Let me interrupt my regularly scheduled Disney blogging for a fun trip around the zoos of Ohio (and one in Pennsylvania).
Our summer plans included going to Niagara Falls and then planning to see the Columbus and Cincinnati Zoos. Somehow a small joke turned into a decision to visit all of the zoos our state has to offer: Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo, Akron, and Cleveland. Then a family reunion in Pennsylvania extended into a weekend getaway and a visit to the Pittsburgh Zoo. We were able to see and do so much in just under 90 days. The bonus for me was my kids learned to tolerate road trips a little bit better so now maybe we can hit the road more often.
We used the trips as both fun and educational. The kids were learning about different animals and also Peanut was working on his reading skills. I requested he read most of the marquees outside the animal exhibits. Not only was it a lesson in reading and animal science, but also geography as we reviewed the marquees to see where the animals hailed from which often lead to discussion and sometimes a quick Google search on our phones for additional information.
Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium
Our tour of zoos actually started in Pittsburgh. We had been about an hour outside the city for our first (now to be annual) family reunion. After the reunion, we drove closer to the zoo to get a hotel for the night and not have to wake up too early to get there in the morning.
We met with some cousins and their children. We had a 5:5 adults to kids ratio with mine being the oldest at ages 4 and 7. My mom got settled in to learn to use her rented mobility scooter and my cousin rented a double stroller while the littlest guy rode in an umbrella stroller from home. I was taking the challenge of having my kids walk a zoo for the first…. EVER.
I should have remembered growing up when we went back to visit family we always laughed about the hills. Those hills were definitely not missing from the zoo. It was a pretty warm day and walking for my Diva didn’t work out so well. The double stroller was a triple at some points and we broke the scooter rules to let her ride with Grandma for a bit.
Dinosaurs at the Zoo was advertised when we walked in and we were greeted by a person wearing an inflatable dinosaur costume and taking pictures and a giant dinosaur statute for the kids to climb and take pictures. Then we never saw much more of where to go for more dino fun. It must have been tucked away somewhere, but we weren’t really going out of the way to find it.
We trekked our way along the path through the zoo visiting flamingos, rhinos, and a really giant giraffe. It’s really common to see giraffes from an observation deck at most zoos but this one was right in front of us at ground level.
Soon it was getting towards lunchtime and we grabbed a quick, but very expensive, lunch from the dining options placed near the center of the zoo.
As we continued through the zoo there was a feeling of being “trapped.” It felt like a one-way road that you need to continue on until you reached the exit.
The aquariums at the zoo were mesmerizing and probably the highlight. Unfortunately, most of the photos are on my lost memory card. The aquarium featured a two-story tank filled with a variety of fish and sharks as well a stingray exhibit and also a smaller stingray touch-pool that had a tunnel and allowed the kids to go “inside” the pool.
Nearby the aquarium was Pier Town and Otter Cove. I’m not certain the point of Pier Town as it didn’t seem to have much going on and was a little run down. We did find the seals and otters in the areas to be very cute and entertaining.
There were shipping crates throughout the zoo which felt odd at the zoo. They were a magnet for all kids passing by and photos were requested.
A week later Grumpy and I took the kids about 90 minutes away to the Toledo Zoo. Peanut’s attention was captivated immediately by The Rescue Roost, a habitat for sick and injured Bald Eagles located to the left of the zoo’s entrance. We spent a lot of time here reading the different signs around the enclosure and watching the majestic birds as they groomed their feathers. Grumpy had spotted a feeding dish which I couldn’t bring myself to photograph and Peanut anxiously hoped the birds would get hungry. Thankfully they just continued with the feather maintenance and we eventually moved on throughout the zoo.
As we marched on we saw many of the traditional animals: flamingos, a black bear, a couple sleepy tigers, and then we came upon an unusual encounter in the aviary: parakeets. If you have a fear of birds this is not the place to go as the parakeets and some other similarly sized birds freely fly about a room while guests can feed them birdseed from popsicle sticks. We purchased five sticks at $1.00 each and laughed as we fed the birds but also tried to dodge the flying ones.
