What is the best zoo in the world? I guess I couldn’t really tell you that until I had been to all of the zoos in the world. I can, however, tell you about some great ones that I had the chance to visit over the summer.
This summer we traveled from Seattle to Portland to San Francisco and on down to San Diego. There are plenty of things to do and see in all of these places but zoos and aquariums generally jump to the top of the list. I love animals, and the more exotic they are the better. When I was living in Sydney in 2009, I made the trip to the Taronga Zoo twice, and probably would have done more if I had been around longer.
When we were in Seattle, we decided to buy a CityPass, as we had in New York. While we were in NYC it was a lifesaver, we saw everything that a tourist in the city needs to see in the span of four days and for less than half the price. In Seattle, we had a bit more time but I wanted Lorenzo to have an opportunity to see the best that my city had to offer, so I figured that it would be a good investment. And at only $59 compared to New Yorks $79 it was much nicer to our wallets.
One of the tickets in the CityPass was a choice between either the Woodland Park Zoo or the Museum of Flight in South Seattle. We, of course, chose the zoo, which in all my years of living in Seattle I had yet to visit. So there we were on one of the only nice days in Seattle this past summer, wandering around the beautiful set-up of the Woodland Park Zoo. Seattle’s zoo has some fantastic animals, including giraffes, sun bears and red pandas. I love seeing new animals, ones that I haven’t had a chance to see before. In Sydney they focus on Aussie native animals, which are fantastic because you don’t see them anywhere else in the world. In Seattle it was nice because even after we first arrived and were disappointed that many of the animals seemed to be sleeping or in hiding, it wasn’t long before they started peeking out and getting active and they had a lot to offer.
Upon first entering the Woodland Park Zoo there is a true to life replica of a typical village in East Africa. The entire set-up is explained as each building has a different purpose, but all are made of next to nothing and left completely open. Inside the school house there sits a globe and a map of Africa presenting each different country within. The whole thing really appealed to me because not only do I feel that we as developed nations are not educated enough on what life in Africa is like, but I also thought having a globe and map in the school house really spoke to the message that we want to spread as travelers. Teach children while they’re young to experience the world and to see how others live because that is the best education.
The village was a segue straight into the African Safari section of the zoo, where we found giraffes, gazelles and hippos roaming and lazing about in the beautiful and rare Seattle sunshine.
In the end it was the tropical rain forest exhibit that stole my attention. I loved everything about it, and the ironic thing about that is the fact that I hate birds. I find them to be generally useless and usually annoying animals. But there was just something about the exhibit that the zoo just got right. You enter through a two doors, the inner of which is covered with thick plastic hanging strips to keep the Northwest climate out and the tropical birds in and upon entering you are hit with that lovely and familiar feeling of thick humidity and the smell of lush greenery all around. The birds flutter peacefully by and watch as curious visitors stare in awe at their bright mix of colors. As we wandered through, snapping a few shots we heard the telltale crack of thunder and just as we were midway through the exhibit the tropical rain started coming down. Pouring down in the middle of a beautiful Seattle day, and I have to say; I loved every minute of it. As Lorenzo and I ran for cover under the exit door, I couldn’t help but smile as I felt the very unfamiliar feeling of hot rain on my skin.
Well done, Woodland Park developers, well done!
We didn’t actually have a chance to explore much of Portland. The original plan had been to stop there for a night on the way to visit my mom further south. In the end we just stopped for lunch. So as my sister was loading up the car and my niece and nephew getting ready to head home after a weekend away, we were given a nice surprise. My niece came running inside, asking if Grandma and Grandpa and Lorenzo and I could come along for their stop at the zoo. After much debate and some online research we discovered that at only $10.50 it was a well worthwhile and affordable way to spend one last day together.
I had high expectations for the Portland Zoo, which alongside San Diego is rated as one of the top zoos in the United States. Honestly, in comparison to Woodland Park Zoo I can’t say there were many stand out moments, many of the same animals roamed the pens with the addition of zebras and a baby ocelot. The Portland Zoo is huge, it has many exhibits and the set-up is very well done; striving to keep climates and habitats as close to real life as possible to take good care of each of its animals.
I didn’t actually visit the San Diego Zoo even though, with much thanks to Spencer we had a complimentary entry. The original plan had been to head there after we went to SeaWorld but we badly misjudged our timing and with only two full days in the city, we didn’t want to spend both of them inside tourist attractions.
I know that SeaWorld cannot be fairly compared in place of the San Diego Zoo but I want to include it in this post anyway. In the final zoo smackdown, I’ll keep it separate from the results.
I first realized it when I was visiting an aquarium (which may or may not have been SeaWorld) in Hawaii at the age of thirteen. I desperately wanted to jump in the aqua blue water and join the sea lions as they flitted about back and forth. They were having so much fun.
SeaWorld San Diego was no different. It inspired me to want to jump in just the same and as I sat and watched Shamu, a long time favorite, splash and play by the command of his trainers, I began pondering if all along I was meant to have that life. Not the life of a whale, although I’d probably enjoy it, but the life of a marine trainer. The whales seemed to be having so much fun as they did their tricks, smiling and splashing the audience. My favorite was when one of the Orcas came out from the depths of the pool jumping on his belly up onto the smooth, white stage and proceeded to do a belly slide all the way across into the other side of the pool.
I feel a strong connection to Orcas, I think because the movie Free Willy was so frequently played in my living room. As I’ve grown older I think the fascination has come from learning more about the San Juan Islands which sit just a few hours off the coast of my adopted city of Seattle. When I realized that I wanted to go there and began researching them I learned about the prominence of Orca Whales in the area and I guess it made me feel that I had a special connection to these special whales.
The whales won all of my love that day at SeaWorld but that doesn’t mean the rest of the park doesn’t deserve the same attention. There is even a brand new arctic exhibit that features a Walrus, a Beluga Whale and a Polar Bear. I had never seen a Beluga before and that was a special thing for me as well as I watched its pure white body float effortless through the dark blue waters.
Apparently, Spencer and Lorenzo also greatly enjoyed a wet ride on the fast-flowing rapids ride for which I ducked out of line after the 45-minute wait to avoid the certainty of chaffing for the rest of the hot San Diego afternoon.
In the end, I have to be honest here in saying that Woodland Park Zoo wins my vote in this competition. Maybe it was because I saw it first but I just felt that its layout was easier to navigate and the animals were better situated.
What is your favorite zoo and why?
Our entry into SeaWorld San Diego was complimentary thanks to the San Diego Convention & Visitor’s Bureau but all opinions and experiences, as always, are my own.