Visiting your local zoo is always a great way to experience and appreciate a whole spectrum of animals, but it’s hard to feel as if you’re really interacting with those fuzzy monkeys or roaring lions or sleek dolphins when you’re (safely, of course) ensconced behind glass or a gate. Luckily, there are plenty of zoos, aquariums, and wildlife parks that have put together fun (and, again, safe!) ways to interact with some of their finest residents in a very hands-on manner. If you’re looking to make your next zoo trip one to remember, may we suggest taking the plunge (sometimes literally) with one of these interactive zoo experiences?
1. Adventure Aquarium – Camden, New Jersey
Plenty of people can swim with dolphins (and, yes, we’ll tell you where you can actually do that), but not everyone is willing to dive deep with sharks. The appropriately titled Adventure Aquarium at the New Jersey Aquarium offers its visitors the unique opportunity to swim and snorkel with sharks. After training (thank goodness), you can get your swim on in a submerged channel at the top of the Shark Realm exhibit, complete with cut outs that allow you to lean out into the tank—and which sandbar sharks, nurse sharks, and more can swim into, should they desire. Once your shark swim is complete, you can join up with the stingrays in the Stingray Lagoon, where you can swim with them and feed them. After you get out of the shark-infested waters, feel free to wander the aquarium (and show off your souvenir t-shirt, snorkel, and mask to passersby), all included in the $175 ticket price.
2. Lowry Park Zoo – Tampa, Florida
A number of zoos offer special feeding interactive experiences, but Florida’s Lowry Park Zoo is one of the few to feature white rhino feeding options. Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, patrons can help give the rhino population a snack, a unique and rare experience that a slim number of zoos can provide. Are rhinos not your thing? You can also feed the giraffes at Lowry Park—or, really, why not just do both?
3. The Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological Park – Wynnewood, Oklahoma
It’s right there in its name—Oklahoma’s Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological Park is all about hands-on experience, and there is nothing quite as hands-on as a little something the zoo calls “Play Time With a Baby.” You read that correctly: for just $45 per pair, you can interact with available baby animals for 15 minutes. While the zoo offers a variety, visitors most often get to play with wee tigers.
4. Adelaide Zoo – Adelaide, Australia
Australia’s Adelaide Zoo offers not one, but two interactive experiences. First up is the Big Cat Interactive, which varies from day to day (depending on moods and availability) and can include stuff like feeding lions or getting up close with Sumatran tigers. You can also hang out with their Nile hippo pair, Susie and Brutus (at $90 a person, it’s a bit cheaper than the Big Cat, which costs $145), assisting a zookeeper with their daily mouth check and the distribution of yummy hippo snacks (don’t eat them, okay?).
5. San Diego Zoo – San Diego, California
The San Diego Zoo offers a number of “special experiences,” including the one-and-a-half-hour-long “Backstage Pass” (it will only cost you $99 per person). The Pass will allow you to touch, help train, and get up close and personal with plenty of the zoo’s many animals. Popular variations of the Pass include meeting a cheetah (and getting a photo with your new spotted pal), a chance to touch the rhinos, and feeding plenty of other zoo residents.
6. Indianapolis Zoo – Indianapolis, Indiana
Are sharks not really your speed? The Indianapolis Zoo offers the chance to swim with their kinder cousins, thanks to their Dolphin In-Water adventure. After classroom training, you’ll get to spend 35 minutes in the dolphin pool (wading only!), where you can help feed the dolphins and practice their signs with them. The nonmember ticket price is steep—$225 per person—but think of those dolphins! And your new souvenir towel!
7. Cincinnati Zoo – Cincinnati, Ohio
The Cincinnati Zoo offers a bevy of special experiences—from hanging with red pandas and camels to feeding giraffes to their very special Junior Zookeeper option (yes, it’s heavy on the baby animals)—but their Elephant Extravaganza is a unique chance to meet the zoo’s four beloved elephants. Even better? After the talented My-Thai paints you a picture, you help give her a bubble bath. The extravaganza will set you back $500 per couple, but a portion of all proceeds will go to helping elephants in the wild.
8. Houston Zoo – Houston, Texas
Giraffes in general seem pretty open to accepting a bite from perfect strangers, and the Houston Zoo’s Masai giraffe family are no different. The zoo offers twice-daily feedings for just $5 per person (hey, lettuce isn’t free), depending on both “weather and giraffe participation.”
9. Detroit Zoo – Detroit, Michigan
The Detroit Zoo wins instant points for its fun experience names—Breakfast with the Butterflies!—but the hands-down winner is their Mingle with the Macaronis program that allows visitors to get cozy with penguins in their own habitat. For about an hour, you can learn about the Macaronis (and Rockhoppers and Kings), feed them, and watch them play. Not sold yet? You can take a whole group for $600, and that price includes—get ready for it—a visit to their incubation/nursery area.
10. National Zoo – Canberra, Australia
Australia’s National Zoo in Canberra offers patrons the chance to get interactive with their punchily-titled “Meet a Cheetah” experience. The big cats, supposedly the “friendliest” of the bunch, will greet up to two patrons (plus one zookeeper!) during each highly sought-after 15-minute session. The zoo promises that participants (“meetahs”?) will have the chance to pet and play with the land speed champs. After your meet and greet is over, you can spend the rest of the day at the zoo proper, as the $175 per person fee also includes full access to the rest of the facilities. Go unwind with some penguins.
11. ZSL London Zoo – London, England
If you really want to go all out, there’s nothing quite like the London Zoo’s Keeper for a Day program. You’ll spend the whole day with a friendly zookeeper host, doing the good (meeting giraffes, penguins, oh my!), the bad (wait, there’s nothing bad about this), and the ugly (fine, you have to help clean). It’s certainly not the cheapest interactive experience—it will cost you about £280 per person—but it’s probably the best.