It’s full of creatures big and small, it has the perfect lakeside address with gobs of family activities and restaurants all around it, it’s gorgeous . . . and, it’s FREE! What’s not to love about Lincoln Park Zoo’s loveable animals, exciting daily activities and their mission to connect people with nature in a way that’s accessible to all? Read on to hear why, winter, spring, summer or fall, Lincoln Park Zoo should top your family to-do list.
Waddle with the penguins
Lincoln Park Zoo welcomed penguins to their crew a couple years ago and along with that addition came the opportunity for face-to-face encounters! Get a personal introduction to some of the African penguins living at Pritzker Penguin Cove, and find out what their daily lives are like both at the zoo and on the southern African coast.
Do the locomotion
Hop aboard the track-less Lionel Train Adventure as it chugs around a scenic loop, giving little legs a much-needed break. The Zoo collaborated with the iconic train company, Lionel, to create this 28-passenger train with piped-in engine noises and cheery music playing in the background. It’s best suited for ages 2-6, but open to anyone who wants to pay $3 to take a seat. Make it extra exciting for kids by buying a wooden train whistle in the pavilion next to the station. There is stroller parking at the station and the entire area is fenced off, so you can keep an eye on your child. Important to note: the train does not run during inclement weather.
photo: Endangered Species Carousel courtesy of Smart Destinations via flickr
Take a spin
You’re in for one truly wild ride when you climb aboard the Endangered Species Carousel. Rare and endangered species like frogs, ostriches, pandas, zebras, gorillas and seals, many of which you’ll find thriving in the zoo, are represented in the 48 artisan-crafted wooden animals and two chariots. Paying $3 per jockey to ride atop the exotic on this one-of-a-kind carousel helps keep a visit to Lincoln Park Zoo free year-round.
Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo
The Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo introduces kids to the animals of North America, like red wolves, black bears, river otters and beavers, and provides an opportunity for you to put your feet up while they burn off energy. It’s also a great spot to wait out an ill-timed drizzle courtesy of Mother Nature.
photo: Treetop Canopy Adventure courtesy anjanettew via flickr
Treetop Canopy Adventure
Nearly sweeping the ceiling with a maze of sturdy ropes and tunnels, this oasis looks like something out of Swiss Family Robinson. Climbers go in one side and climb higher to the middle and back down to the other side, and the fun is figuring out which opening will lead them the way that they want to go. Stick around inside to check out the small animal exhibits; there are turtles, snails and otters ready to meet you.
Wild Sapling Play Forest
Tucked away in a secluded woodsy corner next to the black bear exhibit in the Family Children’s Zoo, you’ll find the Wild Sapling Play Forest. Kids can climb a log tower, burrow their way through an above-ground tunnel of metal vines and zig-zag their way around a balance beam interspersed with tree-stump platforms. They can make mud pies and use tools to dig in a large pit filled with finely grained dirt befitting a forested hideaway
City kids get a little bit country at this rural pocket of Lincoln Park Zoo, Farm-in-the-Zoo. The Main Barn consists of play stations designed for toddlers and young learners. You’ll find a kid-sized chicken coop with newly hatched chicks that encourages that vital first connection to nature, a theater for kids to exercise their imaginations and sensory stations to promote hands-on activities. The dairy barn is home to goats and cows and features demonstrations that teach kids about the milking process and the Livestock arena gets kids interested in caring for farm animals with pony grooming demonstrations.
Make the day musical
Sing, dance and clap your hands with Chicago’s beloved Mr. Singer every Wednesday and Friday at 9:15 and 10 a.m. in the Main Barn of Farm-in-the-Zoo. All eyes will be on Mr. Singer as he performs original songs while the wee ones dance and sing along. Every show features a “kids’ choice” and a “grown-ups’ choice,” giving you the opportunity to request your favorite sing-along song.
Get your daily greens
The Edible Gardens is at the heart of the Farm and invites kids to experience hands-on lessons on the origins of food. On Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday (9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.), April-October, Green City Market staff members and zoo volunteers help visitors to plant, weed, compost and harvest in the hopes of establishing a deeper connection to the resources that sustain us all — food from the Earth.
Play Days at the Farm
On Tuesdays and Saturdays, 10 a.m.-noon, ages 1-5 and their caregivers are invited to the Main Barn to join Play Assistants for hands-on nature play activities. From sorting pine cones to digging in smooth seeds, kids can explore the sights, smells and textures of nature, while also listening to a tall tale and getting messy at the art station.
