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The 12 Coolest Zoos in the U.S. and Canada


Read about 12 Cool International Zoos, too.

Zoos are one of the most reliable crowd-pleasers of family travel. Adults like them. Kids like them. Both toddlers and teens can learn something new and find something to enjoy. And it seems that these days there is immense variety in how zoos organize and present their animal and what attractions they offer.

In honor of National Zoo Day, I’m offering 12 cool zoos in the US and Canada. The list is unscientific, based on my family’s travel experiences, research and advice from family travel bloggers I like and trust. Feel free to tell us about the zoo we missed in the comments.

Zoo: Animal Kingdom

Where: Disney World
Why It’s Cool: Sure it’s Disney and it’s part theme park, but short of our trip to Senegal, I’ve never seen as many animals during a zoo visit as we got to see here. The rides and characters are icing on the cake, but the animals are surely what you come for.

kayaking at brevard county zooZoo: Brevard County Zoo

Where: Melbourne, FL
Why It’s Cool: This medium-size zoo it unique for the many ways in which it allows you to view its animals. In addition to close-up encounters and feedings, guest can paddleboat, kayak, zipline, rappel or take a train to view various parts of the park. Travel blogger ‪Heidi Spears-Gray recalls, “We kayaked through the zoo to the giraffes; it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done at a zoo.”

Zoo: Bronz Zoo

Where: New York City
Why It’s Cool: It’s the largest metropolitan zoo in the US (below right and left). We can attest to this. We spent the better part of a day there when Tiny Traveler was 3 and barely saw more than large children’s zoo. A bug carousel,  monorail and 4-D theater provide attractions to intersperse with animal viewings.

animals play at the bronx zooZoo: Calgary Zoo

Where: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Why It’s Cool: This zoo is the most visited in Canada, and has a strong reputation for conservation research. It’s also “a really great zoo,” says family travel blogger Dana Wheatley. “They have a whole section on North American Animals and a new Penguin Plunge.”

Zoo: The Columbus Zoo and the Wilds

Where: Columbus and Cumberland, Ohio
Why It’s Cool: Travel blogger ‪Melissa Schwartz reports that the African Savannah section in this enormous, “is amazing, sporting a large free range area for a variety of animals.” She also observed that “There seemed to be more emphasis on conservation than I have seen at other zoos including hands-on elements.”

Travel blogger ‪Tonya Prater likes the Zoo’s satellite, the Wild’s. “It’s one of the largest conservation centers in the world,” she notes. More than just a place to look at animals, you can zipline, horseback ride, fish & take a sunset tour at this small safari park.

a new bronz zoo babyZoo: Denver Zoo

Where: Colorado
Why It’s Cool: Travel blogger Diana Rowe loves this large zoo that is home many threatened or endangered species. Its Bear Mountain exhibit, which is on the National Register if Historic Places for being one of the first naturalistic zoo exhibits, house grizzly and Asiatic black bears and long-tailed South American Coati.

Zoo: Henry Doorly Zoo

Where: Omaha, NE
Why It’s Cool: Family travel blogger ‪Sara Wellensiek was impressed by its “huge indoor rainforest, large indoor desert dome, beautiful butterfly garden, and an aquarium that rivals many stand alone venues. This is zoo is definitely worth a visit. Travel writer ‪Kim Bousquet Reiner says she is looking forward to “the upcoming massive exhibit, African Grasslands.”

making friends at the national zooZoo: National zoo

Where: Washington, DC
Why It’s Cool: It’s one of oldest zoos in the country and one of the first to establish a research program. More than 30 of the types of animals it cares for are endangered, including it’s popular pandas. Travel blogger ‪Dana Wheatley says, “The animal habitats are really well done and they do a lot of animal research.”
Tip: It’s part of the Smithsonian and admission is free.

Zoo: Palm Beach Zoo

Where: Florida:
Why It’s Cool: This zoo has a small but has diverse collection of animals and focuses on up-close encounters that particularly engage smaller children. “The zoo is designed makes you feel like you are walking through a jungle as you visit the animals. They have also built it to be inviting to local wild birds and you see a lot to them as you are walking around,” Family travel writer ‪Bryanna Royal explains. “Our kids said it was the best Zoo they have been to.”

a panda at home at the san diego zooZoo: San Diego Zoo

Where: California
Why It’s Cool: This zoo turns 100 years old this year so look for special events around that. In addition to its world famous pandas, blogger ‪Sara Wellensiek ‪ notes, “The zoo actually doubles as a botanical garden, with paths and walkways lush with foliage! It has a huge diversity of animals to see and activities to do.

‪Lindsay Nieminen‪ likes the 20-minute tram ride around the zoo. “It features giraffes, rhinos, cheetahs. It was really cool to see them roaming around in a large enclosure together. Karin Sheets notes that “It’s my favorite zoo and very handicap accessible. The tram ride is really great for my daughter with special needs; no walking and very relaxing for sensory issues”

Tip: The zoo is an optional extra when you buy a Southern California CityPass.

safari west lets you glamp a the zooZoo: Safari West

Where: Santa Rosa, CA
Why It’s Cool: Its focus is on large African animals, some roaming free and others in large enclosures. The cool thing is staying the night in South African platform tents amid the animals. It makes for quite an exotic detour from your wine-country vacation. Your kids will love it.

Zoo: Toronto Zoo

Where: Canada
Why It’s Cool: This metropolitan zoo has one of the most diverse collections of species anywhere. Writer ‪Inga Batur says it is “amazing and huge; home to more than 5,000 animals representing over 500 species, with 10 kilometers of walking trails.” Wear comfortable shoes. It recently regained its Association of Zoos and Aquariums membership after over how it retired some elephants a few years ago.

 Tip: This zoo is included when you buy a Toronto CityPass.

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7 Comments

  1. April 9, 2016 at 1:09 pm — Reply

    We’ve been to a few of the zoos on your list. I agree with all of them but I’ll never hear the end of our trip to the Denver Zoo. I drove around Denver all day trying to find the zoo and was sure I was getting there. The girls kept telling me to stop for directions but I was being the stubborn male driver! Well, we did get to the zoo but with only 1 hour till closing! (I stop for directions all the time now.)

    • April 12, 2016 at 9:59 am — Reply

      Sometimes that’s how vacations work. Sometimes you’d like to go back and have a redo if you could.

  2. April 9, 2016 at 11:42 am — Reply

    Such a cool list, we love the San Diego Zoo, Calgary Zoo is on our list. We live in Dallas and have Fossil Rim which is kinda like a Safari that is about 1 1/2 away that we visit often as well

    • April 12, 2016 at 9:59 am — Reply

      Thanks for the suggestion. It’ sounds great!

  3. April 8, 2016 at 11:56 pm — Reply

    What a great list of zoos. Haven’t heard of many of these

  4. April 8, 2016 at 9:45 am — Reply

    Great list of zoos. We love wildlife and zoos are normally doing great work to protect endangered animals. #wkendtravelinspiration

  5. April 8, 2016 at 1:50 am — Reply

    Wow – that’s an impressive list of cool zoos! I had no idea there were so many of them. Thanks for the tips on each one 🙂

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