Friday, September 26, 2014

Activities for Kids in Omaha: Visiting Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium with Toddlers

Disclosure: I received free tickets for my family to visit Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo to facilitate this review. No other compensation was received and all opinions are 100% my own and honest. 
Visiting the Omaha Zoo with Kids: 5 Tips for Making the Most of your Trip

After a good night sleep following our drive up to Omaha, NE and our trip to the Omaha Children's Museum, we got up early to beat the crowds and give ourselves plenty of time at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. We arrived shortly after 9 and boy am I glad we got there early! We spent the next 6.5 hours exploring everything this amazing zoo has to offer. I will warn you that this post is very picture heavy. I took over 300 photos and spent forever sorting through them to choose the best ones to share here. 

We lucked out with gorgeous weather during our trip and actually ended up needing jackets for part of our morning. Our first stop was the Desert Dome. It is definitely the defining building in the zoo skyline! The world's largest indoor desert under the world's largest glazed geodesic dome features plant and animal life from three deserts around the world: the Namib Desert of southern Africa, the Red Center of Australia and the Sonoran Desert of the southwest United States. When you walk in to the desert area, it truly feels like you have traveled into the desert with amazing rock structures and animals in their natural habitats. This is the only place where we felt a little crowded as the path can be narrow at some points, but the kids were so excited to see all of the animals that they didn't mind. There are two things I loved about the Omaha zoo from the very start. First, all of the exhibits are made with kids in mind. With large glass viewing areas, kids can easily see the animals. Many zoos we've been to have small viewing areas with fences that make it difficult to see. My kids were able to see everything easily! The second is the focus on interactive activities for children. Throughout the zoo, staff were available to chat, interact with the kids, and show animal artifacts. In the desert dome, both kids got the chance to touch a kangaroo fur and armadillo skin.

Omaha Zoo Desert Dome

The only complaint we heard about the Desert Dome was from Grace when she said "too many snakes," and I have to agree there were a ton of snakes!

After leaving the Desert area, the rest of my family went downstairs to visit the Kingdoms of the Night exhibit, the world's largest nocturnal exhibit. Thank you to my friend Julie for letting me know that this exhibit features crocodiles and alligators swimming under the bridges. I have an insane fear of them (I'm seriously terrified) so I didn't want to go anywhere near that exhibit, but everyone else enjoyed themselves. And it was a huge deal for me to even look at the alligator pictured above to include it in the collage. He's so creepy!

We ventured back outside to see more animals and had a great time checking out the big cats and bears areas.

We even managed to stop in time for the sea lion training session. This was the only part of the zoo we were a little disappointed with. They fed the sea lions but didn't really do anything else with them. We would have loved to see more of their behaviors.

The kids had so much fun checking everything out. Connor insisted on walking almost the entire time while Grace enjoyed having daddy push her around.

My kids are both obsessed with trains so it was no surprise that when they saw the train pulling around the zoo, their goal was to find it! Papa purchased tickets for everyone and off we went on a lovely ride around the zoo. We heard about some of the zoo animals and learned about the new African Grasslands Project that will provide more than 28 acres of exhibit space for the animals native to Africa such as elephants, rhinos, cheetahs, zebras, and lions.

Near the train station, the kids spotted the carousel and loved getting to ride the beautiful animals.

For Grace and I, the highlight of our trip was our visit to the new exhibit, Stingray Beach. For $4 ($3 for members), you get the chance to touch and interact with stingrays! The 80 foot long pool offers plenty of space for visitors to interact with the rays and we had no trouble finding room around the pool even on a busy Saturday. They offered food to purchase to feed the stingrays but we found that we didn't need it. The stingrays were so friendly (their stingers have been removed!) and seem to enjoy being touched. They swam to our hands repeatedly and even tried to suck on our fingers. Both kids loved watching the rays swim by and Grace hasn't stopped talking about petting the rays since. They have a small gift shop in this exhibit and both kids picked out a ray as a souvenir of their visit. Grace sleeps with hers every night!
Omaha Zoo Stingray Beach

After a quick lunch, we headed to the Red Barn to see the farm animals. This was a huge hit with the kids as they got to pet and brush the goats. We have been to multiple petting zoos and I have never seen such calm goats. Unlike most zoos that encourage you to feed the animals, Omaha's Zoo doesn't allow feeding so there are no aggressive goats trying to bite fingers. It made for such a pleasant experience for my little ones!

