Best Animal Parks in Florida
By Judy Bokorney
Florida's Zoos offer a wide variety of animal exhibits from manatees to bats, giraffes to rodents the size of dogs! Take your family on an adventure they won't soon forget by visiting one of these great animal parks in Florida.
No matter what part of Florida you visit, a quality and exciting zoo is sure to be in the area. My family and I will look back on our zoo adventures with many fond memories and with inspiration to go back again. Every zoo we visited had so much to offer, more than I was able to put in this article. For more information, contact the zoo you are interested in and see what there is to discover.
Miami's Exceptional Aviary
Upon entering Zoo Miami, a large collection of "safari cycles" immediately caught my children's attention. The two-to-six-person bicycles with a canopy on top are the main mode of transportation around the expansive Miami zoo - and a big hit with young visitors. My husband and I each manned a two-person bicycle with a son in tow and were grateful by the end of the day for the amenity, as it afforded us the opportunity to see the entire zoo without exhausting the whole family.
Miami's zoo features extensive African, Asian and Tropical Americas exhibits, but a big favorite for us was the Wings of Asia Aviary. This presentation offers the largest Asian free-flight aviary in the United States with exotic, rare and endangered birds representing 70 species of more than 300 birds. A Field Research Center highlights the similarities and relationships between birds and dinosaurs.
The aviary, along with the rest of the zoo, takes advantage of Miami's beautiful subtropical climate for habitat for the animals, birds and fish. However when entering the aviary it is not the beauty of the flora and fauna that immediately grabs your senses, it is the sound. The air is alive with bird songs. Also adding to the sweet sounds are two rushing waterfalls that you can stand behind and view birds in flight, stationary or floating on a pond. Because of the unrestrictive setting, birds swoop past you as they fly unencumbered and walk beside you on the pathways. The aviary was truly a treat for my family.
Descriptions of animals throughout the zoo are offered in both English and Spanish. After witnessing the proud lionesses stretching out under a large group of trees on top of a grassy hill, one small girl excitedly repeated over and over "Su nombre es Simba" (her name is Simba). Miami houses more than 2,000 animals in cage-less, open-air settings on more than 300 acres of land. And many creatures were unusual.
Komodo dragons and okapis that look a bit like a zebra mixed with a donkey also were critters that we experienced for the first time. But what delighted us most were the animals that wanted to have fun.
At the river otters exhibit, we witnessed a talented otter that could juggle a rock for minutes before dropping it into the water just to retrieve it again and entertain the crowd.
Other creatures were a family of chimpanzees. My family sat down for ten minutes to watch two chimps wrestle and tumble with each other. I don't know what it is about apes, but they always mesmerize zoo goers as these two did, attracting a large crowd of onlookers while we enjoyed them.
Zoo Miami also features a children's zoo and zoo keeper talks, Dr. Wilde's World that provides hands-on interactive exhibits, guided tram and walking tours, a monorail and playgrounds and dining areas throughout the park.
Tampa's Wild Side of Florida
More than 1 million visitors annually pass through the gates of Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, and my family chose a typical Florida sunny day to spend there. Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo is comprised of seven main habitat areas that include Asian Gardens, Free-Flight Aviaries, Florida Wildlife Center, Manatee and Aquatic Center, Wallaroo Station, Safari Africa and Primate World.
The Tampa Zoo offers 1,700 animals on nearly 60 acres of natural habitat. The newest exhibit area, Safari Africa, features zebras, elephants, giraffes, pygmy hippos, warthogs, cheetahs, okapis, white rhinos and other African animal species, Safari Africa offers beautiful vistas with animals in their natural habitats and the opportunity to feed a giraffe and ride a camel. It was a chance for my family to see creatures from faraway places.
My family was really intrigued by the Native Florida Wildlife Center, designed to resemble a historic "Florida Cracker" trail with a wooden boardwalk through native scenery, we encountered all the famous Florida animals and many unknowns.
With background noise supplied by the siamangs from the nearby Primate World, we began the trek by seeing the American bald eagle, Key deer, red wolves, river otters and sandhill crane. As the siamangs' serenade reached its peak, the agitated wolves began to pace faster and faster along the fence wearing down a path in the dirt.
