The zoo. An often controversial, natural amusement park full of exotic animals that sends us – and our children- into a euphoric tizzy.
Why do we get so gaga giddy over these creature compounds? It’s pretty bizarre when you think about it.
I can’t recall ever being very interested in zoos (until recently). This is probably due to the fact that 1) zoos weren’t as exciting when I was a kid and/or 2) I wasn’t raised in a big city with one of the well-known (and well funded) zoos.
Zoos just seem more aesthetically pleasing than they used to be. Enclosures are nicer, larger. There are more opportunities for interactive, learning activities. Increased understanding of and interest in animal welfare has (thankfully) spurred the humane treatment revolution.
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When I think of the zoo as a destination, specifically while traveling somewhere new, it has never made my top 10 – or even top 5 list of “must dos.” Not even while in Singapore, home to one of the “world’s best” (although we did hit the Botanic Gardens, strangely enough).
Then, add a kid to the mix, and everything changes. Now, I’m zoo stalking all around the U.S. I even immediately started planning our return to the San Diego Zoo as soon as we left it. We loved it that much (and I couldn’t wait to get back to see the parts that we missed). Here is a post I wrote about that adventure.
And of course, we have a membership to our local Nashville zoo, which we often visit weekly when the weather is nice.
Am I alone in this?
The zoo is now one of my favorite places to be with my child!
Aside from improved environments and aesthetics, I think my own appreciation for the amazing animal kingdom has matured to a state of near child-like awe. There’s something very powerful about seeing wild African lions hunt their pray in the Serengeti, and then seeing critters from that same neighborhood up close and personal, with your daughter, and sharing that magical experience together.
It’s that whole cliche – seeing the wonder of the world through a child’s eyes.
And I Eat.It.Up.
With all the drama and stress in the world, a sense of wonderment is a very welcome breath of fresh air.
So now that we’re on a quest for fantastical and wondrous adventures, let’s talk about the Zoo in Columbus Ohio!
The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
So, what is so great about the Columbus Zoo? And is it worth traveling to as a destination per se? Is it worth a family vacation?
I say “yay.” Here’s why:
Firstly, as I wrote in this post, Columbus has many exciting options for families. The zoo is just one of those.
Secondly, as I also mentioned in that post, The Columbus Zoo is consistently rated one of the best in the country. And then there’s the curation and care from the infamous Jungle Jack Hanna.
The Columbus Zoo has some of the more unique animals on the vulnerable species list.
There are swimming polar bears…
They were literally doing back dives and swimming laps. One of the zoo employees told us that they love swimming all the time.
A polar bear exhibit is an especially – special one, considering their vastly decreasing population from environmental change. It’s also very unlikely an average person will see these in the wild, since they live in arctic regions.
It’s neat to see them – so playful – with your children. The polar bear is also a very endearing symbol in our culture (especially around Christmas time. I’m thinking of all the Coca Cola ads).
Another great thing about the Columbus Zoo:
The fun, interactive play areas….
Every kid loves a playground. The Columbus Zoo play areas are filled with water-spouting beluga whales….
And open model planes that double as a refuge for the lions. (Yes, there was a lion under the plane right there…but notice the glass enclosure on the right)
What kid wouldn’t like a life-size play airplane??
The lions didn’t come out and pose for us though.
Too bad I didn’t have a steak in my bag.
And there were plenty of fun animal statues to clamber and climb on.
Of course there’s an actual – really cool, and really big – playground jungle gym (we didn’t have time to indulge) and some smaller ones (which we did) like the Shores Play Park and Polar Playground.
Let’s not forget about the train!
The choo-choo cutely makes its way through a pint-sized “Old West” town.
If you’re looking to get moving on an animal, there are pony rides and camel rides, too! (For an extra cost)
There are plenty of “animal experiences” or shows you can catch, like animals on safari, giraffe feeding, and cheetah runs.
There are even pirates.
You can pay a little extra to get a ride – in a boat – around a moat – that meanders through pirate island – argh matey!!
The animatronics are a little outdated, a poor man’s Pirates of the Caribbean. But with the water spewing pirates and canons (you get a little wet- which is welcome on a hot day- but it may take your bum a little while to dry!) and behind the scenes views of some of the animal enclosures, it’s well worth it.
