One of the perks of living in the Washington DC area is being able to enjoy all of the Smithsonian Museums. And there is no better choice with small children then the National Zoo.
Plan Your Visit at the Zoo
When you arrive at the National Zoo, check out the schedule of feedings and zookeeper talks for the day. As you would expect, the animals are more active when it’s time for a snack, and the zookeepers do a great job interacting with kids and answering questions. On our most recent trip we watched the orangutans enjoy snack of peanuts (with many kids excitedly noting that peanuts are their favorite snack as well) and the pandas chomping on their bamboo lunch.
One of the other daily events that we recommend is checking out the orangutans on the O Lines. The O Lines are the Zoo’s Orangutan Transport System – a series of tightropes that connect the Great Ape House to the Think Tank. The orangutans climb up to the O Line and walk the along the ropes above the Zoo paths on their own. The zookeeper that we saw this time said that the orangutans have the choice to travel (and that they NEVER fall), but the best time to see them is between 11 and 11:30am. On our most recent trip, 5 different orangutans made the trip, each one stopping to enjoy the cheers from the crowd below.
Panda at the Zoo
The biggest draw for most visitors to the National Zoo are the pandas. They really are majestic creatures and worth a trip to see. Again, check to see when they will be fed, since you can be sure that they will be sitting still to enjoy their snacks or lunch. Nearby the pandas is another kid favorite – the elephants. The elephant house is still under construction, but you can almost always get a great view of the elephants from the bridge above their yard. It’s a great viewing spot, especially if you have a little one in a stroller, since the elephants can be seen without needing to be picked up.
It can be hard when you’re little at the National Zoo, because many of the enclosures aren’t visible unless you get a lift from Mom or Dad. One exhibit that is geared to younger children is the Kids Farm. Not only are all the animals easy to see, you are allowed to pet them. Several times we’ve been able to pet a cow, which is always a thrill.
Another exhibit that is great for young children is the small mammal house. All of the enclosures are low enough that small children can see into them without an assist from a parent. We especially like the meerkats, who seemed to enjoy interacting with the kids as much as the kids enjoyed watching them. After our most recent visit, my daughter told us that “I could watch the meerkats all day long.”
Exploring the Zoo
Another of our favorite exhibits is Amazonia. Because it’s a little bit off the beaten path (due to construction, it’s only accessible by the path at the bottom of the Zoo, past the Kids Farm section), it’s rarely crowded, and everything is easily viewed by the even the smallest of children. The building is an Amazon rainforest. When you walk in you can explore the giant aquariums of Amazon fish and turtles, most of which are bigger than the kids. And upstairs is a rainforest where birds and monkeys roam free. There are also conservation exhibits to see before exiting.
Playground at the Zoo
If your little one needs a break from the animals, there are two playground areas at the National Zoo. One is in the Kids Farm area and is a soft play area, similar to the ones in area malls. It is a giant pizza and looks like a lot of fun (my daughter would rather say hello to the cows then stop to play!). Be aware that it is in direct sunlight, and, according to the signs, it can get very hot. The other area is behind the prairie dogs, where there is a series of prairie dog tunnels for kids to climb through.
What and Where to Eat
Food and drinks are readily available at the National Zoo for purchase. Because you are able to bring in your own food and drinks (no glass bottles), we always pack a lunch. The food is rather pricey and there are limited healthy choices available (your typical fare – hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken nuggets). The kids meals DO come in a reusable lunch bag, but they are also available for purchase in the zoo stores. We bring our own lunches and buy a treat (like popcorn or ice cream) as a snack.
Be aware as you plan your trip that there is a lot of construction at the National Zoo. The sea lion exhibit is scheduled to open in summer 2012, and more exhibits are soon to follow. Because the focus of the National Zoo is on conservation, you won’t find some of the more standard zoo animals – there are no giraffes, hippos, brown bears, or rhinos living at the National Zoo right now. But there are lots of other unique animals that you won’t see in other zoos. The National Zoo is also on a giant hill. Be ready for a lot of walking. With young children, we recommend starting at the top of the Zoo and working your way down so you’re walking downhill at the end of the day. We also recommend bringing a stroller (or renting one when you get there) for little ones.
How much does it cost?
One last tip: while the National Zoo is free, parking can be very expensive – $22 for 3 or more hours. If you are planning on visiting more than three times in a year (which we highly recommend), consider joining FONZ (Friends of the National Zoo). One of the perks of membership is free parking, which adds up quickly, as well as priority registration for the Zoo’s annual events and discounts at zoo stores. You can find out more information online.
Photos by National Zoo website