Outings + Activities | Rainy Day Fun | Family fun

12 Best Tips for a Wild Time at the Woodland Park Zoo

The newest cool critters, parking tips, how to save and more

Banyan Wilds exhibit at Woodland Park Zoo. Photo credit: Ryan Hawk

Lions and tigers and sloth bears and warthogs, oh, my! Whether you're visiting for a weekend or you're a Seattle local, the Woodland Park Zoo is a must-visit for families. Home to more than 1,000 animals and 300 species, its award-winning, naturalistic exhibits have garnered more awards than any zoo in North America except the Bronx Zoo.

Charismatic megafauna such as lions, grizzlies and jaguars draw the crowds; but fascinating lesser-known species such as Komodo dragons, warthogs and sloth bears are worth seeking out. In the summer kids can pet critters at the Family Farm; on rainy days, the indoor Zoomazium is a fun, wear-’em-out option, and you can also take advantage of the rainy-day discount

But where to start? When to go? How to save? To help, we've gathered top tips from our readers, editors and Woodland Park Zoo staff.

1. Plan your plan

The Woodland Park Zoo has the largest live animal collection in Washington State. Its size is wonderful, but overwhelming, and tough to cover in one day with kids. So how to structure your trip?

Pla your visit around your kids' two or three favorite exhibits, says one reader. “When we go, everyone gets to pick one animal that they want to see. If we also see others, great, but if not, everyone leaves happy.”

If you're a regular visitor, consider focusing each visit on a new area. “Explore different parts intensively on different visits and let the kids play, relax and snack the rest of the time,” says reader Monica Kokaly. You can also focus on newer animals (see list below) and feeding and enrichment experiences happening that day (check out zoo.org/today).

Komodo dragon, Woodland Park Zoo. Photo credit: Ryan Hawk

2. Don't pay for parkng

Once you've identified your top exhibits, figure out which of the two entrances you should use. The south entrance (on N. 50th St.) is close to the Family Farm, Africa Savanna area (gazelles, zebras, hippos) and the temperate rainforest. The west entrance (on Phinney Ave. N.) is near the penguins, Zoomazium, carousel and the Northern Trail (polar bears, wolves, snowy owls).

If you're not averse to walking, avoid the pay lots at the entrances and look for free street parking; there is usually plenty around Phinney Ave. or on the streets just south of the south entrance. If you park near the west entrance,  you can stop by the wonderful, recently updated playground just north of the zoo, West Woodland Park North.

Or park at the free lot at Woodland Park, just east of the zoo off N. 50th St., and walk up a path and on the bridge over Aurora that leads to the zoo's south entrance, right past the Woodland Park Rose Garden, an adventure in itself.

3. Be an early bird (or a night owl) to catch the animals

For the lightest crowds, best parking and optimal animal visibility, arrive at the zoo close to opening time (9:30 a.m.) and on weekdays (Monday to Wednesday, ideally).

“Most of the zoo’s animals are crepuscular, active in the morning and at dusk, so the best times to see the animals are in the mornings when the zoo opens and the animals shift from their indoor sleeping enclosures to the outdoor exhibits,” said Gigi Allianic, Public Relations and Communications Manager.

Near closing time (6 p.m. in the summer through Sept. 30, 4 p.m. from October to May) is also a more optimal time to see animals. 

You can watch sloth bears get their snack at 11:30 a.m. daily. Photo credit: Shannon Kringen, flickr CC

4. Feed the animals!

For kids, there's nothing more magical than getting close to a zoo animal (except perhaps riding the carousel). Woodland Park Zoo offers a variety of feeding experiences throughout the year. Check zoo.org/today for the day's feeding and enrichment schedule; here are highlights.

- During the zoo's summer schedule (May 1–Sept. 30) you can purchase a $1 seedstick and feed the birds at Willawong Station.

- Giraffe feedings are every day during the summer (except for Tuesday) 10–11 a.m. and 3–4 p.m. for $5 a person (cash only).

- Watch the sloth bears (part of the new Banyan Wilds exhibit) suck up an insect snack at 11:30 a.m. daily except Thursdays.

- Starting on Oct. 1, you can watch penguins being fed from 11 a.m.–2 p.m. every day for $5.

Siamang at the Woodland Park Zoo. Photo credit: Dennis Dow
Siamang at the Woodland Park Zoo. Photo credit: Dennis Dow

5. See what's new

Have you done every corner of the zoo? Then be sure to check out some of these cool new critters (as of Sept. 2015).

Singing siamangs: A 28-year-old male siamang just joined female Briony in the Trail of Vines exhibit. Cool fact from the zoo blog: "Siamangs are often referred to as 'singing apes,' singing so loudly that it can be heard for up to 2 miles."

Banyan Wilds: The zoo's biggest new exhibit in years spotlights Malayan tigers, sloth bears, their Asian tropical-forest habitat and conservation challenges. Key times to see the tigers include a 9:45 a.m. daily enrichment (except Tuesdays) or a daily Tiger Gate Experience at 2 p.m., where you can watch as keepers safely with the big cats. There's also a sloth bear enrichment daly at 1 p.m.

Maned wolves: A mom-and-son pair of maned wolves joined the zoo in April; residents of the Wildlife Survival Zone.

6. See what's different

Yes, the lions and Malayn tigers and zebras are exciting. But kids will also love the Day Exhibit (snakes!), the warty pigs and Komodo dragons. Here are more reader and staff favorites.

