FL or Bust: The Real Zootopia
Photos//Text: Kelsey Walters
It’s the most wonderful time of the year – the time when it finally starts to cool down! Ok, I may be the odd Floridian out here, as most of us are around because we enjoy the warmth, but as my baby bump grows larger (minute by minute, it seems) and my due date in March approaches, I very much appreciate the cooler days.
We have had a pretty warm winter thus far, with a cold front moving in here and there, but we have mostly been in that golden time of perfect days in the 60s and 70s. We aren’t the only ones loving the cool breezes. Now is the perfect time of year to visit the zoo! Unlike our sweltering summers, the mild days offer a chance to see more active animals that are more comfortable and even helps to cut down on that awful “zoo smell.”
The Jacksonville Zoo is only about an hour and a half north of the Volusia County area, and while it is around the same size as the Central Florida Zoo in Sanford, it offers way more to see and experience, in my opinion. With a zoo offering lions, tigers and bears, you can’t go wrong!
Although my husband, Scott, and I put in quite a few steps on our Fitbits the day we visited (nearly seven miles) the 116-acre park never felt like a huge trek to get to the next exhibit, with a lot to keep your attention.
The zoo is divided into geographical areas, housing the animals known for that region. The Wild Florida exhibit lets you get to know the creatures native to our own backyard, with gators, bears and bobcats, plus every bird, reptile and amphibian you can think of. The Plains of East Africa are where the zoo packs a punch with the “big” animals, including the lion, southern white rhino and my current spirit animal, the African elephant. Much like the pachyderm, I too am slowing down and getting round. The African exhibit is also home to the zoo’s cheetah conservation efforts and some of the world’s deadliest snakes.
The Giraffe Overlook is always a huge hit with crowds young and old, giving you the chance to feed the tallest animals on the property face-to-face. Similarly, Stingray Bay is a fun, interactive exhibit where you can feed and pet the stingrays as they glide by gracefully. One of my favorite things to do at the zoo is stop by the aviary to visit both the exotic and domestic birds that surprisingly like to get rather close and personal.
On those warmer days that we do tend to see throughout the winter (it is Florida, after all) the 4,000-square-foot splash park is a great stop for kids, with a café nearby for snacks, petting zoo and one of my all-time favs, penguins!
The exhibit even has a child-height viewing window so the little ones can watch the penguins zoom by in the water. There is also a dry playground with a tree house and rock wall for the chillier days.
One of the great things about this zoo is their ever- changing offerings. Currently under construction and opening later this year is the new African Forest great ape exhibit, which will be the stunning new home to gorillas, bonobos and lemurs, to name a few. The newest show is called Campground Critters, featuring a cast of all rescued animals including several dogs, cats, birds, even a pig and porcupine.
The show (pictured below) highlights their natural talents in a fun, entertaining way that encourages guests to adopt rather than shop when searching for a pet. The zoo also offers year-round exciting events. January is the perfect time to visit for those on a budget, with a special Zoo Deal being offered nearly every day of the week. Deals include $5 admission for wearing wacky socks or a tutu, BOGO tickets and ticket giveaways to other features of the park like the train or shows. A schedule can be found on the zoo’s website.
If you plan to visit a special zoo event, especially one hosted after regular zoo hours, be sure to purchase your event tickets online ahead of time. Scott and I visited the holiday ZOOLights event in December and were able to stroll past the nearly thousand people waiting in line to have our tickets scanned on our phone. In doing so, we got into the park before just about anyone else, didn’t have to wait in line and even got the train all to ourselves for one of its first trips.
I can’t say enough about the wonderful things this zoo has to offer for everyone in the family, even the ones still in the belly!
Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens
370 Zoo Parkway, Jacksonville, FL 32218
Open daily 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
$17.95/adult; $12.95/child; $15.95/senior