The St. Louis Zoo is one of the country's best. Actually, both Parenting Magazine and Zagat's call it the top zoo in the nation. Not only does the St. Louis Zoo excel at getting visitors face-to-face with animals, it's also respected for creating exhibits that resemble each animal's natural habitat. Surprisingly, it does all this without charging a dime for admission!
The Zoo has always been one of the best free attractions in St. Louis. What to see once you're there? Here are ten things that shouldn't be missed.
The only way to get closer to a penguin is to be a zookeeper. At the Penguin & Puffin Coast, a short glass wall lets you watch the animals swim below water, or peer over the wall and watch them swim right below your nose. The experience is so up-close, you're likely to get a little wet as penguins splash and dive, or as the puffins dart and flip in and out of the water. Don't forget to look up, as penguins aren't shy about climbing on rock ledges just a few feet above visitors' heads.
Hippo Harbor is another example of the Zoo's success at creating exciting, face-to-face encounters between visitors and animals. Just a few inches of glass separates you from 3,000 pound (or more) hippos as they romp through their 60,000-gallon pool. Although sometimes it seems that such a large pool's not necessary, as the hippos enjoy nosing right up against the viewing glass, much to the thrill of small children and adults alike.
The Children's Zoo is not to be confused with your typical petting zoo. Sure, there are plenty of friendly animals for kids to touch and see. But the Children's Zoo is more like a giant playground, and the animals are just there to play too. There's a see-through slide through an otter pool, and kangaroo's play right alongside an indoor playset. Of course, learning about animals is part of the fun, so volunteers and staff regularly bring out birds, snakes, frogs and other animals for up-close encounters and to answer questions. Admission is ~$4 per person, but kids under two get in free. The Children's Zoo is completely free the first hour the Zoo is open.
The carousel at the Zoo is a far cry from the plastic and generic carousels found today at most festivals and parks. Although relatively new, its 64 animals are all hand-carved and beautifully painted. Kids absolutely love trying to decide which animal will be their steed for the day. Choices range from the always popular lion, tiger or zebra, to more fun and exotic choices such as a caterpillar, poison dart frog or warthog. Cost is $3 per ride, but accompanying adults get on free. Rides are also free for the first hour the Zoo's open. All proceeds go toward the Zoo's WildCare Institute, which works to protect and conserve protected and endangered species around the world.
If being inches away from a playful penguin or a massive hippo is still too far, the Zoo offers lots of ways to get even closer. Its 'Behind-the-Scenes Tours' let visitors interact directly with animals and learn more about their care and habitats. Ten different tours are available, ranging from a chance to feed giraffes, create fun enrichment toys for monkeys, hold a ball python or go behind the scenes of the cheetah yards. Although tours cost either $25 or $50 per person (except the Sea Lion Encounter, which costs $65), they often prove to be the highlight of visitors' trips and are well worth the splurge. Tours require a minimum of two or four people and must be booked three weeks in advance.
Few things are more exciting at the Zoo than feeding time. Just like us, animals love to eat, and feeding time usually means lots of activity and a chance to see animals get a bit more playful. Feeding times are spaced throughout the day and vary by animal. But regardless of what time of day you're there, chances are there's a feeding time about to start. Here are some of the more popular (and regular) feeding time schedules:
Penguin & Puffin Coast
10:15 a.m., 1:45 p.m. and 3:15 p.m.
The Sea Lion Basin
10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.
The Children's Zoo
Getting there is half the fun, and riding the Zooline Railroad is no exception. A lot of visitors see the train as just an amusement ride, not realizing they can also use it to zip across to different sections of the park. Each train stops at four stations, spread across the Zoo grounds. You can get off at any station, visit the exhibits nearby, then jump back on the train and head to the next stop. Many parents find the train is a great way to keep their children entertained and still for a few minutes. Plus, it adds an extra sense of adventure! A roundtrip ticket is $5, but children under two ride for free. Trains run every day, usually from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., weather permitting.
The newest exhibit at the Zoo is Sea Lion Sound. The exhibit includes a 35-foot underwater tunnel and an arena for sea lion shows. The tunnel is open year-round, while sea lion shows are offered during warmer months. Watch the sea lions show off their skills at walking on their flippers, jumping hurdles and playing Frisbee. But be warned, if you sit up close, you may get wet. The shows run every day from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Tickets are $4 a person. Children younger than two get in free.
When you drive to the Zoo from Hampton Avenue, the first thing you'll notice is a giant rust-colored steel sculpture that sits at the southeast corner of the Zoo. You may do a double take when you see just how big it is. The Animals Always sculpture features more than 60 animals peeking out from behind trees and bushes. Artist Albert Paley created the animals from 100 tons of steel, making it the largest sculpture at any public Zoo in the United States. It's not enough just to drive by; kids love to see how many animals they can find and name. To get an up-close look, walk out the south entrance of the Zoo and up Wells Avenue.
For a true look at zoo history, stop by the Flight Cage built for the 1904 World's Fair. The cage is now home to the Cypress Swamp and 16 species of birds found throughout North America. It's a great exhibit for young children because the birds are free to walk, fly or swim throughout the entire exhibit. That means they're usually up-close and easy to see, and often fly right overhead or waddle right past your feet. There's also a floating bridge in the middle of the exhibit that kids like to walk across. The Flight Cage is one of the most recognized sites at the Zoo, but don't just walk by—stop in and see why it has been attracting visitors for more than 100 years.