Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens: Made for Kids

The Giraffe Overlook allows visitors to feed giraffes and see them up-close.

Even grown-ups get giddy when they first discover Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens’ Giraffe Overlook.

The elevated viewing area lets you look out over the 2.5 acres the zoo’s giraffes call home. More often than not, you’ll be able to see a giraffe eye-to-eye as he nibbles on lettuce. You can even be the one to feed him for a $2 fee.

That’s just one of the exhibits that makes the zoo one of those places we visit over and over again. There are a lot of great attractions in our area that I’ll take my children to once or twice, and then we’ll have “been there and done that.” But we discover something new every time we go to Jacksonville’s zoo.

See the elephants splash in their 275,000-gallon pool in Elephant Plaza.

The zoo, which will turn 100 years old in 2014, spans over 90 acres about 20 minutes south of the Nassau-Duval county line. There are more than 1,800 animals and 1,000 varieties of plants. See cheetahs, wart hogs and zebras as you walk the boardwalk in the African Loop. Teach your kids about alligators, bald eagles and panthers in the Wild Florida section. Watch the jaguar prowl in his steep, rocky range. Let your kids climb into the underwater viewing space at the penguin exhibit. There’s plenty of room to hop like kangaroos in the Australian section. And be sure to check out the aviary exhibits, primates and reptiles. You’ll likely hear the lion before you see him – his powerful roar can be heard from the other end of the zoo.

It’s an especially child-friendly zoo, with wide, stroller-ready walking paths and lots of activities to enjoy when you need to stop walking and take a break. There is a carousel, a large playground area, even a water play park. There is a train that snakes through the zoo while a guide shares facts about the animals (Note: There is an extra fee to ride the train). There are lots of benches, restrooms, drinking fountains and places to eat. There is also a picnic park if you prefer to bring your own lunch.

This isn't the playground for the kids, but it sure is fun to watch these guys play!

We’ve gone to the zoo enough times that we have a routine: walk the African loop, feed a giraffe, then head to the Range of the Jaguar, being sure to let the little guy toss a penny in the fountain. After we ride the carousel and walk past the flamingoes, the kids always seem to need a break, which the zoo was smart enough to predict, because this is where you’ll find one of its main restaurants, Trout River Grill. We usually stop for burgers or hot dogs, fries and maybe some ice cream, then get back to exploring. There’s the Australian section, the frogs exhibit and the Asian section, then we visit the petting zoo and the penguins before letting the kids get their wiggles out at the playground. A little more exploring takes us through the great apes section and Wild Florida, and by that point we’re pretty worn out. We’ll take a train ride if we have any energy left, and then it’s time to head home. The kids always fall asleep the second they’re in their car seats.

The zoo accommodates all kinds of visitors, with everything from maps to stroller rentals for first-timers, and with cool (and very high-demand) educational programs for passionate locals. They offer behind-the-scenes tours at night, a hands-on class for toddlers, and – every October – they welcome thousands of costumed kids to trick-or-treat in their Spooktacular Halloween special. They also have a membership program, allowing families to return to the zoo as often as they like for a flat rate of $100 a year.

The play park has all kinds of features to climb, a giant rope "spider web," slides, rock-climbing and more.

If you want to go:

Where: 370 Zoo Parkway, Jacksonville, FL

When: Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day but Christmas.

Rates: Free for children 2 and under; $9.95 for children up to 12 years old; and $14.95 for teens and adults. There are always military and senior discounts, and there are often specials offered on the zoo’s website.

For more Information: Call 904-757-4463 or visit their website at www.jacksonvillezoo.org.

Tip: If you have any questions about the zoo, be sure to take a look at their website. It is very comprehensive, with a map, rates, and all kinds of photos and background information.

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