The wizard and Professor Dumbledog, characters in Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s new live animal show. Credit: Katie Cotterill/PDZA
“Show me the magic!” shouted a few dozen audience members at a preview of “Extraordinary Creatures and How to Care for Them,” the new Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater show at Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. My son and I were in the audience, and we’d been tipped off that reciting this incantation brings the performers to the stage. And it worked — after a 3-year pandemic hiatus, the new show thrilled my toddler with his first live-animal theater experience.
“Extraordinary Creatures and How to Care for Them” opens Saturday, May 7.
Wild Wonders show
The show’s story follows a wizard who normally cares for a menagerie of mythical creatures using her magic staff. Her trusty pooch, Professor Dumbledog, also helps. (Fun fact: Professor Dumbledog is played by Rocket, a rescue dog from Guam that has only been at the zoo since last November).
Unfortunately, the wizard’s magical staff has broken. She needs a PDZA zookeeper’s help to learn how to care for animals without using magic. With assistance from a treat-loving cast of critters, the keeper demonstrates how to care for the animals’ physical health and how to provide them with enrichment activities that mimic life in their natural habitat.
For a roughly 30-minute performance (sometimes the animals try to extend the run), there’s a lot going on. Spoiler alert: Special effects abound — look for a steaming cauldron, a spinning Vault of Variety that offers animal enrichment items and a spontaneous rainfall that my son is still talking about.
The jungle-esque scenery is stunning, too. Pouch rats scurry across a rickety bridge straight out of “Indiana Jones,” while a king vulture flies overhead and then shows off its skills perched atop realistic-looking stumps. The zoo staff built the set, leveraging the expertise of an operations employee who spent time doing set design in Hollywood.
Stars of the show
Regular zoo-going families will appreciate that the cast rotates among more than a dozen featured animals. If you really love the show, you can revisit another day to learn about different animals, or experience seeing your favorites again. My son’s beloved stuffed animal is an owl, so he was overjoyed to see Forrest the Eurasian eagle owl soar overhead as we learned that multiple daily flights help keep his ridged wings in top shape.
Our applause for the human cast was particularly enthusiastic. Real staff biologists and zookeepers play the roles of both the wizard and the zookeeper. I can barely remember the slew of appointments and practices I shuttle my kids to, but these pros managed to keep up with their lines — and even improvise when a couple of the animals operated on their own schedule.
A sit-down lunch
Zoo days can feel action-packed and too full sometimes. Balancing a break for lunch with my urge to see everything is tough, so sitting down and catching a show is the perfect solution. My 3-year-old was quite content to sit still with his sandwich while we watched Twiggy the red-legged seriema (a South American species of bird) pick up a rubber frog and slam it down on the ground, just like it would in the wild.
A pre-show announcement cautions you to avoid the first three rows of bleachers if you’re having a snack, or you risk having Twiggy steal your goldfish crackers. If your visit coincides with a stereotypical Pacific Northwest drizzly day, know that the bleachers are covered so you can stay dry while you watch the show.
Nearby zoo fun
Just around the corner from the theater are two other opportunities for animal interaction.
The Little Explorers Nature Play Garden opened to kid acclaim last month, and beginning Saturday, May 7, the garden will host the Bugs Alive! program daily at 1:30 p.m. A large video monitor will magnify the coolest features of insects, such as a Chilean rose tarantula and a Peruvian cave roach. Take a close look if you can entice your preschooler’s attention away from the nature play space.
Head across the way to visit the Budgie Buddies aviary. Budgies are palm-sized Australian parakeets that come in a kaleidoscope of blues, yellows and greens, and flutter about their space looking for seed handouts. Shell out $2 ($1.50 for members) for a long stick with birdseed adhered to one end, then use your best tweets to beckon the budgies down from their perches for a snack.
My son was a little nervous at first, but loved it when a few of them landed on my arm and he got to see them up close. He said their claws tickled a bit, but didn’t hurt. My 6-year-old (who was at school during our visit) might have felt more apprehensive about a bird landing on her, so I would have skipped the seed stick and just let her admire her favorite combination of budgie feather colors.
The Budgie Buddies aviary reopens Saturday, May 7, and will be open daily, 10 a.m.–3:30 p.m., through the summer season. Entry into the aviary is included with zoo admission or membership.
The bottom line
While I’m not normally a “show” person when it comes to animal encounters, I found the Extraordinary Creatures show to be a great fit for our family. It’s short and sweet, it packs in some sneaky animal education with a “wow factor” of special effects, and the theater is close to other complementary interactive experiences at the zoo.
We could spend a whole visit just in this corner of the zoo, and we are planning to do just that. My kindergartener has already requested a summer trip so she can check it all out, too.
If you go ...
Wild Wonders showtimes: From May 7–June 17, enjoy the show at noon daily, with additional shows at 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Beginning June 18, catch the show at noon or 3 p.m. seven days a week. The last shows this season will take place on Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 5.
Admission: Entry into Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater shows is included with regular zoo admission or membership. Admission is $20–$23 for adults and teens ages 13 and older; admission for children ages 3–12 is $15–$17. Tots ages 2 and younger enter free. Online tickets are encouraged (and less expensive). A household membership (two adults plus dependents) costs $165.
Parking: The zoo has a large, free parking lot.
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