Wild animals around every corner? Check. Venomous centipedes? Check. Hands-on critter encounters? Check. Ice Cream? Check. What better place to turn your kids loose than within the spacious grounds of the Los Angeles Zoo? And while it’s such a wonderful place to explore and observe, you can make your visit even better with our helpful tips on everything from exhibits to eats. Who knows, maybe your kids will soon be leading zoo tours of their own!

photo: Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens via Yelp

When To Go
If you can swing it, visit the zoo during the week right after they open when most families are at school or work. The earlier the better as the animals are more active in the mornings, and the parking lot is not as full so parking will be plentiful! While weekends might make zoo visits seem easier schedule-wise, they’re (quite frankly) a zoo people wise. Another great time to visit? Chilly or overcast days are the best days to visit the zoo where you’ll have it all to yourself and see the animals really let loose and not hide in the shade on those too-sunny days.

What To See & When To See It
Once inside, take a quick peek at Reggie the alligator sunning himself on his favorite rock, say hi to the pretty-in-pink flamingos as you walk past (make sure to hold your nose) and then make a beeline for the LAIR (Living Amphibians, Invertebrates, and Reptiles). Housed in two, side-by-side buildings, these 49 beautifully themed exhibits feature snakes, scorpions, tarantulas, lizards, frogs, salamanders and other creepy crawlies that are sure to knock the scales off of your tiny tadpoles. For those who are looking for a bigger reptile fix, head to the Australia section and drop in on the Komodo Dragon exhibit to feast your eyes on the world’s largest lizard.

photo: Jenifer Scott

From there, swing over to the Wasserman Family Thai Pavilion at the Elephants of Asia habitat to watch the zoo’s 7,000-pound pachyderms in action. Every day at 11 a.m. the expertly trained animal staff give a positive reinforcement training demonstration with these beauties showcasing how they are kept healthy and happy.

photo: Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens via Facebook

Next stop? Visit hippo Mom Mara and her adorable toddler Rosie. Here you can get quite close and personal with a Hippo Encounter, which takes you behind the scenes with these lovingly large ladies where staff share details about their care, training, and feeding. On weekends and holidays, anyone 4 years old and up can purchase a $20 ticket (kids must be accompanied by an adult) to take part in the encounter at noon. (Book before you go – only 25 people are allowed in a day.)

Insdie Tip: Now it’s probably time for a lunch break! Check out our favorite options below… then back to the itinerary.

Our first stop post lunch is usually the gorillas. The shady seats by the window make a nice spot to digest and kids can spend hours there watching the gentle giants lumber, eat and play. Much like your own young, the juvenile gorillas get pretty feisty after lunch making them even more fun to observe (and relate to). There is also a daily Chimp Chat show at 12:30 p.m. where an educational specialist is on hand to chat about these great apes as they go through their mid-day routine.

photo: John Verive via Flickr

If your little monkeys are clamoring for a true hands-on experience, meander on over to the giraffe enclosure where giraffe feedings are held twice daily from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. and again from 2 p.m. – 4 p.m. Be prepared to hear lots of squeals from your little ones as they get up close and personal with long, 18″ sticky giraffe tongues wrap themselves around outstretched lettuce leaves. Remember to bring hand sanitizer!

photo: Annie B via Yelp

For a few extra bucks, families with little ones might opt to take the shuttle to the top of the zoo and then walk back toward the entrance, which is mostly downhill. That’s your next stop – the far end of the grounds and the Neil Papiano Play Park. Because no matter how much you want to check out the animals, your kid’s favorite spot is bound to be the playground here (where they can go wild and you can go rest).

