9. Fort Wayne Children's Zoo, IN
SIZE: 1,500 animals on 38 acres
- Showcases the only Tasmanian devil outside of Australia and features an Australian Welcome Center, where kids can try on swagman's (the Down Under version of a cowboy) clothes and climb into a giant kangaroo's pouch
- Built the first Endangered Species Carousel with animals like tapirs (relatives of horses) from the Indonesian rainforest and southeast Asia
- Was the first North American zoo to breed rare black storks; after a 15-year effort, Chocolat was hatched in 2001
- Has family-friendly amenities such as graded walkways and a drinking fountain shaped like a lion's head
One of a handful of zoos designed for kids, the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo lives up to its mission of "not letting youngsters just see things, but do things." Although it's one of the smallest zoos in our survey (a trek from the front gate to the outermost walkable point takes about 15 minutes), it's packed with activities.
Two of the zoo's best experiences: driving a zebra jeep through the 22-acre "African Veldt" exhibit where kids will spot giraffes, ostriches, storks, and wildebeests, and visiting Dr. Diversity's Rainforest Research Station. There, kids can touch an elephant skeleton, use a short-wave radio to tune in to broadcasts from the jungle, dress up in boots and pith helmet, and climb in to the doctor's hammock. Other cool features include listening to a frog tell riddles, pumping water from a well at the "Indiana Family Farm" exhibit, and taking a pony ride.
The zoo delivers the same excitement in its educational programs, which reached more than 100,000 students last year. Many of the sessions take place within the buildings that house the animal exhibits (one, for instance, allows kids to dig in the dirt for millipedes; there's even a sleepover on the floor of the viewing area below the snake tanks), but when a classroom is required, the zoo has an amazing one: Jungle Lab, made to look like a large tent with tables, chairs, and small animals inside a circular room.
Contact information: 260-427-6800; www.kidszoo.org