Worth a mention
Look closely and you might just spot a giant frog . . . or native birds, fish, turtles and insects at this natural ecosystem and outdoor classroom.
photo: Lion Fountain courtesy of Liz DeCoster via flickr
Don’t miss the tiny special details
Schlepping kids around the zoo can make you thirsty, so we’ve got a treat that may go unnoticed when you’re ready to wet your whistle. Lincoln Park Zoo has a trio of sculptural drinking fountains that put the old-school drinking fountains to shame. Just west of the Kovler Lion House, you’ll find “Lion Fountain” (shown above) which depicts a lion pride — an adult male, adult female and three small cubs mounted on a bronze podium where they appear to be sharing a drink with their human friends. North of the Regenstein African Journey near Conservatory Gate is the home to “Elephant Fountain” where a bronze mama and baby elephant wait patiently for visitors to supply them with a cool drink of H20. Lastly “For the Young at Heart” at the Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo features a rabbit, dear, raccoon and nut-carrying squirrel frolicking near its three spouts.
How can you support the zoo?
Besides paying for parking, the train and carousel, Lincoln Park Zoo hosts several fundraisers throughout the year to keep their general admission free. One of the most popular, the Run for the Zoo in June, consists of a 10K run or 5K run/walk that’s open to families and even strollers, as long as they start at the back. The 10K goes past Diversey Harbor and the zoo’s Nature Boardwalk, while the 5K traces the zoo grounds, north to south. If your sidekick doesn’t want to go the distance, she might be swayed to try the obstacle course challenge for those ages 8 and younger. Called Safari Stampede, it spurs kids to balance like a flamingo, hop like a toad, crawl like a grizzly and leap like a lion.
Become a member! A membership buys you special invites to exclusive zoo events, free and reduced parking, discounts on zoo programs, like camps, and purchases, and free or discounted admission to more than 100 zoos and aquariums (over 100 miles away, typically) through the reciprocal program. As a bonus, since this is a non-profit organization, a membership is a tax write-off.
What if you have a kid with special needs?
While Lincoln Park Zoo doesn’t have set times to bring kids who need special accommodations, they do have a great resource guide on their website giving tips on best times to come and which animal houses are the quietest, have lighting that’s comforting or are all-together sensory neutral.
Now that you know how cool the zoo is, what’s the best way to get there?
Lincoln Park Zoo is located in the city, which is cool because it has a unique urban vibe, but it can make navigating getting there just a bit more tricky than suburban zoos.
The entrance to the parking lot is located at Fullerton Parkway and Cannon Drive. Parking is free for the first 30 minutes, beyond that the rates change seasonally and can be found on the zoo’s parking page.
Buses 151, 156, 22 and 36 all service the zoo.
The nearest train station is the Armitage station about one mile west of the zoo. which services the Brown and Purple lines.
Depending on time of day, a cab from downtown Chicago to LPZ is about $10.
There are racks located near the East Gate, West Gate, Cafe Brauer and Lincoln Park Conservatory with additional racks along Cannon and Stockton Drives.
Tips for a fun zoo-day
- Go during the week if at all possible. You’re there to see animals, not humans, and there are fewer people during weekdays.
- The zoo has lots to take in and you’ll want to go at a leisurely pace to minimize the stress that comes from rushing, so get there early. Jockeying nap times may hamper your ability to do this, but the earlier the better.
- Check the zoo’s website for the 411 on daily activities, like learning about seal training and polar bear care.
- Make a list of must-dos that cater to the interests of the individuals in your group. If Timmy has a serious thing for kitties and Molly just MUST see the snakes, then it will benefit you to check out the online maps so you can get in the important stuff.
- Make a note of the interactive areas. While staring at the animals is tons of fun, the kids are going to want to DO something. Make sure you’re mixing in the rides, the treehouse they can actually climb and other fun features.
- Know your limits. And by that we mean, know THEIR limits. Even the most charming child can tilt into full-scale meltdown when they’re beyond exhausted and too hot/cold and overwhelmed by the smell of the elephants. Incorporate the wisdom of Kenny Rogers into your zoo visit, “Know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”
- Don’t forget to bring along a camera or a camera phone to help remember your special family day.
Lincoln Park Zoo, 2001 N. Clark St., Lincoln Park
— Maria Chambers