Once you've seen one zoo, you've seen them all, right? Sleepy cats napping in big enclosures and restless monkeys screeching from tree houses. Yes, some zoos can be repetitive and a little boring, but new trends are giving our animal parks a much needed facelift. Now, going cage-less is all the rage: Natural barriers have replaced metal bars and different species coexist in the same naturalistic habitats. Other zoos are pumping up their grounds with roller coasters, water slides and other theme-park fare.
We sifted through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' (AZA) list of accredited facilities, as well as the web reviews of zoo visitors to find the coolest zoos in the United States. Of course, those with cutting-edge features earn some major points. But we also focus on the overall experience that each zoo offers. So charge your digital camera and dig out your safari gear, the Animal Kingdom awaits.
[See a photo recap of America's Coolest Zoos]
Why it's Cool: Most zoos offer bird shows or nature talks with the zookeepers, but the Houston Zoo staff will make you feel like a VIP. Behind-the-scenes tours allow you to walk the grounds more from a zookeeper's perspective. For example, you can explore the animal hospital or witness feeding-time preparations in the zoo's special commissary tour. Some tours even let you do meet-and-greets with less-carnivorous residents such as giraffes and tropical birds. All you have to do is make reservations about a week ahead of your visit.
The Nitty-Gritty: Located in Hermann Park, just south of downtown, the Houston Zoo is open daily with the exception of Christmas Day. Hours vary by season, but are generally from 9 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. General admission for adults is $12 and $8 for kids. Check out the website for more information on hours, tours, free admission days and other special events.
Why it's Cool: What sets West Palm's Lion Country apart from other zoos? Well, it's a true open-road safari for one thing: Visitors can literally drive through in their cars at their own pace. Zebras and giraffes roam free, observing you just as much as you observe them. You can also tour Lion Country Safari on foot, thanks to a variety of walking paths that connect each of the animal enclosures. Consider taking to the sea for a truly unique experience; the Safari Queen will sail you around Lake Shanalee to visit the spider monkeys, exotic birds and more that reside on the zoo's island enclosures. And you can also take a twirl on the park's carnival rides or perfect your short game at the mini-golf course.
The Nitty-Gritty: Lion Country Safari is actually about 20 miles west of West Palm Beach in Loxahatchee, Fla. It's open year-round with hours varying depending on the season. Admission for adults is $26.50 and $19.50 for kids. Check out the website for more detailed hours of operation and other information.
Why it's Cool: Do-gooders will want to visit this facility in Phoenix; it's one of the largest non-profit zoos in the country. Sprawling out across more than 125 acres, it's easy to spend an entire day here, especially since you can bring coolers and picnic baskets on the grounds with you. You'll also have plenty of opportunities to connect with the animals thanks to the interactive activities: Phoenix Zoo allows you to feed giraffes, pet sting rays and ride camels (all under proper supervision, of course).
The Nitty-Gritty: Sitting just north of Tempe in Papago Park, The Phoenix Zoo is open year-round with varying hours depending on the season. Admission costs $18 for adults and $9 for kids. Forewarning: the Phoenix Zoo is currently revamping its grounds, but all animal exhibits remain open during construction. Check out the website for more information.
Why it's Cool: The zoo in St. Louis is more kid-friendly than most. If you didn't feel the fun vibe at the in-park Build-A-Bear Workshop, you'll definitely notice it in the Emerson's Children's Zoo. Emerson's staff supervises encounters with guinea pigs, goats and other friendly mammals. And then there's the Just Like Me area, where kids can pretend that they're otters, monkeys and even aardvarks playing on slides, jungle vines and sandboxes. For older kids there are exhibits like the Stingrays at Caribbean Cove (you can pet the rays for a fee) and the Big Cat Country (no petting allowed, obviously)
The Nitty-Gritty: The Saint Louis Zoo -- located on the southern edge of Forest Park in west St. Louis -- is open year-round with the exception of Christmas and New Year's Day. Hours are generally from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with extended hours in the summer. Best yet, admission is free for all visitors (although fees are charged for special exhibits and events). Check out the website for more information.
Why it's Cool: Nestled in New York City's bustling northern 'burb, the Bronx Zoo has been named one of the best urban zoos in the country by sources like Travel and Leisure. There are several factors behind this zoo's good reputation: Firstly, it's huge -- spanning 265 acres with more than 6,000 animals. And secondly, it has impressive exhibits. Most of the enclosures are cage-less (and surprisingly naturalistic for the city locale). And then there's the Congo Gorilla Forest -- a 6.5-acre rainforest that will make you think you're hiking through the heart of Africa. Direct your gaze toward the leafy canopy for a glimpse of pygmy marmosets and mandrills, while the log-laden forest floor acts as a stomping ground for more than 20 western lowland gorillas.
The Nitty-Gritty: The Bronx Zoo is open year-round with the exception of major holidays. Hours vary by the season, but the zoo is generally open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission cost $16 for adults and $12 for children ages three to 12. Check out the website for more details.
Why it's Cool: The San Diego Zoo (housed in downtown's Balboa Park) and the Safari Park (located about 31 miles north in Escondido, Calif.) are technically two separate attractions, but recent San Diego visitors insist that they're equally cool. Devote a full day to visiting each park to make the most of your experience. The zoo's giant pandas are particularly popular, but you can expect an impressive audience at the Big Cats and polar bear exhibits as well. Over at the Safari Park, natural habitats are designed to promote the intermingling of species (predators and prey are kept separate, of course). Take the African Plains for example: Giraffes, zebras and other non-carnivorous species hang out together, watching you watch them on guided truck tours. To get a closer look, you can explore the many walking trails that snake through Tiger Territory and other portions of the park (don't worry; they're enclosed for your safety).
The Nitty-Gritty: The San Diego Zoo is open every day throughout the year, even on holidays. Hours vary by season, but are generally from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with extended hours on special occasions. Admission costs $40 for adults, $30 for children. Check out the zoo's website for more information.
The San Diego Safari Park is also open every day with similar hours of operation to its sister zoo. Ticket prices vary greatly depending on your choice of safari method ranging from $40 per adult (Africa Tram Safari) to the $180 per adult (Roar & Snore overnight safari). Check out the park's website for more information.
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