America's Wildest Zoos
America's zoos make it possible to trek into the "wild" for those who might otherwise never visit the Serengeti or Himalayan mountains to meet unusual wildlife like zebras and mountain lions in their natural habitats. Even better, outdoors and adventure lovers can traverse recreated environments like a tundra, Asian rainforest and African savanna in a single day, encountering a breathtaking variety of wildlife, including giant pandas, rare bonobos and Komodo dragons. Grab your binoculars and bush hat: We've selected the wildest zoos in America for animal lovers and families to explore.
While the animals are the main attraction here, the grounds are also a veritable wonder, having been accredited as a botanical garden featuring more than 1 million plants. To traverse the enormous grounds, jump aboard the San Diego Zoo's 35-minute Guided Bus Tour, which offers a narrated tour covering some 70% of the zoo. Or take the Express Bus, a hop-on, hop-off affair that makes 5 stops throughout the grounds. For a literal overview of the zoo, get sky-high on the Skyfari aerial tram, which gives riders an aerial view of the grounds.
Must-see stops include the Scripps Aviary (filled with 130 African native birds), the Polar Bear Plunge and the Panda Trek, where visitors can wander through a bamboo forest spotting giant and red pandas.
The experience is sure to make visitors forget they're a mere subway ride from America's most massive city. Get up close and personal with beastly Siberian tigers at Tiger Mountain, a sprawling viewing enclosure, and meander through the Wild Asia Complex, which recreates Asian rainforests, complete with native birds, leopards, gibbons and lizards.
Catch a gander at a variety of wildlife while taking a load off your feet, with a ride on the Wild Asia Monorail, a safari in miniature, which winds through enclosures housing elephants, rhinos, antelope, horses and deer. To beat some of the zoo’s notorious crowds, arrive as early as possible, or visit on a weekday or during the winter off-season.
Highlights include the PECO Primate Reserve pavilion featuring gorillas and orangutans, as well as First Niagara Big Cat Falls, where visitors will encounter tigers, lions, leopards and jaguars -- try to visit here during feeding times. Families will also enjoy the McNeil Avian Center, a rain forest habitat where visitors will discover over 100 bird species from around the world.
Opt for a unique experience riding in the Channel 6 Zooballoon, a 30-passenger helium balloon that rises 400 feet above the zoo, offering glimpses of giraffes, zebras and even the Philadelphia skyline. Finally, pay a visit to the Reptile and Amphibian House, where simulated thunder and lightning "storms," periodically refresh the creatures.
Notable zoo exhibits include Animal Encounters Village, the largest manatee exhibit outside of Florida, a 100,000-gallon coral reef exhibit and an African Forest, featuring rare bonobos, gorillas and apes, including Colo, the first great ape born in captivity, in 1956 -- and now the oldest living gorilla in captivity anywhere in the world.
While Disney’s Animal Kingdom includes an expected assortment of animals such as zebras, elephants and hippos, it's also earned acclaim for its rides and attractions, including the Expedition Everest high-altitude roller coaster, the Kali River Rapids raft ride, the Kilimanjaro Safaris Expedition and the Wildlife Express Train.
Daily performances also make Disney’s Animal Kingdom exceptional: Must-see shows include Finding Nemo -- The Musical and Mickey's Jammin' Jungle Parade, featuring nearly 60 characters and cast members, including puppets and stilt walkers.
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