We love going to the zoo! It’s an obvious choice for an animal lover like Leopold. There are new things to see and explore every day. Plus, it’s a safe space to run wild (pun intended) and get out some energy.
(Prepare for photo overload…It is so hard to choose my favorites!)
For me, it’s not just about the animals and activities. I grew up going to this zoo. I have seen it change and grow over the years.
There is a bridge over the river that connects the zoo to the botanical gardens and I have a special brick on that bridge. Sure, there are personalized bricks all over the zoo, but mine was one of the first. Betty White has a brick on that bridge too, so we are basically best friends by association. My mom purchased that brick for me back in 1994 when they were building the bridge. It says ‘Ayana C Hill, Jus-4-Grammy” My Grammy had recently passed away so it’s a brick for both of us!
A little tip, if you don’t want to traumatize your toddler, don’t feed the Lorikeets before anyone else. Those birds can be pushy! Also: Beware, they do poop. They sell a lot of t-shirts in the gift shop because of these fellas.
I worked at Riverbanks Zoo for about 3 years on and off, so there are a lot of memories there, too. I made some of my best friends working there, and had some of my wildest nights with those people during that time. Retail life is hard, man. Letting loose after work is a must!
I might add, I worked in the gift shop…not with the animals. Although sometimes the guests acted like animals!
Even now if I pass someone who looks lost or is wondering about something, I tend to act like an employee and helpfully direct them. I know that place backward and forward! Recently I found myself talking to an employee about the hyenas (They were transferred to another zoo) and how they were the only mammals at the zoo who would respond to their names. I loved walking past their exhibit and calling out ‘Huckleberry, Callie!” and seeing their cute ears perk up as they looked my way. I miss those cuties (Yes, I know they would tear me apart if they could).
Know it all tip: The loud creatures swinging around on the island near the lions are NOT monkeys. They are apes. More specifically, they are called Siamangs. You can hear them for miles! I used to live in a neighborhood near the gardens and we heard them from our house many times a day. You can hear them in this video if you just can’t wait!
One of my favorite memories of the zoo is walking with my mom. She went through phases of fitness and when she was feeling sporty, we would walk the zoo. It’s the perfect place to walk. We would walk a figure eight through the main zoo, across the bridge, up the insane hill, through the garden, and back down through the nature path. The incline is rough, so that works all your lower body muscles, but you get a break walking through the flat main zoo. If it was too busy in the zoo, we would stick to the garden.
I can still see her power walking through crowds and up that hill, with me struggling to keep up. My mom was a powerhouse when she put her mind to something!
Now that I have my own child, we go all the time! This year I’m going to try to post more about local places for those of you who may be looking for stuff to do in the area. I’m starting with the zoo because it’s what we know best!
About two years ago, they finally finished building Waterfall Junction, a children’s garden and splash pad. I want to thank Riverbanks for timing that perfectly to when I had a baby. Super convenient!
I like to choose one or the other when I go to the zoo. It’s hard to really experience both sides of the zoo in one morning, and we are usually only there from 10-12 or so. Because, nap time.
Waterfall Junction is home to a children’s garden, a huge sand pit (or, Dino Dig), splash pads, a giant tree house, playground, play houses, and more. I love the sand pit because it’s not normal sand…I’m not sure what it is, but the grains are larger and don’t stick to everything. Leopold can sit and play in the shade while I sit and relax on a bench.
They have two levels for the splash pad, one for older kids that has bigger spouts of water, a water fall, and a little water slide area. If you take your children here, be careful! The ‘stream’ of water looks fun to run up and down but it’s VERY slippery. I’ve seen a great many child fall and bust their heads on this. There is also a smaller splash pad that caters to toddlers and babies. It’s surrounded by big umbrellas and chairs for the parents. Each section is overseen by a life guard so things don’t get too rough if there are older children, etc.
Waterfall Junction is full of surprises that you really need to see for yourself!
There is also a snack bar, and a classroom for the many classes held during the week. I just learned about these classes for ages 2-5 on The RBZ website! I’m excited to try one out. They are 6$ per child and held at different times during the week.
