So, here's the plan if you have preschoolers or younger kids and you want to get the most of the zoo for this age group.
We always try to arrive at the zoo by 9:00am to enjoy the time in the zoo that is the least crowded and most active for the animals. After buying your tickets, you pass through the entry plaza where you can rent strollers and treat you children to a ride on the Endangered Animals Carousel. Although, if you are like me, you will power your stroller through this area as fast as possible because:
1) you can avoid the hassle of unloading everyone
2) you don't want to pay more money to buy tickets to the carousel
3) you want to avoid the inevitable power struggle involved in getting off the carousel and back into the stroller
4) you want to get to the good stuff
Our first stop is the Lacerte Family Children's Zoo.
The Playground and Stream
An animal home themed playground surrounds a babbling stream in the center of the children's zoo. You need to have a game plan for you and your kids when you enter the playground area. If you are lucky, your kids will politely step around the stream and enjoy the slides, ropes, and tunnels. Most likely, you have kids like mine and they will want to get wet. Ideally, you will plan for the water and can even bring swimwear and swim shoes so that your kids can change and enjoy the stream. Older kids can just take off their shoes and wade in the water. Be aware that babies are not allowed in the water with regular diapers, so you will need to bring a swim diaper or spend your time futilely keeping them from sitting in the stream. Bottom line: most kids will want to wade and planning ahead can keep you from dragging around a kid with wet tennis shoes and soggy blue jeans.
'Travis and Zach's Birds Landing
My kids love to feed the birds, which I find somewhat ironic because I find birds to be fairly useless creatures. Food sticks are available at the counter for $1.00 each. One food stick is more than enough to experience the bird feeding process. Once inside, zoo personnel will guide you and your children in feeding the birds. You should know that the birds are not shy and will land on any part of you, and will even dig in your bag if they think they can find food. The birds are always delighted to see me because my bag is a veritable smorgasbord of leftover kiddie snacks. Kids who may be scared of animals will want to skip this exhibit. My big kids like to wear hoodies for the bird house because they love to let the birds land on their heads, but they don't like the feeling of the claws in their hair. Zoo personnel are fairly militant about protecting the birds, so they do not allow running around or shooing the birds.
Here you can see horses, pigs, barn owls, freaky giant rabbits, and almost every other kind of farm animal. Animals do bite, so watch out for little fingers. A petting yard for pygmy goats is available, and I always allow my kids to go in even though the whole experience makes me crabby. There are just too many little pellets on the ground to pick up and eat. Ick!
The Pony Trek is our last stop in the farm yard. Tickets to ride the ponies are available at the bird feeding area, so we usually buy both tickets at the same time. Riders must be at least one year old and less than 80 pounds. Pony rides are available from 10-12 and 1-3. Ponies take a union break on Tuesdays, so there are no pony rides available on that day.
The UnderZone and Discovery House
The best part of the Underzone and Discovery House is that it is inside and air conditioned. AHHHHH! After touring the farm, either of these stops is a good place to cool off. The Underzone has a colony of naked mole rats that are fascinatingly ugly and delightful to watch. Tunnels in the underzone allow kids to crawl into the dwarf mongoose habitat and watch them through a clear bubble. My big kids seem to love the tunnels, but my littlest is a more hesitant. He usually makes it about half way through before he starts screaming and I have to crawl in and rescue him.
Discovery House is a quaint little cottage built around a huge old oak tree. Kids can make crafts and play games that are perfectly suited to little hands and minds. Most days, animal encounters with small animals are guided by zoo personnel, as well. Animal encounters are on a schedule, so if you want to meet some of the animals, stop in and find out the schedule before you explore the Children's Zoo.
Whew! That seems like a full day, but it only takes about an hour to enjoy all of the Children's Zoo with a preschooler or toddler. By 10:00 am, we are ready to tackle the North loop of the zoo. I like to walk past the flamingos and begin the loop to the left. Immediately to the left you will see the Bug House, which can be skipped unless you have a bug lover in your stroller posse. Strollers must be left outside the door. The building is quite small, so if it seems crowded, try a bit later.
We continue to follow the loop to the left which winds around and highlights a variety of animals. Keep a lookout for the rhinos, large cats and camels. Be prepared for an excellent calf workout, as this part of the zoo is very hilly. About halfway around the loop, you will find the reptile house, which is again, quite cool and a good place to relax for a few minutes and see the albino crocodile.
After the reptile house, it’s all downhill (thankfully) to the Zoofari Food Court and it will be just about time for an early lunch. We like to bring a picnic and eat out on the deck overlooking the bird enclosure, but eating inside is also an option
Giants of Africa
Feeling refreshed from lunch, we head for the new Giants of Africa exhibit. Bribe your kids with a lollipop and load up the stroller because it is quite a hike from one side of the zoo to the other. As you cross the bridge, you will find a bathroom in the walkway if you need to make a quick stop before continuing.
You can wave hello to the lemurs and penguins on your way, but the real attraction is the bronze elephant statues just outside the Giants of Africa. No matter how much I encourage the boys to come and see the real animals, they just love to stop and swing and climb on the giant elephant tusks. Truthfully, it makes a great photo op, so I enjoy the stop as much as they do.
The Giants of Africa exhibit is a truly great exhibit that showcases the animals of the savanna in a natural habitat that resembles an African outpost. The paths take an easy loop around the exhibits and offer lots of up close animal encounters. The highlight of the exhibit is the giraffe feeding area, where you can pay $1 for a leaf to offer to the giraffe. The giraffes are gentle, but eager eaters, so it can be a fun activity for little people.
Don't miss the lion and cheetah exhibit where huge plate glass windows get you up close and personal to the great beasts. On the day of our visit, trainers informed us that the lions often jump up on the glass to greet visitors. Judging from the huge paw prints on the window, I can imagine this encounter could be almost too realistic for comfort.
Wilds of Africa and Monorail
The Wilds of Africa is the final section of the zoo, but it is not really well suited for little visitors. The paths are long and the animals are far apart. At this point in the day, we are nearing naptime meltdown, so we usually skip the Wilds of Africa. If you do have some energy left and want to see some of the exhibits, check out the monorail. Tickets can be purchased at the entrance to the monorail. The ride takes about 30 minutes and is a great way to end the day. By this point you will be happy to get off your feet and preschoolers are delighted to combine the fun of a train with the excitement of finding the animals.
If you stuck with it all the way to the end, it is probably about 1:00, which is the perfect time to head home for a nap. If I'm feeling generous (don't worry, I talk tough, but I am huge softy) we hit the carousel on the way out and call it a day. Directly outside the zoo, I drive through the zoo themed Mc Donalds and buy myself a big ol' Coca Cola to savor on the way home. After all the calories burned climbing those hills and conquering the zoo with a preschooler or two, I figure I've earned it.