The Best Zoos for Kids

When Parents set out to find the top zoos in the country, we identified 50 where kids can pet and often feed the wildlife. Then we narrowed it down to these leaders of the pack that your little tyke will love.

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Photo Courtesy of Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo

Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo

It's unbelievable how close kids can get to the animals here. In Wallaroo Station, the zoo's four-and-a-half-acre Australian-themed children's area, kids can brush a goat's fur, and walk down a path as kangaroos and yellow-footed wallabies hop in front of them. In Lowry's expanded Safari Africa exhibit, your family can climb up on a platform to offer one of the giraffes a snack. Kids squeal in delight when the giraffe sticks out its 18-inch-long tongue to snatch a cracker. Other cool animals that your children can feed: stingrays and lorikeets. Families along with a zoo keeper can also go into the habitat of an Aldabra tortoise.
Since Lowry Park was the first zoo in the country with an accredited preschool, the staff is especially comfortable fielding questions from families. When your little kids need a break from the animal action, head to the kiddie coaster. And if you need to relax or nurse, there's even a "mommy stop," a shaded area with benches and child-size picnic tables.

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Image Courtsey of the Brookfield Zoo

Brookfield Zoo, Illinois

The Hamill Family Play Zoo is the most awesome exhibit for kids. Inside a hollowed-out tree, kids can dress up in animal and zookeeper costumes, make an art project, get their face painted, and even touch a variety of animals. On weekends in the summer at the Chicago-area park, they can release ladybugs in the nearby children's garden or help harvest some of the crops. "We'll parade across the zoo with kids carrying the corn to the bison exhibit or the herbs to the area where monkeys live," says Stuart Strahl, Ph.D., Brookfield's director. "We try to make it as informal as possible. Kids need unstructured playtime."
As your family walks around, chances are you'll stumble across a "zoo chat" -- there are about 300 of them a week -- in which keepers answer questions about the different species and animal habitats. It's practically impossible to do everything in a day, but try not to miss Dolphins in Action and the new Hamill Family Wild Encounters, where kids can touch and groom goats and get up-close to wallabies and parakeets, take a spin on one of the country's largest hand-carved wooden carousels, and see the Mexican gray wolves at Regenstein Wolf Woods.

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Copyright Saint Louis Zoo

St. Louis Zoo

Penguins are the big draw here: At the entrance to Penguin & Puffin Coast, your family will see the Humboldt penguins in a setting designed to resemble the shoreline of Peru, complete with a 22-foot waterfall. Then you walk inside a chilly cove and watch three other species (the zoo has 91 penguins in all) as they swim or congregate above the water. Nearby is the recently opened 40,000-square-foot McDonnell Polar Bear Point, which brings visitors nose-to-nose with a lively swimming polar bear. "Even toddlers in strollers get a great view," says Louise Bradshaw, education director.
The playground is also ingenious. At the Emerson Children’s Zoo, kids can go down a clear tube slide that crosses through the river-otter exhibit, giving them a nose-to-nose view. The Children’s Zoo is also home to the Tasmanian Devil Den, a new habitat for endangered Tasmanian devil sisters who came from Australia. A sea-lion show, insectarium, and train tour are also big hits with kids under 8.

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Image Courtsey of the Pittsburgh Zoo

Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium

Kick off your day in the fun-filled Kids Kingdom. Follow the sea lions at the underwater window as they show off their athleticism, take the trail through the deer yard and then meet our playful river otters and industrious beavers.  Be sure to stop and test your skills at the new jungle playground. The fun continues at PPG Aquarium where you can touch a stingray and see the sharks in their two story tank. At Water’s Edge, walk through the tunnel with a polar bear swimming above.  Take a trip to the Islands and get up close to Philippine crocodiles, Visayan warty pigs, and clouded leopards.

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Image Courtsey of the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

The entire zoo was designed with kids in mind. Near the entrance is Indiana Family Farm, where children can peek into the chicken coop and feed the goats. The 20-foot-high tree house in the Indonesian Rain Forest has an entrance that only small kids can fit through. Over in the newly renovated Australian Adventure area, children can hop alongside Eastern grey kangaroos in the Kangaroo Yard, splash around in Outback Springs play stream, and even touch a stingray.
The African Journey lets explorers ride the Sky Safari, feed the giraffes, and discover a variety of animals on the veldt in the Zebra Research Station. There are at least four "creature features" daily, when keepers talk about the animals they care for. Healthy children's meals and low-cost wagon and stroller rentals make your outing even easier.

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Image Courtsey of the San Antonio Zoo

San Antonio Zoo & Aquarium

The San Antonio Zoo has the first children's zoo especially created for the 5-and-under set. Young explorers get their own entrance to Kronkosky's Tiny Tot Nature Spot, stone lily pads to hop on. From there, the only problem is what to do first: Make a meal in the outdoor mud kitchen? Look for animal tracks? Get face-to-fin with giant fish in Tropical Waters? Stop what you're doing around 2 p.m., when the flamingos are fed shrimp -- the snack that makes the birds pink.

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Photo by Nikki Nastold

Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

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Image Courtesy the San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo

Chances are your kid’s favorite animal is here: The San Diego Zoo boasts the largest variety of animals and plants of any U.S. zoo. To see as much as possible without wearing the kids out, hop on the Skyfari aerial tram or half-hour bus tour, and then linger at a few of the unique exhibits, such as the ones with giant pandas and the elephants. Only three other American zoos (in Atlanta, Memphis, and Washington, D.C.) have black-and-white pandas, and thanks to a platform, your kids can get what's arguably the best look at them in San Diego.
In the Harry & Grace Steele Elephant Odyssey exhibit, families can watch six of these African animals get cared for -- from pedicures to weigh-ins. Kids can also watch the animals play in the mud. Don't leave without stopping by the children's zoo. Out of the 200 animals, about 45 -- including meerkats and wombats -- have received special training so staff can take them out to meet the kids. An African exhibit with penguins is set to open in 2017.

