Zoo Archives - 2 Dads with Baggage
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The Best Zoos in America: Omaha Zoo and San Diego Zoo

The Best Zoos in America: Omaha Zoo and San Diego Zoo

This San Diego boy recently had the privilege of visiting The Omaha Zoo, named by TripAdvisor as the Best Zoo in the US. Being from San Diego, we’re pretty prideful of our own World-Famous San Diego Zoo. Both are careful to downplay any competition. Yet, it’s hard not to draw some comparisons about which actually ranks among the Best Zoos in America.

pink flamingos San Diego Zoo

A flock of shockingly pink flamingos greets visitors inside the entrance of San Diego Zoo.

The Best Zoos in America

It seems like every major city in the US is proud of its zoo. People get fiercely competitive about whose is best. On this visit to The Omaha Zoo, my friend Vera told me she had read someone’s blog post about this very subject. Evidently the comment thread went on and on, with people claiming THEIR city as ranking among the best zoos in America.

But who is right? I think the answer might really be all of them.

girl in Children's Petting Zoo San Diego Zoo

Even as a wee little girl, Sophia loved the Children’s Petting Zoo at San Diego Zoo.


The Omaha Zoo

There are some things about The Omaha Zoo that really make it special. We visited in the early Fall, when the weather was not-too-hot and not-too-cold. Since the weather in Omaha can blister in the summer and freeze in the winter, we lucked out on timing. Still, the animals were visible, living in enclosures that mimic their natural habitats. They looked happy, healthy and well adjusted. Do you remember seeing caged zoo animals pace back and forth in front of the bars, anxious to escape? Well, not here.

Giraffe inside enclosure at Omaha Zoo

The herd of giraffes at Omaha Zoo are comfortably set inside their large enclosure.


Special Attractions

Since new leadership came to the Omaha Zoo several years ago, they’ve undertaken some pretty significant upgrades. And there’s more in progress. Just in the past few years, the Omaha Zoo has opened:

Children’s Adventure Trails – An interactive exhibit that highlights kids’ learning through play in nature. Located on five acres combining outdoor adventure with hands-on learning opportunities.

The African Grasslands – This is the largest project undertaken in the Zoo’s history, transforming 28 acres along the eastern boundary of the Zoo.

feeding giraffe at Omaha Zoo

Malcolm the giraffe was very interested in our lettuce offerings behind the scenes at the Omaha Zoo.

Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium – Discover polar regions, temperate oceans, coral reefs and the Amazon exploring the largest aquarium in a zoo.

Expedition Madagascar – The island of Madagascar is home to some of the most amazing and unique animals in the world.

people on golf cart at Omaha Zoo

Riding in style, our gang had a personally guided tour behind the scenes at the Omaha Zoo. Pretty cool!

Improvements in the Works

Joining some of the cool new exhibits opened at the Omaha Zoo recently, there are a whole host of additions planned:

Asian Highlands – Complete in 2019, Asian Highlands will transport Zoo guests on an immersive journey through Asia.

Coastal Shores –  Owen Coastal Shores, a new habitat for the Zoo’s sea lions, is scheduled to open in spring 2020.

Bruce Simon at Omaha Zoo

Our crew poses with Omaha Steaks CEO Bruce Simon at his namesake grill inside the Omaha Zoo.

The San Diego Zoo

Spanning more than 100 acres within Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo contains some 650 species of animals and a collection of rare plants from around the globe. San Diego Zoo is truly world famous, welcoming nearly 3.5 million visitors each year. The zoo was founded in 1915, and has grown in popularity over the last 100+ years. People come from all over the world to visit San Diego, and specifically to tour the San Diego Zoo. We’ve literally spent entire days there and never gotten to see everything, simply due to the vast collection they house.

girls in Skyfari Ride at San Diego Zoo

The Skyfari ride at San Diego Zoo has always been a favorite of our girls, since they were little munchkins.

Bioclimatic Zones

Long gone are the days when zoos displayed animals in cages, or god forbid, concrete enclosures. The San Diego Zoo is organized by zones that mimic specific conditions in areas of the globe like Africa, Asia and more. Animals are housed in these areas that are accustomed to those specific conditions – arrid, humid, etc.

giraffe close up at San Diego Zoo

Feeding the giraffes at San Diego Zoo is an up close and personal experience.

These zones are highlighted by animal enclosures so large and impressive that guests can forget they are in a zoo at all. Elephant Odyssey, for example, joins seven elephants in a 7.5-acre area where they can roam extensively. The Australian Outback features so many koalas in one place, you would think you were actually in Australia. One of our family’s favorites are the collection of aviaries. They are enclosed jungle oases guests can enter, walking among colorful and exotic birds from around the world.

Expansion Projects

There is always something new in the works at the San Diego Zoo:

Africa Rocks – Recently opened on top of the west mesa, Africa Rocks is a gorgeous expanse that covers all the interesting terrains of Africa. Ranges from savannas to grassy plains and everything in between.

New Children’s Zoo – A complete 2-acre redesign of the Children’s Zoo experience will provide authentic exploration of nature that intrigues and delights kids.

girl monkeys around at San Diego Zoo

Ava felt like monkeying around when we visited the primate jungles at San Diego Zoo

Tourism Draw

Because San Diego is an extremely popular tourist destination, people travel from around the world to visit the San Diego Zoo. At any given time, guests can hear the languages of many lands. Chinese, Russian, Portuguese, Farsi, German, Dutch, French, Italian and many more languages are all spoken. With 35 million visitors to San Diego last year, the city ranks among the top ten tourist destinations for visitors from outside the US.

Conclusion on Best Zoos in America?

Before we can really answer this question, we need to visit The Bronx Zoo, The Cleveland Zoo, Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and many others considered among the best.

