Going to the Zoo? Plan Ahead

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh, My!

take grandchildren to zoo and let them feed the giraffe
Susan Chiang | Getty

Nothing gets the grandkids excited like going to the zoo. Grandparents will have just as much fun as long as they plan ahead. The zoo can be a featured outing for your Grandma Camp, or just a treat to make an ordinary day special. Here are some hints to get the most out of zoo visits with grandchildren.

Before You Go

Planning your trip ahead of time is easy in the Internet age. Look online for resources that will help you plan.

  • Map it out. Spend some time looking at the layout of the zoo online. Plan your route so that you will get to visit the maximum number of must-see exhibits. If your zoo has a tram, bus or aerial tram, plan to use  it to save a few steps. 
  • Consider the weather. Have a Plan B in case of rain. Personally, I like visiting during showery days. The zoo will be less crowded, and an occasional shower may cool things off and bring out the animals. The indoor exhibits can provide a safe haven if the day turns really rainy. 
  • Pick your day. For the best zoo trip, choose a day less crowded. Holidays and fair-weather weekends usually mean throngs of people. You might think that a school day is best, but you may have to contend with large groups of children on school field trips. Early in the school year, there will be fewer school visitors.
  • Pick your time. Most animals are more active in the mornings. Be at the gate when the zoo opens, and you'll beat the crowd and get the best show. You can also go later in the day, when lots of visitors will be leaving. Many zoos now have night hours and special evening events such as Zoo Lights. These are worth a look, although some animals will be snoozing.
  • Know about special features. My zoo has a splash park, but you can't enjoy it if you aren't prepared with swimsuits and towels. 
  • Don’t take too many grandchildren. One child per adult is optimal. Two small children per adult is the upper limit if you want to enjoy the trip, unless you are especially talented at handling your grandchildren.
  • Don't promise a tiger. Zoo animals can be reclusive. In addition, zoo keepers occasionally close exhibits or remove animals for various reasons. Prepare children for the possibility that they may not get to see all the animals.
  • Have a plan, but don't be afraid to ditch it. Every zoo trip is different. When a particular animal or group of animals decides to put on a show, enjoy it. Don't feel that you have to stick to a schedule.

Keep It Affordable

Zoo outings were once inexpensive, but admission prices have risen greatly. One-day adult admission to the San Diego Zoo, for example, is now around $50. Of course, smaller zoos are less expensive and still offer a full experience. But even a small zoo can turn into an expensive outing. Save money with these hints.

  • Analyze admission prices. Most zoos have special prices for members. If you live nearby and will be making multiple visits, joining can save you money. Check the Internet for free days or discounts. Some zoos have special deals on Grandparents Day
  • Consider special events. The zoo website will mention times when the animals are fed or when zookeepers are available for questions. These can add fun and educational value to trips. Other add-ons, such as feeding the giraffes, are affordable. Many zoos offer special tours and sleepovers, which can be very pricey. These could be great special-occasion gifts for grandchildren.  
  • Don't spend a lot on food and drinks. Know the zoo's policy about bringing in food. Packing a picnic lunch can save money. Use the water fountains when you get thirsty.
  • Have a gift shop strategy. Lots of grandparents have a policy of no gift shop stops. This saves money and hassles. If you plan a gift shop stop, let the kids know what your price limit is, and stick to it.

Keep Everyone Safe

A few highly publicized cases have made most adults aware that no environment is 100% safe. Make sure that the grandchildren do not breach barriers and do not tease the animals.

  • Respect the animals. Teach the grandchildren that tapping on glass is a no-no, as is throwing human food into animal areas.
  • Wash up after any contact with animals. If the zoo includes a petting zoo or children's zoo where children can touch the animals, be sure they wash their hands thoroughly after contact. Don't rely on hand-santizing gel. Don't allow children to take their bottles, pacifiers or other items into the animal contact area.

    Reduce Baggage

    In trying to be prepared for every need, grandparents sometimes overburden themselves. At the very least, strip your bag of non-essentials. For the ultimate in convenience, try the much-maligned fanny pack! 

    • Consider leaving the camera at home. It's tempting to take pictures of all the cool animals, but juggling a camera and the grandkids can be a challenge. In addition, getting good shots is complicated by fences and barriers and glass that creates troublesome reflections. Why not just enjoy looking? Of course, if you have paid for a special experience, such as feeding the giraffes, you will want to snap a few shots with your cell phone or carry a camera.
    • To stroll or not to stroll. If you have a toddler grandchild, you'll probably want to take a stroller, but strollers can be hard to maneuver in crowded conditions. Preschoolers are likely to want out of the stroller frequently to get a better view. Sometimes it's best to skip the stroller and keep the visit short enough that the kids don't get overtired.

    Avoid Fatigue

    Getting overtired can spoil a trip for grandparents and grandchildren. Avoid fatigue with these strategies.

    • Schedule breaks. Spend an hour on your feet, then plan to sit down for a while. Watch the birds, or see how many animal sounds you can identify while you have a drink or snack.
    • Stay hydrated. Sometimes what appears to be fatigue is simply dehydration.
    • Start leaving before everyone is exhausted. Overstaying leads to crankiness that can cast a pall on an otherwise good trip.