The next time you make a fool of yourself leaping out of the way of a mouse, take the moment after to appreciate the fact that the United States ranks on the far low end of the “native animals that can kill you” scale. Sure, we’ve got them – grizzly bears, brown recluse spiders, rattlesnakes – but the percentage chance that you will be mercilessly injured by an animal in the United States is lower than just about anywhere else in the world.
This fact may actually explain our fascination with zoos in this country. Whether its beasts-behind-bars, authentic habitats, aquariums or safari parks, zoological entertainment is big business in the United States. The rest of the world has the cool stuff, and we want to see it.
But not all zoos are created equal. Here at USA Travel Guide, we’ve compiled a list of our ten favorite zoos in America for all you animal-lovers out there to throw on the bucket list. Have fun!
#10 – Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, Louisiana
Our first zoo is a charming mix of the old and new. The Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, located in uptown, dates back to the early 20th century, a heritage you can see to this day in the architecture of the older facilities. However, the 21st century brought with it major renovations so that today the park is both old-world and world-class. The most popular exhibit is the Louisiana Swamp where you can see that zoo’s famous white alligators. Too scary? Two majestic white tiger brothers are also a principal attraction drawing crowds from all over the country. The Audubon Zoo also has a large aquarium, insectarium and IMAX® Theatre.
All exhibits closed on Monday. Admission varies by attraction. (Web site)
#9 – Philadelphia Zoo in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Although it didn’t open until 1874, after the American Civil War, the Philadelphia Zoo was chartered in March of 1859, making it the oldest zoo in America and just days away from its 150th anniversary. Not only is it a fanciful, family-friendly park with 1,300 animals to discover, it’s a revered historic site celebrating the many years of successful zoology in the United States. With 42 acres to explore, you’ll want to show up early and be ready for a full day. Popular exhibits include the Big Cat Falls, home to lions, tigers and jaguars, and the Rare Animal Conservation Center.
Open daily; seasonal hours. Standard admission: $17.95.
#8 – Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando Florida
That Disney would even open a true blue zoological park left a sour taste in the mouths of many who wouldn’t trust the ethics of the company any farther than they could throw a cartoon mouse, but over ten years have passed since Animal Kingdom’s 1998 debut, and all that remains is an attractive, utterly massive zoo with wonders aplenty. Put your fears to rest: Disney’s Animal Kingdom is fully-accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Although the inclusion of rides and speculative exhibits qualifies the Animal Kingdom as a theme park, this place is the real deal.
Exhibits are divided into seven major sections, each blending natural animal habitats with various other Disney-fied attractions. The Africa section is perhaps the most popular with a walking trail designed to imitate a jungle valley in Africa and also a simulated safari experience with giraffes, hippos, elephants and much more. Combined, Disney’s Animal Kingdom houses over 1,700 hundred animals throughout the 500-acre park.
Open daily. Admission varies wildly. (Web site)
#7 – Cincinnati Zoo in Cincinnati, Ohio
Another large zoo with scores of “best of…” lists to its name, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden holds among its many distinctions an honored place in zoo history as the second zoo in the United States, having opened not long after the Philadelphia Zoo in 1875. The modern value of the Cincinnati Zoo is inherent in its vast collection of endangered species and plants, including macaws, Indian rhinos, cheetahs, Brazilian ocelots and Western Lowland gorillas. Successful breeding programs for all of these species have earned the zoo the unofficial nickname, “The Sexiest Zoo in America”.
Open daily; seasonal hours. Standard admission: $13. (Web site)
#6 – Houston Zoo in Houston, Texas
Another fairly large zoo, and certainly one of North America’s most-attended, the Houston Zoo stands out for its surprisingly modern facilities (many of the exhibits have been at least renovated in the past five years) and some interesting choices in how to see the park. Of course you can set off on you own as you might expect, but with an advance reservation the Houston Zoo offers you to set-up a private tour that will take you beyond the normal visitation parameters. Get a glimpse of all the behind-the-scenes action at the zoo, watch special feedings, see the animal hospital, and even look in on an animal training session. It costs a little more, but for true zoo-lovers it’s the experience of a lifetime.
Open daily. Standard admission: $10. Offers “free” days throughout year. (Web site)
#5 – Fort Worth Zoo in Fort Worth, Texas
Since its founding in 1909, accreditation has followed the Forth Worth Zoo, and today it has been heralded as the top zoo in the nation by Family Life, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times. Although the zoo is well-rounded overall, with over 350 species from every continent except Antarctica, it pays special tribute to the native flora and fauna of Texas. In the feature exhibit, Texas Wild!, can learn all about the diverse wildlife of the Lone Star State while also seeing a historic glimpse back at turn-of-the-century Texas in an authentic town recreation from the early 1900′s.
Open daily; seasonal hours. Standard admission: $12. (Web site)
#4 – Phoenix Zoo in Phoenix, Arizona
The largest non-profit zoo in the United States, the Phoenix Zoo is a must for family vacations in Phoenix or pretty much anyone who likes to enjoy a laidback afternoon. This massive 125-acre complex differs from most modern zoos in how it structures its 1,200+ animals into four long trails covering the native wildlife of Arizona, Africa, and others. There’s also a large “touch” tank called Stingray Bay. You can guess what they’ve got there. Also unusual, the wide sprawl of the park allows for rollerblades and bicycles. It’s not just a place to see amazing sights; it’s a great place to work out!
Open daily; seasonal hours. Standard admission: $16. (Web site)
#3 – Lion Country Safari in West Palm Beach, Florida
Moving into the altogether different realm of Safari parks, Lion Country Safari near West Palm Beach, Florida is the nation’s original open-road animal attraction, and arguably it’s still the best. At Lion Country Safari, you enter in your own vehicle and drive through the zoo over 5 miles of road, more or less at your own pace. While certain animals such as lions and chimpanzees must be contained in fences for their safety and yours, others including zebras and giraffes roam freely and may even hold you up if they decide to take a rest on the road. The open-road zoo is followed up by Safari World, which hosts traditional zoological attractions as well as carnival rides.
Open daily. Standard admission: $24.
#2 – San Diego Zoo in San Diego, California
We mulled over the placement of the San Diego Zoo at some length. Did it deserve to be number one? Maybe so, but even at number two, the San Diego Zoo stands above the crowd for its immense size, its variety and its commitment to driving the conservation and protection of animals higher than ever. Known as one of America’s most modern zoological parks, history shows the San Diego Zoo at the forefront of nearly every innovation in contemporary zoo keeping. The zoo has pioneered the use of “cageless” exhibits, and strongly promotes the use of open air attractions. With over 4,000 animals and 880 species to see, there’s truly something for everyone, but the absolute must-see is the Giant Panda exhibit, one of only four in the world.
Open daily. Standard admission: $35. (Web site)
#1 – Columbus Zoo in Columbus, Ohio
While any of the zoos mentioned above are worthy of they respect they have garnered, none have achieved the positive worldwide reputation of the Columbus Zoo, arguably America’s favorite. While the zoo has been open continuously since 1927, its reputation grew to such heights under direction of the amiable Jack Hanna, one the America’s most beloved animal experts. Under Hanna’s guidance, the quality of the Columbus Zoo was elevated considerably, making it what is considered today to be the aspiration of any traditional zoo. Along with over 7,000 animals, the Columbus Zoo has more recently expanded to include a water park, amusement park and golf resort.
Open daily; seasonal hours. Seasonal/special rates available. (Web site)
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