. That’s a must-visit, as are Penguin & Puffin Coast and Jungle of the Apes. Hot tip: Head to the latter with a fully-charged iPhone and a “lowland gorilla” Google search. Some primates enjoy looking at pictures of their brethren and often sit there while you scroll through them. Just make sure “safe search” is enabled.

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Philadelphia Zoo, Philadelphia, PA

Nothing says “day of family fun!” like seeing 400-pounds of muscled jungle cat roam casually above your kids. That’s exactly what the Philly Zoo’s Zoo360 program offers. Well, sort of. Comprised of 5 different habitat trails, the zoo set up a network of mesh and metal pathways for animals to move around more freely (Don’t worry: they’re specific to each species so there’s no chance of a lion attacking a chimp). At the KidZooU family education center, the kids can feed and groom farm animals (including a mini horse). In the summer, the zoo lets your little James (or Jill) Bond embark on spy-like conservation “missions” throughout the zoo.

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Audubon Zoo, New Orleans, LA

Panya and Jean, the Audubon Zoo’s adored pair of Asian Elephants, got a new habitat in 2016. It’s part of the Asian domain, where orangutans and white tigers also hang out. You should also take a ride on the traditional Cajun houseboat. It travels down a lagoon that runs straight through the middle of the zoo. While on it, you’ll have the chance to feed alligators more than 14-feet in length. If the regular ’gators aren’t impressive enough, then head over to the meet the not-at-all-unnerving white ones. Just make sure the kids are okay with the idea beforehand. Red-eye, big-teeth-induced monsters make good nightmare fuel.

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San Diego Zoo, San Diego, CA

The 3 giant pandas steal the spotlight here. And while the deserve to be ogled, there are 3,700 other amazing sights to see at the incredibly well-curated zoo. Some musts: Take the Skyfari Tram, which swings over animal habits; head over to the Cheetah run at 3:30 so you can glimpse the fastest animal in the world go from 0 to 70 mph in 4 seconds; and try to nab a hot air balloon in safari park, which allows you to tour the entire grounds from 400 feet in the air. Daily activities like zookeeper talks, in-the-cage elephant tours, and regular feedings keep the kids entertained.

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Columbus Zoo, Columbus, OH

“Jungle:” Jack Hanna, the animal specialist famous for his Letterman appearances and early morning kids shows, is the director emeritus at the Columbus Zoo. And yeah, it’s as badass as the safari-hat wearing animal whisperer. An incredible 7,000 animals live in the 580-acre zoo, from monkeys to mountain lions, and the sprawling grounds cover 6 different global areas. Definitely take the kids over to the African forest, home to hundreds of gorillas and apes, and the Polar Frontier, where they can set out on an imaginary arctic adventure through the recreated tundra.

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Memphis Zoo, Memphis, TN

Did you know that the closest relatives to the hippo are actually whales and dolphins? You can tell the kids about this as you check out the world’s third largest mammal at the Memphis Zoo’s Zambezi River Hippo Camp. The brand-new exhibit showcases the wildlife of the African River and includes 10 other species, including Nile Crocodiles and the zebra-like Okapi. Then check out the 200 plus pound Komodos at the Dragon’s Lair. While they don’t spit fire, the world’s largest reptile can devour a goat pretty quickly. The 76-acre zoo also houses 2 giant pandas (at the china exhibit), lowland gorillas (in primate canyon) and a pretty spectacular sea lion show.

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Brookfield Zoo, Brookfield, IL

The Australia House, where you and the kids can glimpse troops of kangaroos, emus, wallabies, and other animals from down under, is rad. And the Clouded Leopard Rain Forest? That’s pretty great, too. There, you can see the titular Asian cat and tell the kids to keep their noses out for popcorn: the exhibit’s Asian bearcat smells like the snack. But the real draw here is the Hamill Family Play Zoo. There, your kids can touch pretty much everything and there are a number of great programs, including one that lets them dress up like a zookeeper and care for animals. Just make sure they bring something fun from home: during the“nature swap” kids 5 and older can trade “natural” items from outside for shells, skulls and other things in the zoo’s collection

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Lowry Park Zoo, Tampa, FL

After a day at Lowry Park Zoo, you can add “licked by giraffe” to the list of awesome things you get to share with your kids. That’s because the ultra hands-on zoo is all about visitor engagement. With supervision, you can get cuddly with a giant Aldabra tortoise, step within a few feet of a kangaroo, feed stingrays, and pet multicolored lorikeets. And yes, standing atop a platform and armed with a snack, you can feed the giraffes who’ll get to second base with your hand in their attempt to nab a nibble.

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The Bronx Zoo

Have your kids wear bright colors for a trip to the Bronx Zoo. No, not so you can spot them as you wander the 265-acre property (although it helps). But because they’ll attract more monarchs when you go to the massive butterfly garden. The largest urban zoo in the world’s snow leopards and lions are a can’t miss, as is the Madagascar exhibit. The latter was inspired by the namesake movie you definitely know by heart and features dozens of African animals and 1,000 cockroaches. The Wild Asia monorail, a guided tour through jungle exhibits, as well as the regular penguin and sea lion feedings are big draws for the kids.

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