Family adventures at the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium. Like most families, come the mid-August we feel that bittersweet tug of September…though the kids will soon be “out of our hair” and back in school, I always wonder if we’d done enough as a family this summer. Inevitably, the answer is no. The realities of life, work, and finances limit all sorts of adventuring. But we try to find adventures within driving distance. So last weekend, while we couldn’t hop on the next flight to Africa for a big game safari, we COULD drive a few hours west to Ohio to visit one of the best zoos in the the country and get a taste of the African savanna while we were at it. Thus our Ohio ZOOcation was born.
The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is located in central Ohio. It’s a huge complex that blends education and recreation over 582 acres. The zoo cares for 10,000 animals and features six regional exhibits: North America, Asia Quest, Polar Frontier, Australia and the Islands, The Congo Expedition, and the new Heart of Africa exhibit that mirrors the sights and sounds of the African savanna. The Shores Aquarium features manatees, sharks, and a tide pool touch tank, and a reptile “laboratory.” The zoo complex also includes the Zoombezi Bay water park, an 18-hole Golf Course, and a bit further away, The Wilds, a 10,000-acre conservation complex and safari park where zipline and open air bus tours can help you see safari animals at relatively close range. All these features have made the Columbus Zoo a destination worthy of a special road trip. As a native Ohioan, I’ve long been aware of the zoo’s reputation, but I’d never experienced it. And I wasn’t sure how well driving two teenage boys across two state lines (six hours total!) to ogle zoo animals was going to fly. I was over the moon all day. And while Max and Jack were excited initially, I had to check in mid-day: Okay, so who’s having more fun here? Am I taking you to the zoo, or are you taking me? “This is great. I’m loving it!” they both said. Whew! We managed to enjoy a full seven hours of zoo exploration with no complaints, and left with a trunk full of happy memories.
The new Heart of Africa exhibit was more than an exhibit, it was an experience worth the price of admission alone. We lingered here for more than an hour watching lions, zebras, giraffes, gazelles, guineafowl, cranes, storks, wildebeest, ostrich and warthogs as they mingled on the savanna. A zookeeper eventually entered the watering hole and introduced us to a number of wild animals, such as this Silvery-cheeked Hornbill. This did nothing to curb, and everything to swell, my desire to visit East Africa in the near future.
“Creating memories is what the zoo is all about,” says Lewis Greene, Senior VP for Animal Care and Conservation. It’s also about “touching the heart so you can teach the mind.” That explains its outstanding infrastructure, great signage, and imaginative interactive displays – opportunities to ride camels, touch stingrays, feed giraffes, pet goats, and to ride a gondola through exhibits. Inviting kids up close with nature sparks a wonder that, Greene hopes, will impart a passion for “what we do and what we care about,” with the effect of making good citizens for conservation.
It must be working. The zoo has 73,000 members and through private donations and other sources, was able to donate more than $2 million to conservation projects throughout the world last year. “It’s not enough to house, feed, and care for happy animals,” said Greene, “our job is to make sure their counterparts in the wild are also conserved.” I highly recommend making the zoo the highlight of a 2-3 day visit to central Ohio. Pick a hotel nearby (we were comfortable at the Holiday Inn Express), shop in Dublin’s historic downtown, and work on your zoo itinerary while you dine at an Irish beer pub or an upscale bistro. You can easily spend one day with the animal exhibits and wake up in the morning for a game of golf or to splash in the waterpark. The Wilds is located 90 miles away and is another destination in its own right.
The summer is fading fast. I hope you can make it to your favorite zoo soon! The Columbus Zoo is 400 miles from Rochester, 470 miles from Philadephia, 200 miles from Detroit, 175 miles from Indianapolis, and 190 miles from Lexington.
ADMISSION (Zoo/Aquarium only)
Under 2 Free Ages 2-9 $9.99 Ages 10-59 $14.99 Ages 60+ $10.99
*Half-price admission from Jan. 6 – Feb. 28, 2014. Tuesdays are senior days. Military discounts apply.
2-DAY TICKET (Zoo/Aquarium & Zoombezi Bay Waterpark)
Ages 2 – 9, Seniors 60+ $31.99 Ages 10 – 59 $43.99
Arrive early! We toured the zoo from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm on a Friday and by 12:30 pm the crowds were getting thick.
Take your time. We spent seven hours without duplicating any exhibit. Most families are probably up for 3 or 4 solid hours, but there’s clearly enough there to hold a nature traveler’s attention for most of a day.
Bring money for lunch. What’s great about this park is that you don’t feel gouged at the gate, so you can feel more relaxed about buying food and treats on site, knowing profits go back to the Zoo.
Travel light. Personal strollers, wheelchairs and mobility scooters are allowed on zoo grounds and you can rent on site. Navigating some of the exhibits can be a challenge with a stroller so a baby backpack will give you more flexibility.
Wear a hat or sunglasses. Ours was a perfectly mild 74-degrees day, but the intense sun bearing down on us took its toll.
Don’t bang on windows. Small children (even some adults!) have a tendency to bang on the glass to catch the attention of animals. Explain how that the animal has to listen to that all day, every day, and teach them to keep their hands off the windows.
If you’ve heard of Jack Hanna, chances are you’ve heard of the Columbus Zoo.
This former Columbus Zoo director is a charismatic zoologist whose work at the Columbus Zoo and popularity on major media outlets (his David Letterman appearances are legendary) earned him major cred as a wildlife conservation ambassador, and eventually helped him transform the Zoo into the state-of-the-art park that it is today. Jack continues to live in Columbus area and serves as Emeritus Director.