The aviary was filled with other entertainment, a variety of other birds, and strangely out of place a rather large and tired koala.
We unknowingly dedicated a lot of our time towards birds in the zoo with eagles, parakeets, flamingos, and penguins, but eventually found the most adorable baby gorilla and a hilarious orangutan. Then we found ourselves under the sea again in the aquarium. I am always interested in the animals of the sea and could relax forever watching the animals gracefully swim around. Or watching these two observing the sea life.
Kids being kids they wanted to spend a few minutes at the zoo’s playground and splash pad. Diva wasn’t having the best of days and was whining about the heat. I told her she could walk one time through the splash pad to cool off. I’m not sure who I thought I was kidding. She, of course, ended up completely drenched.
Peanut opted for the dryer side of the setup sliding and swinging. This play and splash area was the best in all of the zoos we visited.
Diva was still dripping wet and now even crankier because after twenty minutes of playtime she wanted more or to go home. She needed to dry before I was letting her hop in my car and there was still another side of the zoo we hadn’t managed to see. We quickly stopped in the arctic encounter and came face to face with a sleeping polar bear and then attempted to visit the African savanna. It was a Sunday afternoon and the giraffe feeding and observation area were pretty full so we viewed from afar. It really seemed quite far. The animals were too far off in the distance to get any good views.
The wires and towers you see are for a pay per ride zipline opportunity which we watched for a few minutes before deciding to call it a day and head home.
Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens
We planned a road trip to do two days of back-to-back zoos mixed with visiting family and friends. Our road trip started with a short stop at my alma mater, The University of Dayton, followed by a stay with extended family that I used to frequently visit while I was away at the school. Staying with them put us about thirty minutes from the zoo. We woke up leisurely and had a slightly later start to the day then I would have planned but still made it to The Cincinnati Zoo shortly after it opened.
I can say with much certainty that this was our most exciting and lively visit of all of our stops. It was another very warm summer day and we started off pretty slow in the morning heat. The upside is that the zoo felt very shaded with many tree-lined paths and one very supersized misting fan.
We made a stop indoors almost right away and wandered around a small education center before venturing out into the morning heat to see elephants and finally take time to feed the giraffes.
We also found a lot of zookeepers doing Q&A sessions throughout the zoo. This was our first stop where we had more of an individual opportunity at random locations to learn more from the zoo staff rather than show up at scheduled education sessions. The kids learned about elephants through skeletal and feces remnants, flamingos, and also snakes (but I wouldn’t get close enough to take a picture).
We had hoped to watch a demonstration at the Cheetah Encounter, an outdoor encounter with scheduled chat and cheetah run times. Due to the extreme heat, the cheetahs were not running that day. We listened to a portion of the chat and Diva got called on to ask a question: “How many spots to cheetahs have?” Of course, she asks a difficult one. We waited for the answer then ducked out of the seating area.
It was a time to grab (another overpriced) lunch and cool off. Our mission after lunch was to find the new baby hippo, Fiona. She was easy to locate with crowds gathered watching as she danced around the water and even shared a kiss with her momma. She was so gracefully adorable and entertaining.
Peanut found the most exciting portion of the trip at the Reptile House. Diva and I preferred the lazy crocodiles, but Peanut loves the snakes. And he really loved that several of them seemed to be enjoying their lunch. I am not afraid to admit that one of my biggest fears ever is snakes. Just being near them even though they’re behind the glass is terrifying. Yet somehow I was intrigued, mesmerize, and really grossed out by their feast and had to occasionally peek to see if the inevitable was really happening. We spent over 20 minutes in the Reptile House most of it with Peanut’s eyes locked on the snakes.
Warning: I can’t even watch this two-minute video below.
