Go Wild! Fun Vacations for Animal Lovers

Spend the day at one of these animal centers, and let the kids hang out with their favorite creatures.

Farm Fun

Slide Ranch child program

Courtesy of Slide Ranch

Old MacDonald, look out! While many farms let kids pet or feed animals, these locations offer more barnyard activities and family events. E-I-E-I-go!

1. Slide Ranch
Muir Beach, California
This former dairy ranch turned nonprofit teaching farm in Golden Gate National Recreation Area near San Francisco puts together many super-cool, half-day family programs on weekends year-round. Activities often include milking a goat, cooking from the organic garden, collecting eggs from chickens, and spinning wool from sheep. On May 25, there's even a special program for families with toddlers that emphasizes using your senses to explore the farm. In addition, several times a year the ranch offers overnight family campouts focused on farm activities and nature exploration. Programs typically cost $25 and up per person, with discounts for families and free admission for babies; slideranch.org.

2. Lake Metroparks Farmpark
Kirtland, Ohio
About a half hour from downtown Cleveland, this 235-acre farm has more than 100 animals, including llamas, baby goats, horses, lambs, and pigs. Kids can help milk a cow, watch a cheese-making demonstration, and, on certain weekends, help make ice cream by hand. After you finish at the barn, you can take a wagon ride to the Plant Science Center (with gardens and interactive exhibits) and the Woodland Center (to learn about maple sugaring, which requires 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup). Time your visit with one of the farm's many special events -- such as HorseFest, on May 18 and 19, when kids can groom miniature horses and make a lasso. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for kids ages 2 to 11, free for younger kids; lakemetroparks.com.

3. Green Meadows Farm
Eight locations in the U.S.
During a two-hour guided tour, families can learn about pigs, cows, horses, sheep, goats, llamas, and more. Everyone can milk a cow, touch a chicken, pet a duck, hold a rabbit, and hug a donkey -- all Green Meadows locations focus on close contact with the animals. Some locations also have train and tractor rides. Farms are in Hazlet, New Jersey; Grand Prairie, Texas; Kissimmee, Florida; Floral Park, New York; Waterford and Sherwood, Wisconsin; Jessup and Frederick, Maryland; admission varies, starting at $12 per person, kids 2 and under are free; greenmeadowsfarmnj.com.

4. Children's Farm at the Center
Palos Park, Illinois
This nonprofit farm in the Chicago area hosts "family time" on weekend afternoons, when kids can brush a sheep, hold a baby chick, and become buddies with bunnies. Hayrides are one of the highlights of the Summer Farm Festival, on June 1. Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for kids ages 2 to 17, children under 2 are free; thecenterpalos.org.

5. Underwood Family Farms
Moorpark, California
Animal shows are the highlight for kids at this farm about 45 minutes north of LA. Set in a hand-painted amphitheater, the shows take place three times a day on weekends and holidays from March to November. Kids in the audience can volunteer to find chickens hiding behind the doors built into the backdrop or call Bingo, a black Lab, to come out from backstage. At the end of the show, kids can pet the animals. Save time to pick your own produce -- strawberries, oranges, avocados, and lettuce are in season in May. Entrance fee is $3 to $6 per person, depending on the day, free for kids 2 and under; underwoodfamilyfarms.com.

Bring Your Kids to the Wild

Fossil Rim's safari

Courtesy of Fossil Rim's

Wildlife Adventures
Hang out with animals your kids may have never seen before. These places deliver up-close encounters in a more natural setting than many zoos offer.

1. Virginia Living Museum
Newport News, Virginia
Red wolves, foxes, a bobcat, and a coyote are among the animals that families can see along the museum's 1/2-mile, stroller-friendly boardwalk through woods and wetlands. Visit during one of the monthly storytimes, which pair a book (like Olivia Owl) with a visit from an animal (a screech owl). The museum also offers an aviary with 16 bird species, a butterfly garden, and a walk-through "swamp" with an alligator and a turtle. Admission for museum and boardwalk is $17 for adults, $13 for kids 3 to 12, free for younger kids; thevlm.org.