As much as the wolves appeared to be affected by the noisy primates, the black bear across the way was not and slumbered in the hollow of a large oak tree. The flamingos, in defiance, squawked back at the monkeys.
The Florida state animal, the Florida panther, also stalked in its habitat like the wolves. Florida panther is an endangered species with estimates of fewer than 100 still existing in the wild.
We then approached a swampy setting and watched several American alligators glide stealthily through the waters. Yet, my family's favorite protected Florida animal was housed in a center all to its own: the manatee.
Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo has a wonderful Manatee and Aquatic Center as part of its Native Florida Wildlife Center that can keep you busy for at least an hour. Resident manatees - all patients who have come in to the zoo's Manatee Hospital in need of care - can be seen through underwater and above the manatee amphitheater. My husband and I rested on a bench and watched manatees eat tons, literally, of romaine lettuce while sea turtles and tarpon, snook and other Florida saltwater fish glided past. The Manatee and Aquatic Center also showcases tropical fish tanks, sharks like the nurse and bonnethead, large grouper fish, alligator snapping turtles and terrariums full of Florida snakes and amphibians.
As we reluctantly left the aquatic center, thinking we should keep moving to take in all of the zoo, we heard cries and shouts of joy just around the corner. All the commotion was coming from Stingray Bay, a 16,000-gallon touch pool where zoo goers could touch and feed all sorts of stingrays. The stingrays swam circles in the pool flapping their fins while adults and children alike, some more reluctantly than others, gently reached into the water to get a feel of their smooth skin.
After the fish, we went to the fowl. Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo is home to multiple free-flight aviaries, including Lorikeet Landing, where you can purchase food to feed the colorful Australian birds. It was a rare treat to witness fluorescent-feathered birds landing on the heads, shoulders and arms of my husband and children.
Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo also has a four-and-a-half-acre Australian themed children's area called Wallaroo Station Children's Zoo, designed especially for families with young children. Take a trip to the "Land of Oz" and meet wallabies, palm cockatoos, kookaburra, emus, singing dogs and flying fox bats. Kids can also pet the goats, ride a pony or feed the parakeets. Young visitors can cool off in a water play area called the Billabong and take a ride on the Tasmanian Tiger family coaster. The many interactive exhibits and experiences for young children helped Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo achieve the ranking of “No. 1 zoo in the U.S. for kids” by both Child magazine (2004) and Parents magazine (2009).
Jacksonville Loves Jaguars
The city of Jacksonville is known for its professional football team the Jaguars, and The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has become well-known for its twice-national-award-winning Range of the Jaguars exhibit. Other zoo exhibits include Plains of East Africa, Australian Adventure, Stingray Bay, River Valley Aviary, Wild Florida, Savanna Blooms Garden, Giraffe Overlook, Play Park, Gardens of Trout River Plaza, Asian Bamboo Gardens, Komodo Dragon, Great Apes and its new Butterfly Hollow exhibit, which opened March 9, 2012. All the exhibits are great, but my family really saw something special in the Jaguar showcase and its surrounding features.
Discovering a village market and outdoor café area at the base of the Range of the Jaguar exhibit, we stopped for lunch and enjoyed viewing the jaguars while dining on Mexican fare at Palm Plaza Cafe. The sleek creatures are housed in an open-air setting with high rocks, lush waterfalls and pools of water and dense vegetation. Sister jaguars, Onca and Salsa, entertained us as they pounced from rock to rock.
Part of the Range of the Jaguar presentation is The Lost Temple, an ancient Mayan temple ruin overtaken by the rainforest and its animals. Inside the dark, stone-walled dwelling, unusual reptiles, marsupials and insects can be found, such as the bushmaster and Aruba rattlesnakes, fruit bats, poison dart frogs, caiman lizards, death's head cockroaches, a Hoffmann's two-toed sloth, pygmy marmosets (the world's smallest monkey), cotton-topped tamarins and many more species native to South America. My two sons were thrilled. And when you exit The Lost Temple the Zoo reminds you of the motto of the jungle: "Leave only your footprints behind."
