America's Wildest Zoos
San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo may well be the city's most popular tourist attraction, and deservedly so; more than 4,000 animals representing 800-plus species call the sprawling, 100-acre animal park home. Visitors will encounter all manner of creatures, including giant pandas, polar bears, elephants and cheetahs, at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park.
While the animals are the main attractions 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 35-minute guided bus tour, which offers a narrated ride 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 perspective 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.
Tourists and locals alike flock to the Bronx Zoo, the nation's largest metropolitan animal park, stretching some 265 acres. Opened in 1899, it houses more than 4,000 animals, representing 600 species, in an environment that emulates a variety of habitats, including African plains, Himalayan mountains and Asian forests.
The experience is sure to make visitors forget that 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 re-creates Asian rain forests, 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 that 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 offseason.
America's oldest zoo opened in 1874 in the City of Brotherly Love, and today, it entertains visitors with habitats featuring more than 1,300 animals spread across 42 acres near West Fairmount Park. The zoo's relatively intimate size means it's easy to enjoy most of its attractions in a single day.
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 more than 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.
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
"Jungle Jack" Hanna, the zookeeper whose frequent television appearances on shows such as Late Night With David Letterman helped make him an animal-loving legend, is the director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, helping it earn a distinguished reputation as one of the best zoos in America. Hanna helped refurbish the Columbus Zoo's 588 acres, build its bevy of animals to some 7,000, and expand the grounds to include a theme park, water park and golf course.
Notable zoo exhibits include Animal Encounters Village, the largest manatee exhibit outside Florida, a 100,000-gallon coral reef exhibit and an African forest that features rare bonobos, gorillas and apes, including Colo, the first gorilla born in captivity, in 1956 — and now the oldest living one in captivity anywhere in the world.
Disney's Animal Kingdom
Walt Disney World's largest theme park, Animal Kingdom, spans some 500 acres and offers guests the opportunity to commune with more than 1,700 animals representing 250 species. The park's habitats are divided into 7 areas, including Africa, Asia, Camp Minnie-Mickey and DinoLand USA.
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.