On our way back to the front to visit our last exhibits of the day, we noticed prairie dogs on the sides of the pathway. These little guys were far from shy and had no qualms in coming right up to us. They have obviously been fed by visitors before because one tried to climb right up into our stroller (he was disappointed to find we had no food)!  Grace wasn't a fan, but Connor thought it was the funniest thing he had ever seen and pointed at every one he saw.

Our next stop was the Berniece Grewcock Butterfly and Insect Pavilion. The kids loved looking for the butterflies and had fun finding species of all different colors. The highlight of this building was a friendly employee who was placing butterflies on kids' shoulders. Both of my kids loved this and stayed perfectly still so they wouldn't scare them away. One even landed on Connor's head for a couple of minutes but I wasn't quick enough to get a picture. We did end up hurrying through the insect pavilion because we were getting tired and my mom and I just don't like bugs too much! I'm sure older kids would be fascinated by all of the spiders and other bugs that were featured.

We were all so excited to visit the Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium. Grace enjoyed it, but Connor is obsessed with all things Finding Nemo right now so he absolutely adored every minute of it. The adults were pretty impressed too! We could have spent hours watching the fish, penguins, crabs, and sharks in their beautiful tanks. Connor would not leave the tank in the picture on the bottom left and ran from us several times trying to get back to it. He was convinced that Nemo and Dorie were there I guess! Just like the rest of the zoo, I loved that the aquarium featured ample viewing room for the kids. We never had trouble seeing anything despite the crowds. I wish our zoo had an aquarium!
Omaha Zoo Aquarium

 Our last stop of the day was the Lied Jungle. With monkeys and macaws in the trees and hippos below you, you feel like you've been transported into the rain forest. Unfortunately we were a bit rushed through this exhibit as we'd been at zoo the entire day and both kids were exhausted.
Omaha Zoo Lied Jungle

We were all tired by the end of our day but we had an amazing time. There is so much to see and do at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and I think we could have spent another full day there if we'd wanted to see everything. The zoo has recently been ranked the #1 Zoo in the world by TripAdvisor and I see why! It is truly an attraction that is worth making the trip for. I know we will be going back again in the next couple of years when the kids are a little older.

If you are planning a visit to the Omaha Zoo, make sure to read these tips to help you get the most out of your visit!

5 Tips for Visiting Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium with Toddlers

1. Give yourself plenty of time! You do not want to rush through everything and miss out. Plan to give yourself one full day at least. If you need to leave and come back to let your toddler rest or take a nap, you can get your hands stamped for re-entry that day.

2. There is a nursing room located in the first aid station if you want somewhere comfortable to breastfeed.

3. If you are a member of another zoo, check to see if your zoo participates in the Association of Zoos & Aquariums' Reciprocal program. You can get major discounts (50-100%) off of entry fees and ride tickets just by showing your home zoo membership card.

4. You are allowed to bring food and drink into the zoo with you. I always like to bring sippy cups for my kids and some snacks to give them when we take breaks. You could also bring your lunch and have a picnic.

5. Bring your stroller and/or carrier! You will be walking a lot and you don't want to be carrying around your little ones the entire time. Strollers are allowed in all of the exhibits except for the Butterfly and Insect Pavilion and Stingray Beach. Both offer stroller parking right outside the buildings. Some of the paths are narrow in the desert dome and jungle, but we never had problems fitting our Baby Jogger double (a side by side) through them. The zoo also has strollers available to rent.

For more information about Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium and to plan your visit, visit their website, Facebook, and Twitter now!

Thank you to Visit Omaha for providing our family with tickets to the Omaha Zoo. We had an amazing time!  

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