I thought I was a pretty good parent. I’ve taken my kids to see the pandas at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., they’ve met Winter (the dolphin with the prosthetic tail) at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, and they’ve even cooked and eaten bugs at the Insectarium in New Orleans. But, when I saw TripAdvisor’s list of the top 10 zoos in the U.S., mortification set in: How can my kids have been to only one of the top 10 zoos?
I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the list of the top 10 aquariums. My kids have been to four. Phew. Only six more for the family to-do list.
Wherever you live in the world, TripAdvisor has a list of top zoos and aquariums for your part of the globe (just click on “More” here). We’ve even got a list of the top 25 zoos and aquariums in the entire world. But, fellow parents, fair warning: I personally can’t page through that list without pangs of guilt and parental scope creep.
However many zoos or aquariums are on your own family’s to-do list, here are a few strategies to get the best experience for your dollar:
Check online for discounts, and remember your memberships.
Many sites offer savings on admission tickets, parking, the cafeteria, or the gift shop. There may be discounts for going at certain times of the day—say, at opening hour or at night. If you’re visiting a city, consider buying a city pass that includes zoo/aquarium entry. If you’re a member of your local zoo, you might get free or discounted admission to other zoos via a reciprocal admissions program. You may also find reduced rates through AAA or Costco.
Arrive at opening time.
You’ll be alone with the animals—which, remember, are most active at the start and end of the day; go at noon and you may see a lot of balls of fur sleeping. If you do manage to arrive at opening time, make a beeline for the main draw before the crowds pour in. At the Georgia Aquarium, for instance, the piece de resistance is a 61-foot-wide by 23-foot-tall glass (well, acrylic) viewing wall—a tank that holds 100,000 sea creatures, including whale sharks and manta rays. Because my family entered the aquarium at 8:00 a.m. and arrived at the giant tank at 8:05, we were the only ones there, yielding an unforgettable sight, not to mention a stellar photo op.
Make a day of it.
Don’t underestimate the power of today’s best zoos and aquariums to hold your children’s interest all day long. There is a smorgasboard of scheduled activities to keep kids busy throughout the day, from penguin feedings to 4-D movies, and it won’t be easy to drag your kids away before the advertised stingray petting or albatross encounter. At the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, we spent at least an hour in the aviary alone, with rainbow-colored lorikeets landing on our wrists and shoulders.
Visit with a theme in mind.
Themed exploration makes a visit to an enormous zoo or aquarium less overwhelming. The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, for instance, has Ten Fun Finds maps that turn your visit into a scavenger hunt of sorts and help kids’ brains pull together what they’re learning.
Minimize time—and tantrums—in the gift shop.
Most zoos and aquariums have shops sprinkled diabolically throughout, selling every cute plush animal toy known to man. Before even entering the building, tell each child his souvenir budget is $10—or whatever amount you deem appropriate—and that he’s not allowed to spend it till the final half hour.