2. San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Escondido, California
Unlike the zoo downtown, this 1,800-acre park about 45 minutes north boasts more than 3,500 animals, mainly in a cageless, free-range environment. Families can take a safari tram ride to see rhinos, giraffes, and elephants roaming the fields. Plan to be there in the afternoon for the cheetah run -- the park is the only one in the nation that lets the animals race at full speed. If the kids get tired, take a break by playing in the spray fountains and shaded, animal-themed rest area. Admission is $44 for adults, $34 for kids ages 3 to 12, free for younger kids; sdzsafaripark.org.

3. Flamingo Gardens Botanical Collection & Everglades Wildlife Sanctuary
Davie, Florida
Although feeding flamingos gets top billing at this nonprofit attraction near Fort Lauderdale, it's home to more than 90 animal species. "Most were rescued from the wild and can't be released because of injuries," says Keith Clark, managing director. During wildlife-encounter shows, held three times a day, trainers bring out animals such as snakes and birds and talk about their importance to the environment. Stop by Kidz Fest, on May 27, for free pony rides, games, and crafts. Admission is $18 for adults, $10 for kids ages 4 to 11, free for younger kids; flamingogardens.org.

4. Fossil Rim Wildlife Center
Glen Rose, Texas
With more than 1,100 animals roaming 1,800 acres about 90 minutes from Dallas, Fossil Rim may be the closest you'll get to an African safari. As you drive through the 91/2- mile trail, you can open your windows or sunroof and feed giraffes, ostrich, antelope, deer, and many others. "We breed a lot of animals here that are in danger of extinction, like cheetahs," says Warren Lewis, director of marketing. About halfway through the drive, stretch your legs at the Children's Animal Center, where kids can pet goats, pigs, and emus. If you're not wild about making the trek in your own vehicle, the center also offers guided tours. Admission is $21 to $24 for adults, $15 to $18 for kids ages 3 to 11, free for younger kids; guided tours start at $27 per person; fossilrim.org.

5. Oatland Island Wildlife Center of Savannah
Savannah, Georgia
On the center's 2-mile trail, families cross three types of animal habitats -- maritime forest, salt marsh, and freshwater wetlands. Among the dozens of animals you'll see: gray wolves, Southern flying squirrels, and a red fox. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it at the tables dockside, where you might even catch a glimpse of dolphins and diamondback terrapin turtles. Every Tuesday morning, there are special programs for toddlers, including wildlife nature walks. Get in free on May 18 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to celebrate Coastal Wetlands Day and see tidal creeks up close. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for kids ages 4 to 17, free for younger kids; savannah.chatham.k12.ga.us/schools/oat.

Where to Find Wild Animals

Visit national parks and wildlife refuges to see animals in their natural habitat. Get more details at nps.gov and fws.gov.

Moose

Courtesy of David Govatski/USFWS

1. Alligators
Everglades (Homestead, Florida)

2. Bats
Carlsbad Caverns (Carlsbad, New Mexico)

3. Condors
Grand Canyon (Arizona), Pinnacles (Paicines, California)

4. Deer
Grand Canyon, Grand Teton (Wyoming), Zion (Utah), Yosemite (California)

5. Dolphins
Channel Islands (Ventura, California), Olympic (Washington), Ten Thousand Islands (Naples, Floridrink da)

6. Elk
Grand Canyon, Glacier (Montana), Rocky Mountain (Colorado), Great Smoky Mountains (Tennessee)

7. Moose
Yellowstone (Wyoming and Montana), Grand Teton, Acadia (Bar Harbor, Maine), Silvio O. Conte (Sunderland, Massachusetts)

8. Pelicans
Everglades, Channel Islands, Pelican Island (Florida)

9. Sea Turtles
Everglades, Padre Island (Texas), Archie Carr (Florida), Canaveral (Florida)

10. Wild Ponies
Assateague Island (Berlin, Maryland), Cumberland Island (Saint Mary's, Georgia), Cape Hatteras (Manteo, North Carolina)

Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Parents magazine.

This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.

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