I finally convinced both Peanut and Grumpy that I couldn’t stay any longer and got them out of that building. I remained grossed out for only a few minutes when we found a much more enjoyable entertainment at the tiger habitat. We found three tigers cooling off in their pool, running, playing, and just being silly.
It was pretty warm and my phone had overheated and Diva was getting cranky again. We stepped inside the Night Hunters building to cool ourselves and when we attempted it leave it was a monsoon outside. We walked around the building again reading a few more signs before checking the rain again. It had stopped so we walked to Gorilla World, but the rain started again. I had more plans to see a large section of the zoo tucked in the back, but the heat and rain were starting to wear on us all. As soon as the rain to began to slow we decided it was time to try to beat some the rush hour traffic and head to our friend’s house for the night.
Before we left, everyone had to make one last bathroom stop during which I had to snap photos of the facts posted inside. Each stall had a different fact and there were signs around the public area as well. It made me laugh but also was a really cute way of educating.
Although the zoo feels really big and spread out it was actually my favorite stop of all the six zoos we visited this summer. I thought all of the animal habitats were well designed for the animals and for the guests’ viewing. It was really interactive and of course, it was fun to see so many animals awake and full of energy.
Columbus was the biggest of the zoos on our stops. It was not our first trip to the zoo and having spent the prior day in Cincinnati we knew that our time here could be short, especially with more toasty temperatures and a threat of rain in the forecast again. A soon as we arrived I put the kids in charge of making a plan.
Amazingly, they both agreed! The decision was to go towards the Shores & Aquarium. I think it was in part to cool off and in part because we all seem to love the aquatics everywhere we go. However, they were both very soon distracted by a splash pad and play zone. This one was much smaller than the Toledo one and I was very adamant that Diva not end up dripping wet again.
It was really exciting to see some different animals including several species of turtles. I also really liked that each informational marquee also had an endangered meter on it. We had a lot of discussion about what makes animals endangered and looked up some extra facts about locations with endangered species.
We made a very quick trip into Australia and the Islands. Pretty much every animal– the Komodo dragon, koala, and kangaroos were sleeping. The birds in the tiny aviary were hanging out away from people and the very nice employee actually told us not to waste our money to try to feed them because they weren’t really feeding at the time we arrived. I think we spent more time taking a family picture than we did seeing animals in the section.
Despite the hot weather, we found the polar bears to be extremely lively. It started with one bear hopping into the water and seeming annoyed the other did not. Soon the second bear jumped in and began to play. We eventually moved from ground level viewing to the underwater viewing area to witness the fun.
We followed the very loud call of the Gibbons to observe them and very quickly the kids were distracted by the Dinosaur Boat Ride. The map in the queue of the line was a lot of fun, but there wasn’t much of a line so we didn’t get to spend too much time reviewing it. The ride cost us $3/person and had the kids laughing and trembling as they pretended to be afraid. (They do offer a “Zoo-It-All” pass for $15/person which includes the Dinosaur ride and several other rides and attractions throughout the zoo.)
After the ride, the kids decided to go to Asia which meant backtracking since the zoo is divided by a roadway with one very short tunnel providing the only access point between the two sides.
Once in Asia these two Somehow managed to get me to take another picture of a snake. And it’s by far the biggest one I’ve ever, ever seen! They were pretty obsessed again but I couldn’t hang out as long as we did in Cincinnati.
To keep things just as creepy there is a huge bat exhibit– and by huge I mean both the size of the habitat and the size of the bats– just around the corner from this snake. I needed something with fur! I found that just outside the building in the tiger landscape. We almost walked right by seeing nothing visible and then a tiger slowly walked through the glass right up to the window and plopped on the ground in front of us, soon dozing off to the sleep. I caught a picture while its eyes were looking right at us. The kids kept trying to compare the size of their hands to its giant paw.