River otters: "Great antics in the water."

Snow leopard. Photo credit: Woodland Park Zoo/Dennis Dow

Nocturnal House: "It is a nice place to escape on a hot day!"

African hut and village: "Let kids play in the hut and schoolhouse."

Outdoor play area near the Family Farm: "A magical, shady play space that is less crowded and serene than the Zoomazium."

Snow leopards: "They are shy animals but when they come out they are amazing."

The Temperate Wetlands: "A lovely, tranquil walk-thru featuring various waterfowl."

Squirrels: Don't be dismayed when your little ones are as intrigued by the active squirrels as by the animals. It's all good!

7. Have a picnic

Skip the lines and expense for snacks and pack your own for a picnic at one of the multiple spots on the grounds. A favorite spot is the vast North Meadow near the carousel (a great place for kids to run off steam as well). Readers also recommend the Komodo dragon statue ("it's usually quiet there") and the shady outdoor play area near the Family Farm.

Two important notes: Secure your snacks in a closed bag where critters can’t get to them (zoo crows are legendary for picnic thievery) and avoid straws; the zoo does not serve beverages with straws for the safety of its animals.

And some good news: You can exit the zoo to pick up coolers and re-enter by showing your admission ticket or getting a stamp.

8. Bring on the drizzle!

Readers rave about the perks of visiting Woodland Park Zoo on a gray or rainy day. “Rainy days are the best to visit,” says a reader. “There are almost no people and most of the animals are still out.”

The zoo sometimes offers rainy-day discounts, as much as 50 percent; check zoo.org/rain to see if one is being offered; you can even sign up for a "rainy-day discount" text alert.

The handy rainy-day map has loads of tips on indoor exhibits and fun, such as the Day Exhibit, Tropical Rain Forest building, dome and aviary, and Zoomazium, an indoor facility for ages 8 and under with a nature-themed indoor playground, programs and a stage. Zoomazium also houses a fun Nature Exchange program, a “swap shop” where kids can examine and swap natural items and drawings.

Hippo love at Woodland Park Zoo. Photo credit: Dana, flickr CC

9. Yes… There’s an app for that

The Woodland Park Zoo has a free app for iPhones, iPads and Androids that includes a GPS-enabled map, schedule of daily activities, animal facts and more. “The Woodland Park App is awesome,” says one reader. “I get turned around at least once a visit and it is a lifesaver when my kiddos want to find the one animal I can’t seem to locate!”

To download the app, search for “Woodland Park Zoo” in the app store or scan the code from the zoo’s website.

10. Do the math on a membership

Consider a membership, which can pay for itself in three visits and allows you to visit the zoo every day of the year except Christmas day, the only day the zoo closes. Prices range from $49 for an adult; $17 for kids ages 3–18, or $67 for a "Flex Guest" (more than one adult can use it).

Plus, $2.50 of your membership purchase will go towards the Quarters for Conservation program, which will let you vote for your favorite wildlife conservation project every time you go.

11. Check for discounts and reciprocal memberships

Visiting from another city? Consider buying a CitiPass, a discounted package of admission to top five attractions in Seattle ($49–$69), and be sure to check for Woodland Park Zoo's reciprocal membership program, to see if your other memberships qualify you for discounts.

12. It’s more than a zoo

Aside from animal exhibits, the zoo offers a host of camps, classes, Parents Night Out programs, overnight adventures, wildlife conservation programs and volunteer opportunities. The zoo also puts on a winter festival, WildLights, during the winter. Also recommended visiting is the award-winning Woodland Park Zoo Rose Garden, located by the south parking lot outside the zoo (it's free to visit) at N. 50 St. and Fremont Ave N.

More reader tips

- "Bring a wagon! That way mom and dad don't have to carry everything and everybody. Tired kids can take a turn riding, it is more appealing to them than a stroller, and the hard body wagons make a great spot to stand if your child needs to get up just a little higher to see an animal."

- "If going with a friend, skip each bringing a stroller and rent a double stroller at the zoo instead! They're easier to get in and out of, too."

- "Get a pressed-penny souvenir: cheapest souvenir you can get."

- "I always take a picture of my kids at the entrance on one of the little animal statues and if I lose a kid while in the zoo I have a photo to ID them."

- "Let your child read the park map and pick a place to go. Follow the animal footprints on the ground. We love finding the animal statues around the park (tiger, Komodo dragon, hippo)."

- "Set expectations before the trip about what if any treats (cotton candy, etc.) kids can have, merry-go-round rides and the gift shop, so nothing distracts from the animals!"

Red Mill Burgers. Photo credit: Vineet Verghese, flickr CC
Red Mill Burgers. Photo credit: Vineet Verghese, flickr CC

Where to eat near the zoo

Woodland Park Zoo is smack in one of Seattle's most vibrant and family-friendly neighborhoods. Here are some fun nosh spots to check out:

Red Mill Burger: Classic, award-winning burger joint a few blocks north. 312 N. 67th St., Seattle

Phinney Market: Pub with gourmet eats and a train table. 5918 Phinney Ave. N.

Nutty Squirrel Gelato: Brand-new gelateria owned by the parents of a 5-year-old. 7212 Phinney Ave. N.

Zeeks Pizza: Slices, good salads, microbrews and outdoor seating. 6000 Phinney Ave. N.

Pecado Bueno: South of the zoo a few blocks is this fun  Mexican spot with outdoor seating. 4307 Fremont Ave. N.

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