Right off the bat, I want to go on record to say that the Jacksonville Zoo is much, much more than just a zoo! If it was up to me, I would classify the Jacksonville Zoo as a cross between a zoo, theme park, playground, and and educational experience. There truly is something for everyone to enjoy. The family and I decided to take a day trip to Jacksonville for a rare weekday adventure, and we had a great time.
The Staff Was Awesome!
From the very start, we knew it was going to be a great day. We pulled into the parking lot for the Jacksonville Zoo and were pleased to find that parking was ample as well as free. Something we didn’t consider was that since it was during the week, we saw a handful of school buses in the parking lot, and were concerned that we might be dealing with a park full unruly children. During our very first interaction with the staff, we noticed they were friendly, and genuinely seemed to care about our guest experience. We were greeted with smiles and the employees seemed to be enjoying themselves. After we entered the zoo, we took a few minutes to do all the pre-adventure stuff like changing diapers and checking out the map.
The Jacksonville Zoo is Huge!
Because we had never been there before, we were in uncharted territory. We had no idea where to start or what to do first, so we checked out the map, and discovered that the Jacksonville zoo has one large pathway that seems to cut across it and then each area starts and ends on the main path. With the exception of the main path, each area is setup to ensure a proper and constant guest flow and to avoid bottlenecks of people. Although you can always back track through a loop, guests are encouraged through displays to move ahead so they get a chance to see everything at that particular exhibit.
When I said the Jacksonville Zoo was huge, I wasn’t kidding! With over 92 acres that have already been used for the zoo, around 28 remain for expansion, which means that they have plenty of room to expand. In fact they are in the process of expanding the Asia area for a new exhibit to be unveiled next year. Throughout the day we actually walked over 6 miles according to our FitBit pedometers, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes.
Broken up into distinctive loops, you’ll think you are actually on a trip to Africa, South America, Asia, and more destinations as you walk through this extensive collection of animals and plant life. Surprisingly enough, there is ample shade in most of the areas as well as fans strategically located to keep visitors cool. We were pleasantly surprised that even in the mid day sun, the only part of the zoo that we actually felt hot in were the plains of Africa. This makes sense as the landscape is very open and there is very little natural shade in these spots. There were however stopping points where you could rest for a bit if you needed to.
Another striking feature of the Jacksonville zoo is that it appeared to be completely handicapped accessible. I don’t recall any locations that we couldn’t push the stroller, or needed to be redirected to go to a wheelchair ramp. I think this is wonderful, as the Jacksonville Zoo turns 100 years old next year, and was established well before the Americans With Disabilities Act. Like many other destinations, you can also rent mobility equipment for a reasonable price. A single and double stroller were only $7 and $9, with wheelchairs and power scooters going for only $7 and $20. You are of course more then welcome to bring your own equipment.
Bring Some Extra Cash
As a general rule of thumb, you should always bring some spare cash while on a frugal adventure, but you may want to bring some extra spending money with you. Sprinkled throughout the park were the stationary binoculars that would allow you to get a really up close view of the animals so be prepared if you bring the little ones along, they will want some quarters. There were also multiple opportunities to feed the animals that were very reasonable. For example, you can feed the stingrays and giraffes, for around $2.00. If you are a zoo member it’s even cheaper. There are also a few spots throughout the Jacksonville Zoo where you can make a cash contribution if you would like.
When you first get to the Jacksonville Zoo, you’ll notice you have a handful of ticket options. The general admission park tickets seem like the best way to go if you are not planning on spending the entire day at the park, or if you visit frequently. These tickets start only $14.95 for adults and are even cheaper for children and seniors. If you buy the general admission tickets though, be aware that you do not get full access to the zoo. Some attractions such as the train, carousel, Butterfly Hollow, Dino Trek, and Stingray Bay require an additional admission of around $2.00 or so for each exhibit or activity. If you plan on doing all of these then you may want to consider the value ticket option. The adult value tickets are $23.95 and children’s value tickets are $16.95. We were quite pleased with the value ticket options. They were a great deal. We did most of the extra exhibits with the exception of Butterfly Hollow. Unfortunately about an hour and a half of typical Florida thunderstorms meant we didn’t quite have enough time to see everything.
You can purchase tickets online before your arrival, and they are good for 6 months from the purchase date. I personally love this option, as you can buy your tickets, and if you get to the Jacksonville Zoo and it’s raining, you can come back another day so long as you don’t actually use the tickets. I wish all of my frugal adventures had that option!
Children’s Play Area
Included in the general admission, is the Children’s play area. This area hosts an impressive splash area as well as the penguin exhibit and a Children’s Discovery area. The splash area isn’t a pool, but instead a set of impressive fountains in an enclosed area. If your little ones get overheated, this is the perfect place to take them! Conveniently located right next to the splash are are large restrooms where you can change your little ones into swimwear. In the same complex, be sure to visit the Children’s Discovery Building where you can learn more about the many animals in the zoo, and interact with hands on learning tools like x-rays of animals and even hug a stuffed animal or two.
Within the same loop, be sure to checkout the Tuxedo Coast penguin exhibit as well as the goat grooming & petting area. Even though our little one just turned one, he really got a kick out of the goats as he was able to pet a few of them. Unlike at some other zoos I have been to in my lifetime, there was always a Jacksonville Zoo staff member within view who was constantly cleaning up after the goats. This area also features an awesome children’s play ground. This isn’t just any play ground though, you actually get to crawl around a huge bird’s nest complete with eggs!
