5. Phoenix Zoo
SIZE: 1,300 animals on 125 acres
- Operates Wilderness Experience Night Camp, where families stay lakeside in a private tent, enjoy a grilled dinner with s'mores, learn about nocturnal animals, take a guided hike, and receive advice on how to navigate using the stars
- Launched a landmark conservation program that saved the Arabian oryx (an antelope) from extinction; 30 years ago the population was only 14 animals worldwide, and now there are several thousand, with a baby due this summer
- Offers milk at all food-service locations and healthy foods such as salads and grilled chicken sandwiches at most
- Strings more than 2 million lights -- often in the shape of animals -- for its holiday festivities, which kick off on Thanksgiving weekend
As soon as families walk through the front gate of the Phoenix Zoo, they find themselves in the "Enchanted Forest," a magical exhibit created for kids ages 5 and under. Little ones can splash through Critter Creek and search for toy fish and ducks, watch a puppet show, and explore Rock Island, which features plants of different textures, colors, and scents. In the attached Busy Bee Toddler Play area, kids can have fun in the sand or climb over a miniature version of the Papago Buttes, the mountainous area behind the zoo.
The exhibit is also the setting for many parent-child educational programs, like Breakfast Tortoise Style (featuring a morning meal, songs, games, a craft, and a visit with Ralph and Mary, the tortoise's parents) and Bug Mania! (where kids wriggle like a bug and sing insect-theme songs). One class, Toddler Nature Time, even accepts children starting at 18 months; Phoenix is one of the only zoos to offer a course for children this young.
But older kids certainly aren't left out of the fun. In the "Forest of Uco," an exhibit designed to replicate a Colombian rainforest, kids can walk past a waterfall, look for the pacu fish, and see rare spectacled bears (they have two white circles around their eyes, giving the illusion that they're wearing glasses). Kids may encounter an archaeologist at a dig site who teaches them about ancient civilizations and suggests they look for treasure. Says Jeff Williamson, the zoo's executive director: "Since Phoenix is located right in the middle of a desert, this exhibit transports families to an entirely different place."
Contact information: 602-273-1341; www.phoenixzoo.org