Minnesotans are lucky to have a treasure like the Minnesota Zoo in our own backyard. With over 1.3 million visitors to the zoo annually, it is clear that it’s a popular place to see exotic species, learn about animal behaviors and enjoy the day. But many families are not aware of the behind-the-scenes options, special events and places to go to make your zoo excursion a breeze when traveling with kids. Here are a few insider tips on what add-ons and general necessities will make your next trip to the zoo easier and more memorable.
The Minnesota Zoo
13000 Zoo Blvd.
Apple Valley, MN 55124
The Minnesota Zoo, located just south of the Twin Cities, is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The zoo does stay open later until 6 p.m. on select weekends and during the summer, but is always closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. The nearly 3,000 animals that call the Minnesota Zoo home tend to be most active and curious about humans in the early morning and late afternoon, which also happens to be the same time crowds are smaller. Even in the cold Minnesota winter, the zoo is a great place to come because there are less school field trips and fewer tourists. The toasty indoor areas, including Tropics Trail and Discovery Bay, will keep you warm and in a tropical state of mind. But unfortunately, as of September 2, 2013, the popular monorail system will be discontinued, so plan on bundling up to explore the outdoor exhibits such as the Northern Trail and Russia’s Grizzly Coast.
The zoo offers a number of Animal Encounters programs, including the popular Bear Encounters. During the bear program, for example, a small group of up to four visitors take an up-close look at grizzly bears Sadie, Haines and Kenai to learn about their personalities, eating habits and training schedule from zoo staff. You’ll tour the kitchen the bears’ meals are made in and speak with their trainers. Guests even leave with a piece of artwork created by one of your new bear friends. The Animal Encounters program changes frequently with season or mating habits, but other Encounter programs that have been available recently include giraffes, penguins, stingrays and sea otters. Check the zoo’s website for additional costs, age restrictions, registration requirements and dates for each individual encounter.
Woodland Adventures makes a great mid-day pit stop for kids to blow off steam and parents to relax when outdoor weather cooperates. This nature-themed play area features suspension bridges, hollow tree holes, tunnel slides and more throughout its 4,800 square feet. Fun animal sculptures, including a giant eagle’s nest and large mosquito, are begging to be climbed upon and explored. In the summer, there is even a splash pad to cool off in.
Places To Care For The Little Ones
Traveling with small children presents a whole other list of necessities. For family-style restrooms which allow for more space and privacy, try those located at the Wells Fargo Family Farm area, the Target Learning Center or near the splash pad and Woodland Adventures in the Central Plaza. Some of these family restroom areas also include chairs for mothers who need to nurse. Another popular nursing spot is the reading corner of the Bee Hive, which will also allows for older children to stay occupied. To store extra items that you don’t want to lug around the zoo, rent a locker for 50 cents at the base of the Tropics Trail ramp or just past the main zoo entrance. Single and double strollers can also be rented at the entrance for $5-$8 per day, but are not allowed within the Weesner Family Amphitheater or Target Learning Center.
For families looking to extend their animal adventure, try a Family Overnight. Your clan will be able to sleep next to the exhibits of sharks, bears and other popular zoo creatures. Evening snacks, behind-the-scenes tours, animal education, fun activities and crafts and breakfast are all provided during the 6:30 p.m. to 9 a.m. zoo stay. For prices, age restrictions or available zoo overnights, check the Minnesota Zoo website.
Baby Animals And New Exhibits
Everyone loves to check out the latest newborns at the zoo and any new exhibits. The Minnesota Zoo highlights these on its website, so check them out before your visit to plan out your route or ask a zoo employee where and when these new animals can be viewed. One year (2008), there were 246 births and hatchings at the Minnesota Zoo. This year’s newest animals include two Asian wild horses, a Bactrian camel calf, two Amur tiger cubs and a baby sloth.
Cortney Mohnk is a freelance writer covering all things Minnesota. She is also a public relations and event planning professional. Her most important job is mother to her young daughter, who is her partner-in-crime when checking out the family entertainment scene in the Twin Cities. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.