After the shadowy temple we encountered the vivid Emerald Forest aviary, another showcase of the Range of the Jaguar exhibit, where again we came across unique winged creatures. Inca doves and terns, ruddy ducks, spangled cotingas, scarlet ibis and Cuban amazons perched and took flight all around us. One Inca tern, which looked like it had a white mustache, positioned itself on a fence next to Jake. They studied each other for a couple minutes. A very proud harpy eagle caught the attention of Baker. The bird majestically and systematically called out as if it ruled the aviary.
The most uncommon animal discovered in the Range of the Jaguar exhibit was the largest rodent in the world called the capybara. This creature was the size of a really large dog.
After a stint through the Australian Adventure, where we spent time with wallabies and vultures, we came across very endearing siamangs and guereza colobus monkeys in the Great Apes exhibit. We heard giggling and screaming and discovered a group of little children with faces pressed against a glass partition giving kisses to the monkeys. The monkeys would kiss back, make silly faces and slap the glass to the delight of the children.
"Mom - he loves me, and I love him," shouted one little girl. The Great Apes exhibit gives visitors a close-up view of gorillas, mandrills, lemurs and bonobos in their natural settings.
Jacksonville's zoo has more than 2,000 animals, and you can't forget the word "Gardens" in the name because there truly is beautiful scenery with more than 1,000 plants throughout 92 acres. The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens is the largest botanical garden in northeast Florida and the only one in Jacksonville. The zoo property also includes 1,400 feet of river frontage on Trout River.
Palm Beach Embraces Mayan Culture
The Palm Beach Zoo at Dreher Park offers 23 acres of lush, tropical, landscaped habitats housing more than 1,400 animals from Florida, South and Central America, Asia and Australia. The most exciting showcase is the George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Tropics of Americas with exhibit showcasing multiple animals and features the Mayan Indian culture.
Beginning at a Mayan hut, my family was treated to two 45-foot pyramids with hand-carved hieroglyphics that house jaguars and bush dogs, semi-aquatic wild dogs from western South America. A giant replica of a Montezuma cypress called the Tule tree offered sleeping areas for the jags and wild dogs.
A collection of nocturnal animals was displayed in the Caracol Observatory, such as bats, snakes, frogs, spiders and rats. This display also educates visitors about the Mayan culture's involvement in astronomy. Giant anteaters, Patagonian cavies, capybaras, tapirs and waterfowl were seen from a suspension bridge that looked out over the savannah lands and ponds.
The Tropics of the Americas has two primate islands surrounded by waterfalls with several species of monkeys calling them home. Entering into the Explorer's Cave we saw stalagmites, tropical fish and cave-dwelling critters.
The final destination was the Amazon Market Place, where my husband and I could shop in a traditional South American market, and my sons could encounter iguanas, parrots, exotic fish, turtles and boa constrictors. After a stop at the market, we ended the great day at the Amazon River Port, which offers waterfront dining at the popular Tropics Café. I imagine some visitors to the Palm Beach Zoo come just for a hideaway lunch or dinner at the cafébecause of the relaxing tropical atmosphere.
Melbourne's Safari Exhibition
The city of Melbourne has the Brevard Zoo to show off to visitors with 56 acres of habitats housing more than 550 animals from Africa, Australia, Asia, Latin America and Florida. My family hopped on the Cape to Cairo Express train to tour a section of the most exciting of the zoo's features: Exhibition Africa.
This exhibit spans 10 acres of savannah habitat with the man-made Nyami Nyami River surrounding the showcase. Zoo goers can take guided kayak tours to see the animals from a different perspective, along with the river's plants, fish and birds. Guests also can hike through the lush lands.
On our train excursion, we saw giraffes, white rhinos, impalas, scimitar-horned oryx, ostriches and several large cranes. The Baobab Bridge crosses the Nyami Nyami River and leads into the trunk of Baobab tree, an enormous specimen that typically grows in the wilds of Africa.