The botanical gardens are just on the other side of Waterfall junction and are packed full with stunning displays of flora. The gardens are well maintained and fun to explore. You can take the tram down the hill or walk, if you’re feeling adventurous. The nature trail is more exciting but slightly longer, since it twists and turns through the woods. FYI, the nature trail is NOT stroller accessible. The paved hill is very steep but shorter.
The main zoo is packed with things to see and do. You can get an explorer card at any of the information booths and load it with money for the extra activities if that’s something that interests you. We have the family plus membership which gains us access to these rides as many times as we want with special wristbands. It was definitely worth the extra money not to have to worry about tantrums when we get off the carousel!
There is a large cafe that sells food such as chicken tenders, burgers, salads, pizza and seasonal specials.
You will pay a pretty penny to eat at the zoo. If you go there with that knowledge, you will be a lot less aggravated when it’s time to eat. Coolers are not allowed inside the zoo, but I usually pack a small lunch or snacks and put it in the stroller or the diaper bag.
On that note, if you decide to let your child get something from the gift shop, realize this is an amusement park. It’s not going to be cheap. Things are priced higher at places like this. Don’t act shocked when you are paying 2.50 or $3 for a bottled water, or 20$ for a stuffed animal. If this is something that bothers you, just come prepared. Don’t be mean to the staff about things that aren’t in their control. Can you tell I’ve been mistreated by customers there? Anyway, go with the right mindset and you will have a great time! Also something I still want to tell people…there is no smoking permitted in the zoo. You would think this is obvious, but apparently not. Just don’t do it!
- Sea lions (my favorite photo spot)
- Waterfall Junction
- Meerkats (one of my favorites, located near the elephants)
- Penguins (in the bird house to the right of the main entrance)
- Otters (because CUTE)
- Lemurs (also CUTE. In the cave right past the gorilla)
- Giraffe feeding (they do not like to be pet! Just feed them and snap a cute photo of their long tongues almost up in your face)
- Naked mole rats (this isn’t a MUST see but they are often overlooked. They are in the education center right past the koala exhibit)
- Ropes Course (It’s about $5 for non members and $3 for members. Pretty fun if you have any climbing enthusiasts)
- Zipline (pretty pricey and you need to book it in advance but it’s pretty fun! I would take the longer course that goes over the river. If you’re going to spend the money, may as well do it right)
- Behind the scenes animal encounters (I’ve never done one but really want to!)
- Train Ride (for kids)
- Pony Ride (also for kids)
- Rock Wall
- Aquarium (air conditioning…phew!)
- Animal Demonstrations
A bonus tip: There is a nursing mothers lounge right when you get into the zoo. It stays locked, so go into the guest services office to the right of the entrance and they will give you a key. It’s got a rocker, changing table, and some small chairs for younger children. They may have added to it or changed it since I’ve been in there but it’s not widely advertised, so just know it’s there! There is also a first aid right next door to that, in the event that you need it.
Fun Fact: The first place I ever nursed in public was at the zoo! I found a shady spot at a deserted picnic table area and had no issues whatsoever!
There are a lot of events that go on all the time at the zoo, too. They have sleepover opportunities for large groups (Can I do this once, please)?
Some of my favorite events are:
- Brew at the Zoo (beer and wine tasting)
- Zoofari (a silent auction + catered food that’s to die for)
- Lights Before Christmas
- Boo at the Zoo
- Summer Movies in the Garden (it’s $3 or so to get in but you can play in the splash pad after closing time and then relax on the grass for a movie in the amphitheater)
- Rhythm and Blooms (they have bands come play every Thursday in July or August. They serve concessions too! I believe it’s $3 for public and free for members)
Times to avoid if possible:
- Spring break (any time in April/May I try to avoid going to the zoo. There are a couple of weeks of pure MADNESS when spring break hits)
- Dead of summer (obvious reasons…it’s SO HOT. We go anyway but try to go when it’s not a million degrees out and you will be a lot happier)
- Free Friday (It’s exciting and free, but if you want to avoid a crowd, don’t come on these days. I think they typically have Free Fridays during the school year or off season)
- Weekends (okay this isn’t possible for most people, but if we go to the zoo we don’t go on the weekends because it’s much busier than usual)
- Any Holiday (the zoo is only closed for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It doesn’t observe any other holidays [which sucks if you work there]. July 4th, Memorial Day, etc are usually a lot busier than normal).