The last area we visited was North America. We glanced as we walked by a buffalo and some wolves. The massively sized Bob Evan’s “My Barn” drew us in. It was so big we had to see what it was. It’s a petting zoo with the standard sheep, goats, and a few ponies. Most of the animals preferred to be in the barn than outside probably due to the heat. We spent a very short time in the yard due to the limited animals, but also because they request that you leave your bag in front of an attendant while you’re inside. I didn’t love that it wasn’t locked up or that they really have no way of confirming you take the right bag.
It was getting much warmer and Diva was not having all the walking. I wanted to make one last stop to check out the polar bears before leaving. There was some grumbling but after we found them that all stopped. Pete’s Polar World gave the kids a place to goof off for a few more minutes before we walked outside to find the two bears about to put on a show. We had a front row show at ground level and below watching the two bears as they wrestled and played.
It was a fun and exciting way to end our visit. I was a little bummed we didn’t make it to the Africa section of the zoo. I remember it being the best part of my prior trips. Maybe next time.
I must leadoff off with saying that even though Cincinnati was my favorite zoo we visited Akron would be my most recommended zoo to visit with young kids without a question. It is perfectly sized with plenty to see and do. The sad thing is, if I didn’t live about forty minutes from it, I probably wouldn’t even know there is a zoo in Akron, Ohio.
In less than 10 minutes after we walked out of the ticket and welcome center and immediately found some penguins that had both low-level and high-level viewing areas, peered through some “telescopes” as Peanut referred to them and learned new animal facts at the same time, and then found the “Birds of Ohio.” I loved this! We had seen so many exhibits that showed us animals from across the country and around the world but this showed us those at home. It was fun to see the kids find a cardinal and talk about seeing them in our backyard. We spent a long time walking around this aviary where they could make an eagle fly and hang out in a nest.
They also loved the Grizzly at the Grizzly Ridge exhibit. He waltzed right up to the window and one person around even joked he was giving the kids a kiss.
Every zoo has a place for kids to unwind and play. Akron was no different, but one of the places to play was a slide through the otter pool. It was cute to watch the little otters do circles around the slide as the kids went through. Unfortunately, my timing was never good enough to catch an otter and a kid in the same picture except for this one with Peanut’s feet. Those otters are so fast!
I had to beg the kids to stop sliding and I agreed we could go find some food if they did. The food court is rather small, but fitting for the zoo. The food is almost as overpriced as every other place but at this one they offered tater tots! We grabbed some food to share and found a seat where we could watch the aquarium that divided the dining area from a small area with aquatic and rainforest animals.
When I purchased our admission tickets I also upgraded to the included the Wild World Animal Show for an extra $2/person. Both of the kids had heard the teller ask and they wanted to do see it. (I swear it was free the first time we went about five years ago, but I could be wrong.) We needed to kill some time but it was “all the way” on the other side of the zoo. We walked towards the show’s location and it only took about five minutes so the kids played in Wild Prairie area and then we goofed around and took some pictures of the three of us in the perfectly manicured Zoo Gardens.
I don’t quite remember the show from the first time we went to the zoo, but only the building seemed familiar so the elements must have been updated. The jokes were corny but cute as they took us “around the world” with live animals and some videos.
There was only a small portion of the zoo left to see so we walk “all the way” around again in just a few minutes. It’s funny how the map makes the distance seem so much more than it is. We finally came across lions! I’m sure we missed them in Columbus by not visiting Africa but surprisingly we didn’t see them anywhere else either.
We spent almost exactly four hours exploring and it was the one time there was no complaining about too much walking and limited bickering about what to do next. The kids had a great time on our visit and have asked when we can go back again.
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is our “home” zoo located only about 15-20 minutes away. We have been members since Peanut was about a year old. In recent years we’ve only fit a trip or two in as a family and our caregiver has been able to take the kids occasionally during the summers. I grew up visiting the zoo with my family and almost annually as a grade school field trip. It’s crazy to say that was 25-30 years ago. I still remember walking up to “Monkey Island” seeing it crowded with monkeys playing in the water and on the ropes. I was shocked to see 6 years ago it was empty. Six years ago much of the Cleveland Zoo was empty and we were honestly a bit disappointed. Things have changed dramatically since then.
