Lions, tigers and bears are barely the beginning. The Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak is packed with creatures. But, whether you’ve never been or are a veteran attendee, this is a guarantee: There’s tons to do!
So how can you make this trip fun and easy yet educational, especially during those prime summer months?
Consider the age of your child first, says Diane Miller, chief program officer. “Typically the youngest child will set the agenda, since they have the shortest attention span and are less accommodating.” She then gives parents some advice of relief: “Don’t try and see the whole zoo. Prepare your child by talking to them about what they’re hoping to see at the zoo. Then accomplish that, so the kids are not frustrated when they leave.”
The Detroit Zoo sits on 125 acres so there’s a lot to see – and, with over 2,500 animals from 280 species, there’s a lot to learn, too.
But think small! While strolling, have little chats with your child.
“As often as possible, talk about the animals,” Miller says. “What do (kids) see? Name the animals and point out their size. Talk about their differences and why some are so colorful and others aren’t. Help them see that.”
The best time to catch animals in action is very early in the morning when the temperatures are cooler, adds Alexis Means, director of guest relations and mom of three. She’s been with the zoo for 17 years and says her kids all grew up here.
She too advises finding out what your children want to see (just ask – or dig around the zoo’s website a bit together). Beeline there first.
“You can start at the front of the zoo, walk to the back and take a train back to the front or vice versa,” Means says. “This cuts walking time and distance.”
Whether you have an agenda or just wander, you won’t be bored.
“We have 40 dinosaurs coming back on May 22,” Means says of the popular returning Dinosauria (see below). “They move and are life size. We have Sea Monsters, which is our brand-new 4D movie full of aquatic dinosaurs. It’s very cool and educational. We also have the Ice Age ride that is open now and a brand-new wolf habitat opening up on June 5.”
Scope out other unique zoo residents too. Conservation is a big focus, as the zoo works to maintain threatened and endangered species – and create incredible habitats that mimic the real deal.
State-of-the-art exhibit Arctic Ring of Life is a must-visit (and nice and chilly in summer’s heat!). It’s best known for its playful polar bears that swim over a clear tunnel visitors pass through. It also houses arctic foxes and seals. Step into this “ice world” to catch a unique view.
For a dose of delicate insects, head to Butterfly Garden. Hundreds of butterflies from 70 species flutter, feed on ripe fruit or just show off their beautiful colors in a balmy 75-degree setting.
And, if your kids like being up-close with animals, try the “Giraffe Encounter” in the African Grasslands. Get eye-level with this trio of tall gentle creatures by hopping on the raised wooden deck. For $5, you can even hand-feed them a special snack. Get here early, as this popular attraction maxes at 50 people per session.
Here are a few zoo exhibits to visit (and types of critters you’ll find at each):
- African Grasslands: reticulated giraffes, Grevy’s zebras, lesser kudus (antelopes), white rhinoceroses, African birds, aardvarks.
- Arctic Ring of Life: polar bears, arctic foxes, arctic seals
- Australian Outback Adventure: red kangaroos, wallabies
- Butterfly Garden: Hundreds of free-flying butterflies from 70 species
- ‘Great Apes of Harambee’: chimpanzees, drills (monkeys), western lowland gorillas (located in African Forest, which also has cranes, flamingos, spoonbills, vultures)
- Holden Reptile Conservation Center: Vietnamese long-nosed snake, Chinese alligator, Egyptian tortoise, massasauga rattlesnakes, Gila monster, bearded lizard (200 total reptiles representing 70 species)
- Penguinarium: king, macaroni, rockhopper and gentoo penguins
- National Amphibian Conservation Center: frogs, toads, salamanders, newts, caecilians
“We are hoping that everyone learns that animals are individuals,” says Miller. “You want to be kind and compassionate to all animals. Many of them are rescued, so we want visitors to see that they’re thriving at the zoo.”
Miller’s advice to parents is simple. “Individualize your visit. Try and do something that excites you, too.” After all, parents are also entitled to a good time.
“The zoo is unique,” Means adds. “We have very open habitats and lots of room for kids to run. If families want to relax and watch a movie, they can do that. They can ride a train or visit the reptile conservation center.”
And it’s a fun family outing where learning happens naturally.
Address: 8450 W 10 Mile Road, Royal Oak
Summer hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, April 1-Sept. 7 (until 8 p.m. Wednesdays July-August only)
Cost: $14/adults ages 15-61; $10/ages 2-14 and seniors ages 62-plus, free/under 2; $5/person Simulator Ride; $5/person 4-D Theater; $5/piece of giraffe food for “Giraffe Encounter”; $3/person one-way fare train ride and free/under 36 inches
Parking: $6/cars and vans
Food: Swing by the Arctic Café, an eco-friendly eatery, for a bite year-round. In summer, there’s also the Safari Grill (near the railroad), American Coney Island and Detroit Popcorn (both near Rackham Fountain), Sweet Treats (by the Arctic Ring of Life) and more