A savannah overlook that rises nine feet in the air offers another unique perspective to witness Exhibition Africa. You may even look a giraffe right in the eyes.
Other presentations at the Brevard Zoo include the La Selva loop, which showcases animals such as monkeys and jaguar; Wild Florida exhibits with animals such as deer, otter and alligators; the Australasia loop, which features kangaroos, warty pigs and a free-flight aviary where you can feed lorikeets; Paws on Play; a water play area; 20,000-gallon aquarium and petting zoo. The zoo recently opened its Treetop Trek Aerial Adventure zipline and canopy walk. This experience offers three courses for anyone 4 years of age and older.
The original and smaller animal parks in Florida are often characterized with a jungle theme and are a fun way for a family to spend the day, especially if you are in the mood for a more leisurely pace.
Gulf Breeze Zoo has a 50-acre Wildlife Preserve where animals dwell free range. The wildebeest, alligators, deer, pygmy hippos, zebras, African wild dogs and more call it home. The Safari Line Limited train travels throughout the preserve for more in depth viewing.
Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens was founded in 1919 by Dr. Henry Nehrling as a botanical garden. It now spreads across 44 acres, offering close-up views of animals from apes to zebras. This nationally accredited zoo presents exhibits such as Leopard Rock, Tiger Forest, Snakes Alive!, Fosas of Madagascar, Black Bear Hammock, Alligator Bay and the Giraffe Herd Preview Exhibit, where you can hand-feed giraffes. This is also the only place in Florida, and one of only four places in the U.S., where you can see honey badgers.
Sarasota Jungle Gardens is filled with nature trails that wind through a true jungle. Flamingos, exotic birds, alligators, monkeys and even wallabies and emus can be found along the jungle paths.
Jungle Island was opened in 1936 and is home to 1,000 tropical birds, 1,000 varieties of plants and flowers and many exotic animals among its 18 acres. The birds fly free in the stage show, making it a unique presentation for visitors. Animal stage shows, interactive aviaries, plant nurseries, jungle trails, a petting farm and parrot shows along with a Serpentarium, Jungle Theater and an Everglades habitat are also part of the experience.
Monkey Jungle, also in Miami, has the motto: "Where humans are caged and monkeys run wild!" and that about sums it up. About 400 primates run free on the 30-acre preserve. Orangutans, gibbons, guenons and tamarins are just a taste of the animals that entertain you. Monkey Jungle strives to teach visitors about the lifestyle of primates and to be part of the conservation efforts for many of the species it houses.
Animal-Friendly Theme Parks
Florida is known for its theme parks, but a few animal parks in Florida combine thrilling rides and shows along with exotic animal exhibits and presentations.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay was one of the original Florida attractions to offer a roller coaster and a lion habitat together to create a unique fun-filled day for families. The theme park opened in 1959 and has grown into a large attraction offering a diverse blend of family activities. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay opened Jungala in 2008. Set in the Congo area, the 4-acre attraction invites guests to explore a colorful village hidden deep in the jungle and connect with the inhabitants of the lush landscape through up-close animal interactions, multi-story family play areas, rides and live entertainment. Come face-to-face with orangutans and test your strength in a tug of war with a Bengal tiger. It's an unforgettable adventure and an extraordinary mix of discovery and fun in the only jungle in the world that plays with you. The park’s newest realm brings guests face-to-face with the world’s fastest land animals in Cheetah Hunt. The theme park is one of the country's premier zoos with more than 2,000 animals.
Disney's Animal Kingdom in in Lake Buena Vista is one of four theme parks at Walt Disney World Resort. Explore animals on a safari, in a prehistoric world or on stage shows. Many of the Disney characters are featured along with real animals in their natural habitats.In Discovery Island, "A Bug's Life" characters are showcased in a 3-D show about how tough it is to be a bug. Surrounding the tree are Discovery Island Trails where you can discover Galapagos tortoises, lemurs and African-crested porcupines. The continents of Africa and Asia are also featured, and in Rafiki's Planet Watch, visitors can learn about worldwide conservation efforts.