Though we may not get a lot of trips in each year, we have been happy to watch the zoo grow and change. In fact, when we walked in for this visit, my first of the year, I found a brand new welcome pavilion.
Every visit starts with stopping at the African Elephant Crossing. This is a massive habitat immediately after the zoo entrance. We can usually spot four or more elephants but today they were off in the distance and we walked towards the tram to takes us to the Pirate, Cat, and Aquatics building. I was hoping to catch a glimpse the baby snow leopards. I didn’t find the babies, but we did see older one prowling around. I hear the babies are in the new Asian Highlands area that opened this summer. I didn’t find it on the map until after we left.
Most of the animals were inside the building on the day of our visit due to the airshow performances taking place downtown. The pirate section was full of lemurs, mandrills, gorillas, and even a fossa which we took some time to learn about. If you haven’t heard of it, it looks like it belongs in the cat family but is actually a mammal that lives in Madagascar. The information marquee relates the fossa to a mongoose.
The other half of the building houses the aquatic animals. We found Nemo and Dory as soon as we entered that section. Diva immediately saw “Dory” and started yelling.
She took some time to admire them before moving on to see stingrays, starfish, seahorses, eels, a really cool octopus, and some of the biggest and ugliest fish I’ve ever seen.
My kids know the zoo well and knew that they would find the playground right outside the building. It’s a basic playground with a climb-and-slides structure. It was way too hot out to sit around while they played for too long. Luckily I could see the tram station and once it was approaching we quickly darted to catch a ride back towards the entrance so we could visit the tigers and explore some of the set up for the special Asian Lanterns Festival that was taking place evenings at the zoo. I had no idea how cool it was until I was actually there and by that time the exhibit was coming to a close and we had no free time to fit it in. Fingers crossed it returns next year.
For the first time since the Rosebrough Tiger Passage passage opened we saw a tiger outside in the habitat. We only spent a few minutes over here because Diva was getting hot, tired, and cranky (again!).
I decided that we were walking back rather than catching another tram. I’m so glad we did. We ended up stopping in the Center for Zoological Medicine. I’m not sure I even knew there was a building tucked behind some tall grass. It was air conditioned which helped with the attitude Diva having but also had a lot of educational toys and tools for the kids. There was even a video to watch but we missed it while they were playing around and didn’t want to wait for it to start again.
The quick fifteen-minute cooldown bought me a little more time. I convinced Diva that the cute little koala I love to see on each visit was on the way to the exit. Peanut was much wiser and winked at me knowing it wasn’t true. We trekked by the carousel, peered in on the condor, and then I saw the koala tucked up in his tree as usual but hidden behind some extra leaves and out of picture range.
There was no convincing anyone to visit the Rainforest. The Rainforest is located across the parking lot with a separate entrance, but admission is included with your zoo ticket (or membership). While it’s inside it’s a climate-controlled rainforest so it’s pretty warm and humid inside and they wanted to get home to the pool where it was cool.
A few final thoughts…
- Pittsburgh and Cleveland are the only zoos that did not charge a parking fee.
- Food is overpriced at every location, so if you can pack a lunch do it. If not, try to share meals.
- There are tons of “extras” at every zoo: Face painting, carousels and other rides, feeding experiences. Pittsburgh charges for use of the inside the zoo tram. Some locations charge for train rides around the zoo.
- It was amazing to be stroller free at all of the locations for the first time ever. It’s still quite a bit of walking for my four-year-old, Diva. We probably could have benefited with one, but it was doable without.
- There are free play areas around to give everyone a break. They’re great for taking some time to refresh and start walking again.
So that’s our wild summer zoo tour! We can now say we’ve been to every zoo in our state and we did it in one short summer!