While touring the impressive Jacksonville Zoo, we noticed that there were educator everywhere! From the aviaries, to the giraffe overlook, it seemed like there was always some there to answer questions, or offer interesting information about the animals and their habitats. One staff member that really stands out was Larkin at the giraffe overlook. She took the time to actually introduce us to one of the giraffes named “Spock” and answered quite a few of our questions. We seized the chance to feed him, as Larkin took a few moments to share with us information about the giraffe habitat and their diet. She genuinely seemed happy to share her vast knowledge, and seemed to have a real connection with the animals that she was around. We weren’t the only guests that experienced this, as we left the area, we could tell she was answering all sorts of questions for other people as well.
It seemed like exhibit after exhibit, there were educators available that were able to share information as well as their own personal experiences with us. It really added a nice touch to our visit, and everyone went out of their way to make everyone happy, especially the children that were visiting. Remember those buses in the parking lot? That’s right we ran into a few elementary school aged kids on their field trip, but the staff seemed to keep the occupied and entertained as they went around the park. We hardly even noticed they were there.
The Dining Options
As everyone knows, one of the keys to being able to afford my frugal adventures is the art of the picnic lunch. We did splurge on this visit and grabbed a few Subway subs before we headed out for the day, but I think that still qualifies as a picnic lunch. Unfortunately outside food and drinks are not allowed at the Jacksonville Zoo. At first I was thinking along the regular theme park lines, but this location has a great reason. Outside foods and drinks can pose a great threat to the animals that everyone is there to see. Whether it’s from trash accidentally entering their habitat, or accidental ingestion of the food, it’s not a good idea.
Despite no outside food or drinks in the park the Jacksonville Zoo however, does have a picnic area set aside next to their educational campus for folks to enjoy. With about 2 dozen picnic tables, this area is located outside of the zoo complex and requires you to exit the park. Not really a big deal, just hold onto your tickets to easy readmission. The picnic area really is no frills, with nor grills or bar-b-qs allowed in this area either. It is fenced in with restroom facilities, but I think we got there just as the field trip kids were leaving. It was a bit messy, but I think that the staff just didn’t have a chance to get their yet to spruce it up. Unfortunately there was no grass in this area, and with the right conditions, would become a muddy mess. This wasn’t really a deal break for us, but I hope this are is something they hope to improve upon soon. If you do plan on packing your lunch, I would recommend just parking in that area of the parking lot when you first get there in the morning. It will make it much easier to bring your lunch to the picnic area.
When we return to the Jacksonville Zoo, I personally don’t think that we would do the picnic lunch option. Not because of the previously mentioned reasons, but because the food prices were very reasonable. Sure it would add to the bill for a family of four, but I think the food was not only better quality, but lower prices than most theme parks I have visited. A complete kids meal is around $5 and adult entrées around the same price as well. Although we didn’t sample the cuisine, it looked delicious, and I wouldn’t be opposed to just dining at one of the establishments next time. They even have Bubba Burgers, one of my favorites!
The Timing Was Just Right….
Remember one of the extras that I mentioned above and beyond the general admission? Well I love trains, and I’m glad we went with the value ticket option which includes unlimited train rides. We were in the Asia area of the zoo, at the end of the day and caught the last train out. While we looped around the entire complex, the timing was perfect! As we were relaxing after a ton of walking, we were surprised to see that most of the animals were actually in the process of being put in their night houses and barns so we got to seem them all over again!
One of the special considerations when visiting the Jacksonville Zoo is that every visit will be different. Because the exhibits are live animals, sometimes they are active sometimes that are lounging in the shade. This means you probably won’t get the chance to see everything in one day. This also includes some limited time engagements and displays. For example we were able to check out DinoTrek, which was a special temporary loop created just for this exhibit. Dinosaurs come to life right at the Jacksonville Zoo! This exhibit runs through June 30th, so catch it while you can!
If rides are more your speed, you won’t want to miss the 4D ride! Currently playing is Ice Age Dawn of The Dinosaurs. This ride is not included in park admission, but can be added on to any ticket for $4.00. Because we had our little one with us who didn’t meet the height requirement, we didn’t get a chance to experience this attraction, but it looked like a blast!
Special Events & Parties
While we were visiting, we noticed that the entire park seemed to be ready for a night time adventure. While researching the Jacksonville Zoo, I discovered that there are a ton of special events including night time adventures. Zoo sleepovers are available for kiddos and adults alike. Also featured are moonlight strolls and talks on a variety of topics. They also offer banquet facilities at multiple locations throughout that would be perfect to host an office meeting or get together. In addition, you can also host your child’s birthday party at the Jacksonville Zoo! Forget the clowns, get up close with some animals. That would truly be a birthday your kid will never forget! For more information on these programs, you’ll want to check out their website.
We only went for a day but we’re hooked. This is a location we plan on return to visit. We had such a great time with our little guy in a nice relaxing environment. We were able to see some truly unique animals and gardens, and hope you decide to take a trip there with your family as well! We took tons of pictures, so be sure to checkout our Facebook gallery!
Jacksonville Zoo Tips:
- Wear comfortable shoes.
- You may wish to get a souvenir cup for discounted refills.
- Expect to spend the entire day at the zoo.
- Relax on the train at the end of the day.
- Bring swimsuits for the little ones for the splash area.
- No outside food or drinks are allowed.
- No smoking anywhere on property.
Jacksonville Zoo Specifics:
370 Zoo Parkway
Jacksonville, FL 32218
Open 9am to 5pm 7 Days A Week
March 1st to Labor Day the Jacksonville Zoo is open untill 6PM Saturdays & Sundays
7 Days A Week – Closed Christmas Day
General Admission: Adult $14.95 / Child Ages 3-12 $9.95 / Senior (Ages 65+) $12.95
Value Tickets: Adult $23.95 / Child Ages 3-12 $16.95 / Senior (Ages 65+) $21.95
Children 2 & Under Are Free