I know growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, my parents took me to the Oakland Zoo on the regular. Somewhere there is even a picture of 4-year-old me holding a baby tiger cub (that is, before it peed on me!). As a kid, the Oakland Zoo seemed vast and absolutely full of animals. But of course, that was my only frame of reference.

gay dad family at San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo is still our family favorite, and that might have a little to do with the fact that it is 10 minutes from our house.

We’re not sure we can fully say which should rank as the Best Zoos in America. What we can tell you is this: Omaha has a world-class zoo, and so does San Diego. Their missions are both identical – to help humans learn about and respect our planet’s species of all kinds. And to humanely preserve and protect them for future generations.

Omaha Zoo or San Diego Zoo favorites aside, you can’t argue with a mission like that.


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The Living Desert is a Zoo Like No Other

The Living Desert is a Zoo Like No Other

*Our visit to The Living Desert was graciously hosted by them as part of a great tour organized by Visit Palm Springs, and we are grateful for the experience.

When people think of the desert, they typically envision endless sand dunes, scrubby little plants, some cactus, a bunch of rocks and maybe a lizard or two. But a zoo in the desert? Yep, and it’s awesome – The Living Desert is a zoo like no other. Located in Palm Desert near Palm Springs, The Living Desert is an amazing destination right in the middle of the blazing sun and dry, dry, dry conditions.

The Living Desert entrance

We’ve been visiting The Living Desert since the girls were babies, and as they have grown so has the park.

The Living Desert serves up an oasis of sorts, a respite where animals that are accustomed to dry conditions can feel right at home. What started in 1970 as a nature trail and preserve has grown and evolved into a legit zoo that is fun and interesting for the whole family. We visited recently and thoroughly enjoyed our experience.

The Living Desert is a Zoo Like No Other

flowers in bloom at The Living Desert

When visiting in springtime, you can catch the desert flowers in bloom at The Living Desert

The Birds and Bees

Across some 1,800 acres of parched land, The Living Desert thrives by showcasing the flora and fauna natural to this climate. The Living Desert’s gardens are vast and lush with plants indigenous to the area, including cacti like Cholla, Agave and Barrel Cactus.

We were lucky enough to visit in the Spring, during the short window when everything is in bloom. Cactus, wildflowers and other kinds of flowering plants were all just beginning to peak, so the area was rich in color and variety. With all these flowers in bloom, there were tons of birds and bees jetting about and adding energy to the mix. We even spied a Road Runner (the real kind, not the character from the old cartoons with Wile E. Coyote).

The Living Desert cactus gardens

Gardens at The Living Desert are artful displays of local plants that can withstand the intense sun and heat.

The Living Desert has several zones planted specifically to nurture species native from the immediate area as well as North American frontiers.  The kids loved the vivid colors of the California Fuschia, Desert Mallow and Indigo Bush along with many others blooming bright pink, yellow, deep blue, red and more.

Animals Adapt

Those desert critters are a resourceful bunch. In order to withstand the intense heat and drought conditions of desert living, they learned to avoid heat and retain water. It’s amazing to see how they reserve energy, keep themselves cool when it’s more than 100 degrees outside, and still thrive.

One of the things we loved witnessing while at the Living Desert was the Cheetah Run. Three cheetahs, sisters who have been inseparable since birth, are housed in a spacious enclosure planted with grasses and heavily shaded with trees.

cheetahs relax at The Living Desert

The three cheetah sisters at The Living Desert conserve their energy while relaxing in the cool shade.

Once a day, their keepers encourage them to get exercise by running from one side of the very long enclosure to the other. And boy can these girls run – it was breathtaking to see how fast they are, and how cool they stay despite the hot sun. When their run was finished, they went back to relaxing in the grass just as comfortable as before.

Feeding Time

In several places throughout the park, guests can participate in feeding the animals. In the colorful lorakeet exhibit, guests are invited to entire the aviary carrying a small cup of nectar. Lorakeets are so attracted to this nectar that they fly right over to the guests and land on their heads, shoulders, arms and hands – trying to get a delicious sip. If you like birds, this is an incredible experience. If you don’t like birds, this is your worst nightmare. Good thing we like birds!

giraffe feeding time at The Living Desert

Giraffe feeding time at The Living Desert is fun for the whole family.

Over at the giraffe area, the Living Desert has built a special viewing platform so guests can be eye-level with this stately creatures. At certain times, guests can feed the giraffes a special cracker they seem to love very much. The kids had a blast watching the giraffes’ long black tongues reach out of their mouths and grab the cracker like a hand. Evidently, their 20-inch tongues are prehensile just like a monkey’s tail – they can move them far more independently than we humans. We were all fascinated and could have watched for hours!

The Model Train Display

The Living Desert model train exhibit

The model train exhibit at The Living Desert is massive and fascinating, with more than 3,300 feet of tracks.

Not really a desert-specific exhibit and certainly not an animal, the working model train sets on display in the center of The Living Desert are nothing short of fantastic. Their sets are miniature versions of towns, lumber yards, stations and even a scaled version of Mount Rushmore. With more then 3,300 feet of track laid, they criss-cross and wind around each other in constant motion. Kids and adults alike are fascinated at the intricacies of this display.

How to Visit The Living Desert

For all of these reasons and many more, The Living Desert is a zoo like no other. There is plenty of parking, and lots of shade but it’s always a good idea to bring a hat and sunscreen.

The park is open every day October 1 to May 31 from 9:00am to 5:00pm, and in the summer months every day June 1 to September 30 from 8:00am to 1:30pm.

Entrance fees are $19.95 for adults, $9.95 for kids 3-12, and kids under 3 are free.