1. Lowry Park Zoo, Tampa, FL
SIZE: 1,614 animals on 56 acres
- Boasts a 4 1/2-acre Australian-theme children's zoo, where kids can feed and pet kangaroos and wallabies, pretend they're herding sheep, and cool off in the Billabong, a water-play area with animal statues and fountains
- Has a strong commitment to safety, offering eight first-aid stations, conducting escaped animal drills twice a month (the most of our survey), and providing police security during operating hours
- Hosts a 30-minute "Spirit of the Skies" show where kids learn about how birds survive in the wild and see a bald eagle, vulture, owl, and hawk fly
- Opened the first phase of a Safari Africa exhibit highlighting giraffes, bongos, elephants, warthogs, zebras, and African ground hornbills (birds with large bills and long eyelashes) on May 28; future plans include a lodge and a train ride
The Lowry Park Zoo's exhibits and 35 educational programs are loaded with features designed to make lasting impressions. "If you tell a child about the rough texture of an alligator, he may or may not recall it. But let him touch it for himself, and he'll remember that for a lifetime," says the zoo's CEO, Lex Salisbury.
At Lowry, kids take a ride on a camel caravan, pet fish in the koi pond, and have lorikeets land on their fingers when they hold a cup of nectar. Educational programs for school trips and families teach preschoolers about an alligator's feeding requirements and habitat, then allow them to feel a small one. At a weeklong summer camp, kids in grades K to 8 learn about the dangers manatees face in Florida's waterways, take part in a mock rescue, and visit the David A. Straz Jr. Manatee Hospital. The zoo has the only nonprofit center for sick, injured, and orphaned manatees in the world.
Kindergartners through fifth-graders have an opportunity to feed stingrays and sharks in the daylong Awesome Sea Explorations program while second- to fifth-graders taking part in Lowry's Wild Theater summer camp design stage props, create nature art projects, make their own costumes, and go on a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo.
Contact information: 813-935-8552; www.lowryparkzoo.com