As you begin your descent downhill, be sure to stop in on the Rainforest of the America’s before calling it a day – the most recent zoo exhibit which opened only a few years ago. Folks of all ages will love staring at the 8,000-gallon tank filled with red-bellied piranhas in an enclosure where the tropical rainforest (literally) comes to life!

photo: Stephen Z via Yelp

Lastly, a trip to the Zoo wouldn’t be complete without a quick spin on the carousel so be sure to end your day here across from the Rainforest exhibit. Tickets are $3 per ride and can either be purchased at the machines next to the carousel, in advance online or at the ticket windows outside the entrance. Probably best to get them ahead of time if you know your little thrill-seekers are going to want to ride as the ticket machines can get pretty crowded.

photo: Jenifer Scott

Where To Eat
If you opt to bring food, then hands down, our favorite picnic spot is on the shaded steps in front of the chimpanzee exhibit. Watch the chimps do their thing in a habitat Jane Goodall would be proud of while refueling for the rest of your day.

If BYOF (bringing your own food) isn’t your thing, there are places throughout the zoo to purchase sandwiches, tacos, french fries, ice cream, and churros. Our favorite spot is the Mahale Café, where you can grab a slice of freshly made pizza or a kids meal for your hungry hippo and sit alongside the giraffes as they munch on leaves from the trees. If no one is in the mood for hot dogs or burritos, check out the gourmet salad and sandwich options at Reggie’s Bistro which offers a more upscale feel, in the front of the zoo.

photo: Luke L via Yelp

The Play Park also has picnic tables and restrooms, making it a convenient eating spot, but be forewarned that this place is busiest from noon to 1 p.m. Next to the play area is an edible garden where volunteers grow certain plants as special treats for the animals such as roses, figs, and beets. Catnip grown in this very space provides hours of play for the Zoo’s resident cat population (hey, tigers just want to have fun!).

And here’s a tip for plant lovers: the cycad garden at the front of the zoo contains some of the world’s oldest plant species – so valuable that they contain GPS chips to prevent theft. “Everybody walks past them,” says zoo educator Stacey Hagreen, “but these are the exact plants that dinosaurs ate.” Next time be sure to point these incredible specimens out to your little herbivores on the way into the zoo!

More Animal Encounters
There are many animals to see, but on your way out (or in), stop by Muriel’s Ranch inside the Winnick Family Children’s Zoo, where kids can brush and pet Nigerian dwarf goats (and a whole bunch of wooly sheep). You and your brood might even get a chance to touch a real armadillo, snake or cockroach!  It’s open from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., and 1:30 p.m. – 4 p.m.

photo: Jenifer Scott

You may wish to time your visit to this part of the zoo to coincide with the Animals & You programs, which are 15 minutes long and take place weekdays at 10:45 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. and on weekends at 10:45 a.m., 11:45 a.m., and 12:45 p.m. These meet-and-greet creature encounters are great fun for kids, as they get up close and personal with animals such as scorpions, hedgehogs, bearded dragons and so much more. It’s a different critter each time so be sure to stop and learn!

photo: Wikimedia Commons

Got a future veterinarian or animal conservationist on your hands? On weekends, bring them by the California Condor Rescue Zone, an immersive play area where kids age six and up can dress as condors or pretend to operate on these almost-extinct birds. Chances are they might even learn a bit about what it takes to protect condors and the role the zoo plays in saving this incredible species.

New At the Zoo

Know Before You Go

  • Save time: buy and print tickets online.
  • Pack sunscreen, water, snacks, camera, baby wipes and hand sanitizer.
  • Don’t feel like lugging that stroller? Rent one at the zoo for $10 (double strollers for $14).
  • Look out for bees. They love sweet treats, like cotton candy and snow cones. Leave sugary drinks at home.
  • Low on cash? Lucky for you, there is an ATM located between the International Marketplace shops.
  • Coolers and picnic baskets are welcome on zoo grounds. Aluminum cans and glassware, however, are not.
  • The LA Zoo is completely wheelchair accessible. From large print maps and wheelchairs for rent to service dogs and guided tours, kids with special needs will be well accommodated!

Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Garden
5333 Zoo Dr.
Los Angeles, CA
Hours: Daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Christmas Day
Price: $21/adult, $16/child, kids two and under are free
Online: lazoo.org

What are your favorite exhibits at the zoo? Let us know in the comments below!

—Jenifer Scott


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