With a free day on our hands, Natalie and I were looking for something wild to do. After a bit of back and forth we realized that it’s been years since we’ve been to the zoo and we set our plans accordingly. We were wondering, what’s new at the Columbus Zoo?
Ohio is home to five zoos (six if you count The Wilds in southeast Ohio, but I think that’s an entirely different experience). And we’ve added all of them to our Ohio bucket list. Ohio zoos include: the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, the Akron Zoo, the Toledo Zoo, the Cincinnati Zoo and the Columbus Zoo.
As a child our family made an annual pilgrimage to the Cincinnati Zoo. These were huge undertakings with multiple cars and plenty of cousins. It’s been more than 40 years since I’ve been to the Cincinnati Zoo and it’s next up on our list of Ohio zoos. I’m really excited to see Fiona, a hippopotamus born at the zoo in 2017 and billed by the zoo as the world’s most famous hippo.
Columbus Zoo History
The Columbus Zoo was founded in 1927 as Riverside Park. Harry Wolfe, the owner of the Columbus Dispatch originally conceived the idea while on a trip with the city’s mayor while on a trip to St. Louis, during which they visited the zoo there.
The Zoo rose to national prominence following the installation of Jack Hanna as director in 1978. During his tenure, cage enclosures were removed from the Zoo and more natural looking habitats became the norm.
In his effort to draw attention to the Zoo, Hanna hosted a local television program, “Hanna’s Ark.” This exposure translated into appearances, with animals in tow, on both Good Morning America and on David Letterman’s talk show. He later starred in several syndicated conservation and animal related television shows.
When the children were small, we purchased some version of a zoo membership every year. There are different sizes for different families and our membership adjusted over the year with our needs.
If you have a younger child and live within an hour or so of the Zoo, I highly recommend this option. In addition to free admission, you’ll get free parking and discounts on rides and at gift shops. You also get discounted admission to Zoombezi Bay, which is on zoo property, as well as The Wilds and at the Safari Golf Club.
When your children are young, they may not have it in them to make one full day at the Zoo. Purchasing a membership allows you to make several smaller trips with your children. We would sometimes visit a particular section of the Zoo when the kids were younger. For instance, we’d read books and do a bit of studying ahead of time on a particular animal or a particular region, then follow up with our learning on a visit to the Zoo.
Dinosaurs at the Zoo in 2023
Though we’ve been to Wildlights in the last few years, it’s likely been ten years since our last daytime zoo visit. We were both excited to see what’s new at the Columbus Zoo.
We headed first to the new attraction, Dinosaur Island. It’s brand new this year!
Located in the Australia area of the zoo, you can make your way through the gibbons and otters (one of my favorites!) to the re-themed boat ride. Now you’ll glide through the trees encountering animatronic dinosaurs along the way.
For us it was a peaceful ride, but when my girls were younger they would have found it very exciting. You can pay a one time fee for the ride or purchase a wrist band for the day.
After leaving Dinosaur Island we wondered into the heart of the Australia exhibit. The lorikeet habitat is walk through and you can get very close to the birds.
If you would like to feed them, you can purchase a small cup of nectar for a couple dollars. With just a little encouragement, the birds will hop onto your hand a drink the nectar from the cup. They aren’t shy at all!
You can also walk through the kangaroo exhibit. On previous visits we’ve seen them very near the path, but on this visit they seemed to be resting in the shade. This is another advantage of a zoo membership. You can visit at different times of the day and during different seasons to catch the animals at their most active.
Aquarium and Manatees
While the only thing new in this area of the zoo was a sea-themed playground, this has always been a favorite area of the Zoo. We skipped by the long line for the touch tank and went straight to the giant aquarium. When they were younger, the girls would stand there staring into the tank, just mesmerized by the fish. It was always a great opportunity for me to have a seat on the carpeted steps and rest for a few minutes.
The manatee exhibit was also much the same as it had been. It’s always enjoyable to watch these gigantic animals glide along underwater eating lettuce. Turtles and fish populate the tank as well. It always surprises me how big they actually are.
Heart of Africa
The Africa area of the zoo seems new since our last visit. The theming was nice and there were interactive and photo displays designed to get kids involved.
Our favorite part was feeding the giraffes. That’s right, we got to actually feed the giraffes! You can feed for as little as $5, for which you get three lettuce leaves.
As you approach the docents give you some basic instructions and introduce you to your giraffe. It was so much fun! You just hold the lettuce leaf and the giraffe gently takes it with his tongue. It was amazing and one of my favorite parts of the day.
We saved my favorite for last – the Polar Frontier. The polar bears, Aurora and Lee, have viewing platforms available above the water and then you can go downstairs to see them playing under the water. The male bear, Lee, was in hiding. But we were able to watch Aurora play in the water and do somersaults with her big blue barrel.
The brown bears are on exhibit in this area as well. The Ohio-named twins Brutus and Buckeye were both taking a nap in the shade.
Know Before You Go
We purchased our tickets and parking pass online ahead of time. This helped us skip the long line at the ticket kiosk and enter the zoo with a simple scan of our phone. Visiting the website there are a number of options, including the ability to purchase the ride wrist band and even a two-day pass which includes admission to the waterpark Zoombezi Bay.
Speaking of Zoombezi Bay, the former Wyandot Lake park was purchased by the Zoo in 2006 and opened as Zoombezi Bay in 2008. It’s a near 23 acre water park featuring a number of slides and a large wave pool. It’s been a few years since we’ve visited, but we may try to make the trip this summer.
You may also want to visit Jack Hanna’s Landing. There’s no admission to this part of the park just outside of the Zoo gates. You can purchase tickets for the individual rides, including a giant ferris wheel. The Zoo More wrist bands also work here.
Thanks for FindingOhio with us today. Of course there was so much more to our zoo day than we listed here. With so much to talk about, we tried to focus on what’s new at the Columbus Zoo. But to really learn more about the zoo, make a visit!
It’s always an adventure, sometimes a wild one! Keep checking in for more Ohio adventures, we’ll be posting at least one a week.
We have big plans for exploring Ohio (and beyond) this summer. We hope you enjoy discovering Ohio as much as we do. And, as always, we really appreciate you sharing our content to your social media. We want to get out the word that Ohio is an amazing place to live and play!