And after being on your feet all day, a little boat ride through the jungle is a welcome break.
Another unique component to the Columbus zoo is it’s aquarium
Columbus Zoo Aquarium
Also, a great way to break up your day, the floor to ceiling fish tank offers a dark, quiet escape from the heat, with carpeted stadium seating for well-worn mamas to take a load off while the kiddos run straight up to the sharks.
My tot loved watching the manatees – those gentle giants that move around slowly like great big water cows.
I definitely foresee some manatee mascots (aka stuffed animals) in our future. These guys are just the cuddliest.
Plan your trip
It’s definitely an area of improvement for me, but I tend to fly by the seat of my pants when traveling. Flexibility can be key, and is often necessary, when caravanning with kids.
But the drawback to not being organized? You might not get to do and see as much.
I don’t really like being on some strict schedule. Neither does my daughter. I think there might be a happy medium, though?
A late arrival to the zoo and no real plans had us wandering a bit at the beginning and not really budgeting our time well. Which ran out, eventually, as time does.
We were those panicked people in the end, running around trying to see the last bits before the gates closed. Not really – but sort of.
The one thing I had my heart set on seeing, and showing my little girl, was the gorillas.
Another group of magnificent creatures that many zoos don’t have, you must seize the opportunity to see these guys if given one.
And gorillas are fascinating, are they not? So close to humans in their behaviors (98% of their DNA identical to humans), they are disappearing quickly in the wild and are a critically endangered species. The thought of our planet losing these amazing animals permanently is very depressing.
With mere minutes to spare before the zoo’s closing, I was starting to come to terms with the fact that we wouldn’t see my beloved gorillas.
Then he appeared. Magically, from behind a wall of bushy plants, our knight in shining armor named James.
He was a zoo employee, clearly on security detail, tasked with doing a final sweep to get all of the zoo patrons out. Radio clipped to his belt, he was poised and ready to escort us- the stragglers- away from the critters of Columbus’ Zoo.
But what happened next truly surprised us.
James, a loyal zoo worker, was also loyal to its customers, it seemed- and had a genuine love and pride of this place he protected, and he wanted to share that with us. He – and the others that work there, it seemed, wanted visitors to have the best, most meaningful and memorable experience.
In our final moments there, I discovered yet another reason The Columbus Zoo is one of the best in the U.S.: The staff. The all-in, dedicated, helpful, friendly, above and beyond employees that bend over backwards to make sure you love their home as much as they do. (We had many encounters throughout the day with amazing zoo staff, like the woman who kept reminding us of the free water we could get from vendors to stay hydrated).
James asked us what we were trying to see, and when we told him the gorillas, he said he would take us there, on our way out.
He brought us to their compound, stating that they probably wouldn’t be out any more, as it was time for their play with the trainers. Then, he led us inside their paddock to see the gorillas.
The Columbus Zoo Family
James started explaining how Macombo and Oliver would be here, and the other there, separated and with their respective families.
He talked about Colo, the oldest living gorilla born in captivity. She will celebrate her 60th birthday this December (2016), and it’s going to be quite a fete!
As the loving words came out of his mouth, talking about these gorillas like they were each people, good friends of his, with their own interesting stories, I kept thinking – how cool. This zoo is a family. I mean, I’m sure not every single person who works there absolutely loves their job (thinking of that mean girl at the hot dog stand), but for the most part, it was totally obvious that this was a proud and dedicated community.
So our last moments in the zoo were special. We had a behind the scenes tour – and some story telling – from James the security guy. He absolutely didn’t have to do that, but he did – because he cared. And that – alone – makes me want to go back again and again.
Thank you James!
We had an amazing time…
And at the end of the day, we were blissfully exhausted!
If you have a zoo membership in another city, there’s a good chance The Columbus Zoo is a reciprocal zoo. We saved on our admission cost – half price! Admission fees can be found here.
I would like to acknowledge the photography talents of my dear friend Ashley Colon and thank her for letting me use her images here in this post.
Check out her site and services over at Life’s Mirror Images.