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Image Courtesy of the Houston Zoo

Houston Zoo

The nearly 100-year-old zoo is in the early stages of a complete revitalization. Since 2015, with the opening of the Gorillas of the African Forest, families are able to get face-to-face with eight western lowland gorillas. Gerenuks, elephants, and eagles are also among the 800 species represented in this urban zoo. A petting zoo, live shows, and a Bug House are also part of the fun. 

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Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS

10. Bronx Zoo, New York City

The children's zoo is a blast. Kids learn about the motions and defenses of animals by pretending to be one. They can sit inside a heron's nest, try to jump as far as a frog does, pop out of a prairie-dog burrow, climb into a turtle shell, or crawl through an otter log.
Another must-see: Congo Gorilla Forest where your family can get an up-close look at 20 of these animals, babies included. Also catch the Madagascar! exhibit (especially if your family loved the lemurs in the DreamWorks movie); take a 20-minute monorail ride around Wild Asia to see tigers, elephants, and rhinos; and stop by the reptile house to visit the 100-year-old snapping turtle.

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Image Courtesy of the Memphis Zoo

And the Runners-Up...

We're almost as wild about these 15 zoos as we are about the winners.

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Photo by Cathy Burkey Image Courtesy of the Dallas Zoo

Dallas Zoo

Kids can feed mealworms to almost two dozen species of birds -- including doves, cuckoos, and parrots -- at the children's zoo.

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Image Courtesy of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore

The Maryland Zoo, Baltimore

Kids love Penguin Coast, where they can get up close to over 70 African penguins all around the exhibit as well as watch them swim by the underwater viewing window.

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Image Courtsey of the Toledo Zoo

Toledo Zoo

Visit exhibits such as Nature's Neighborhood, the award-winning children's zoo, which encourages kids to explore with unique features like a treehouse, stream,  and super-fun honeybee exhibit.

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Photo Courtesy of Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens

The Jacksonville Zoo

In the ultra-fun Forest Play Area, kids can look for animal footprints and swing on vines like a monkey.

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Image Courtesy of the Memphis Zoo

Memphis Zoo

Kids love the sea lions show and the tank that lets them see polar bears underwater.

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Photo by Susan Ashby. Courtesy of the Indianapolis Zoo

Indianapolis Zoo

Of course you'll catch the dolphin show -- but don't forget to see the walruses in the underwater viewing tank.

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Image Courtesy of Zoo Atlanta

Zoo Atlanta

After your kids check out the petting zoo, head over to the panda exhibit.

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Image Courtsey of the Sedgwick County Zoo

Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, Kansas

In a big red barn, kids can see cows being milked and may get a glimpse of eggs that are hatching.

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Image Courtesy of the Smithsonian's National Zoo

Smithsonian National Zoological Park Zoo, Washington, D.C.

At the Caring Corral, kids can help groom donkeys and goats while zoo staff tell them how to give animals a little TLC.

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Image Courtsey of the Oklahoma City Zoo & Botanical Garden

The Oklahoma City Zoo, Oklahoma City

The Great EscApe exhibit -- with its fallen trees, waterfalls, and pools -- will make your family feel as if you're in the rain forest.

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Photo by Emily Thomas

Phoenix Zoo

Its children's area has goats to brush, plus a rock-filled cavern and a water grotto to explore.

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Photo by Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel

Philadelphia Zoo

In its award-winning Big Cat Falls exhibit, families can watch a white lion through floor-to-ceiling windows -- then head to their nearby "research station" filled with computer games and fun activities.

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Photo by Ron Magill Image Courtesy of the Miami Metro Zoo

Miami Metrozoo

The children's zoo is packed with unusual animals like a blue-tongued skink (a type of lizard) and a kinkajou (a relative of the raccoon) plus usual faves like sheep and pigs.

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Courtesy of the Los Angeles Zoo

Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens

Kids can explore a realistic cave, pet a goat, and burn off some steam in an animal-themed playground.

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Photo by Joe Sartore/joelsartore.com

Lincoln Children's Zoo, Nebraska

Kids can ride a miniature train through a wooden tunnel, feed a camel, and pretend to be a baby chick.

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Photo Courtesy of Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo

Stick Your Neck Out

Your family can feed giraffes at any of these zoos:

Binder Park Zoo, Battle Creek, Michigan
Brevard Zoo, Melbourne, Florida
Buffalo Zoo
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Colorado Springs
Cincinnati Children's Zoo & Botanical Garden
Dallas Zoo
Dickerson Park Zoo, Springfield, Missouri
Evansville Mesker Park Zoo
Fort Wayne Children's Zoo
Houston Zoo
Indianapolis Zoo
Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Florida
Lincoln Children's Zoo, Nebraska
Maryland Zoo, Baltimore
Miami Metrozoo
Oklahoma City Zoo
Phoenix Zoo
San Antonio Zoo & Aquarium
San Diego Zoo
Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, Kansas
Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo
Toledo Zoo
Wildlife Safari, Winston, Oregon
Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle
Zoo Atlanta

Copyright © 2009 Meredith Corporation. Zoo descriptions updated in August 2016.

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