8 Can’t Miss US Zoos for Family Visits

by | Oct 26, 2021 | Destinations, Family Adventures, USA

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Do you like to get a little wild and find new adventures wherever you go? As a family who loves having new experiences and learning about new animals, one of our top places to visit in every new destination is the zoo. Whether we’re watching polar bears dive, eagles soar, or lions prowl, we love seeing what we can learn about conservation and animal care. Here are the best zoos we’ve visited in the United States, plus a few more that are on our bucket list of zoos to visit someday!



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Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

The Cincinnati Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in North America, and today it has fans from all over the world thanks to its star animals with social media followings. Fiona the Hippo had the eyes of the world on her when she was born tiny and premature. Now she is a huge, loveable grown hippo, and eager visitors wait in line to see her in Hippo Cove. The highlight of our trip to the Cincinnati Zoo was the Cheetah Encounter, a special show set in a running field where cheetahs can demonstrate their speed and hunting skills. After following the adventures of Kris the Cheetah and her buddy Remus the Dog on Instagram, we were delighted to see Remus make his Cheetah Encounter debut during our visit (and even more delighted when he stole the hunting lure and wouldn’t give it back). 


A lion sits by the glass and ignores nearby kids at the Cincinnati Zoo. The Cincinnati Zoo is one of the top zoos for families to visit.

Apparently, the lion was not impressed with all the attention the cheetahs received at the Cincinnati Zoo. Photo by Paul Nicholson.


Saint Louis Zoo

Here’s what you need to know about the Saint Louis Zoo: it’s free. That’s right, one of the top zoos in the country is free. However, I recommend purchasing an Adventure Pass, which gives you access to stingray petting, the carousel, the sea lion show, and more. The pass is especially worth it for the Zooline Railroad, which will become your best friend as you hike around the expansive park. During your day at the zoo (and yes, you’ll need at least one full day there), stop by and say hi to the grizzly bears, who love to saunter up to exhibit windows and interact with guests. After visiting this zoo, my kids wanted to move to St. Louis.


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Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park

I was not at all expecting to be impressed by Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park. At first, I wasn’t sure about the prospect of combining theme park rides with a zoo. However, the animal exhibits are the best part of the park. The Kilimanjaro Safari is a key experience; it’s an amazing opportunity to see elephants roaming across grasslands and lions lounging on rocks. My favorite part of this zoo is all the acreage available for the animals to live in natural habitats, but my kids loved all the extra amenities, like kid-friendly roller coasters and The Boneyard playground. I will be forever indebted to the random staff/cast member who told me not to miss the Festival of the Lion King during our visit. What a fantastic show! 


Riding in a jeep for a safari at Disney's Animal Kingdom, a top U.S. zoo to experience with kids.

We loved our safari experience at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Photo by Paul Nicholson.


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Nashville Zoo

Of course, I have to shout out to my hometown and its Nashville Zoo. The zoo’s standout feature is their veterinary center, which allows visitors to see baby animals (like snow leopard cubs and caracal kittens!) and watch surgeries and exams on the zoo residents. Their ambassador animal program means you may meet a wandering flock of flamingos or a parade of llamas as you walk through the zoo. (One time we were visited by a caracal and his keeper and enjoyed watching him pace around her like a housecat.) The Nashville Zoo’s gorgeous Expedition: Peru and Tiger Crossroads exhibits are nationally recognized as some of the top exhibits in the U.S.


A cotton-top tamarin sits in a tree at the Nashville Zoo, one of the best zoos for families to visit.

Here’s a secret about the Nashville Zoo: this cotton-top tamarin exhibit is visible only in the women’s restroom in Expedition: Peru. (Sorry, fellas.) Photo by Christy Nicholson.


Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is another powerhouse zoo with free admission. The National Zoo is famous for its conservation efforts with giant pandas, and visitors have plenty of opportunities to watch the pandas play and snack on fruit and bamboo. One of the most delightful features of this zoo is the O-line, which allows orangutans to cross above visitor paths as they move from yard to yard. We also loved the Small Mammal House, which provides up-close looks at fennec foxes, sloths, and more. 


A panda sits in the grass eating a treat at Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C., one of the top zoos in the U.S.

The pandas are the most popular animal stars at the National Zoo. Photo by Paul Nicholson.


Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

I’m fascinated after hearing about the Columbus Zoo’s Heart of Africa exhibit, so this zoo is high on my list to visit soon. Guests at Mapori Restaurant dine in the middle of the exhibit and often see African lions lounging in the grass next to the restaurant windows. There’s also a boat ride that winds through the zoo, floating past otters, orangutans, and gibbons (as well as pretend dinosaurs, in case you have a little one into such things). If you have older kids who need a bit of an adrenaline boost, try the wooden roller coaster or bumper cars in Adventure Cove. 



San Diego Zoo

Both the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park are part of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, and both parks are well-known for their conservation efforts and innovative animal care programs. The safari park allows guests to take guided tours and view animals in expansive habitats resembling their original environments, while the zoo offers a closer look at various species. You can personalize your visit by purchasing behind-the-scenes experiences with your favorite animals. 


A red panda at the San Diego Zoo, one of the best zoos in the world.

The San Diego Zoo is our holy grail of zoo visits. We’ll make it there someday! Photo by Jessica Weiller on Unsplash.


Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium

The Omaha Zoo provides stunning, unique views of its animals, including an underwater kelp forest for sea lions, an indoor jungle full of monkeys, and a gorilla exhibit with viewing bubbles that allow guests to see gorillas face to face. The centerpiece of the zoo is the Desert Dome, the world’s largest indoor desert, which recreates habitats for desert animals across the world. The Children’s Adventure Trails offer safe, interactive activities to help children learn and have fun, including climbing areas, water play, and a giant treehouse. 


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When You Go

As a wild animal fan, I find it painful to limit my list to just these finalists. We’ve enjoyed so many animal experiences around the country, like watching a hippo feeding at the Fort Worth Zoo or riding camels at the Memphis Zoo. And I can’t wait to someday see the sloth tree at the Denver Zoo and experience the monorail at the Bronx Zoo. There are amazing zoos all around the country, and these tips will help you make the most of your experience.


A hippo being fed at the Fort Worth Zoo. A zoo visit is a great stop on a family vacation.

When you arrive at your destination, be sure to check the day’s schedule. Seeing this hippo get a snack was an amazing experience at the Fort Worth Zoo! Photo by Paul Nicholson.


Choosing a Zoo to Visit

Be sure to choose an institution accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Accredited organizations must maintain the highest standards of animal care and safety.


Admission Prices Vary

Zoos may shift admission pricing according to demand or by season. Check online for the best prices and to see if advance reservations are required. AZA-member organizations often offer discounts to members of other AZA zoos, but discounts are available only at ticket windows.


Scheduling Your Zoo Visit

Before choosing a day to visit, check the calendar of events for the zoo. Some places may close early due to special events like Halloween trick-or-treating or holiday lights.

Be Kid-Ready

Check to see if your destination offers stroller rentals, allows outside snacks, or provides filling stations for water bottles. We pretty much require endless snacks to get us through an entire day at the zoo. Plan ahead and pack well for a day of animal fun! 



The Top U.S. Zoos: The Best Zoos for Families to Visit


Christy Nicholson is a writer, editor, and recovering perfectionist from Nashville, Tennessee. When not traveling with family, she enjoys cozy days at home reading, gardening, making music, and wrangling two awesome kids. Christy writes at Any-Worth.com about travel and sustainable living.