CINCINNATI -- How do you "zoo"?
Families set out for a morning at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden with the best intentions. Peanut butter sandwiches are packed. Sunblock applied. Departure time set to exactly 8:15 a.m. to be the first in line for the train ride.
Then life happens, and you are one of the 35 sweaty parents rushing in at 10:30 with your whiny offspring who are still stuffing cereal in their mouths.
As it turns out, most zoogoers -- and there were 1,629,477 of them last year -- do the zoo using one of these five strategies.
1. No animal left unseen
These people have paid their $26 “zoo adventure ticket,” and they are going to make the most of it -- come tantrums or high water. They are crossing the walking bridge at 9 a.m. on the dot, and they are ready. Nobody is leaving before they have seen every... last... living... creature. This strategy works for some people, but not too well with children who tire by lunch time.
If you are one of the brave who decide this is the way to do it, you can plan ahead through the zoo’s website by charting a map, checking out animal categories, or basing your day off “animal encounters,” which occur at specific times throughout the day. Kevin Richberg’s Road Trip USA blog highlights these as “opportunities to learn, see, touch, interact, smile, overcome fears, make friends and collect memories in ways that inspire kids to want to see and do more.”
Do not get in the way of those trying to see every animal before someone gets sunburned. You’ll recognize them by their fast gait, determined hip-checking to get to the front of the polar bear viewing window, and you may even catch a glimpse of a (gasp) fanny pack.
2. Divide and conquer
By far the most popular choice for pass holders and families with young children, these zoogoers split up their visits into quadrants, thirds, or other “fractions” as to not overdo it in one visit.
This tried and true anti-tantrum formula has worked well for Rebecca Helvey of Bridgetown, with her toddler and infant. She has physically sectioned off the zoo into three parts, and alternates visiting them at each zoo trip.
“It gets too overwhelming for my 2-year-old to cram everything in one day,” she said. “The zoo isn't really that big, but we are in the middle of the ‘terrible twos.’ So these sections are split off enough to let us enjoy our time but be out before we have a full on meltdown.”
One popular activity hub, if you need to narrow down your visit to a specific area, is the Africa exhibit. It features lions, giraffes and other “safari-like” animals. This section is popular because it is located near the famous train and also has nearby conveniences such as restrooms, a nursing room, a covered patio/seating area next to the Base Camp restaurant and a snack stand. Nearby, the children’s petting zoo, a walkway through some active penguins and the playground can give the kids some hands-on activity time.
Each zoo section can provide hours of entertainment and interest, depending on how much endurance and patience your family has.
Why go to the gym when you can workout at the zoo? This is a step-tracker’s dreamland. You will see all the Fitbits in the city on your zoo trip. Tip from the stroller pushers: put your Fitbit on your shoe for maximum step “credit” (otherwise you won’t move your arm enough!)
The hills and valleys of the zoo, along with winding trails and beautiful landscaping, make the perfect walking path.
The zoo’s “Walk on the Wild Side” initative, a partnership with Mercy Health, encourages visitors to “be well by setting a walking goal or simply noting the distance covered while at the zoo.”
They go on to explain on the zoo website: “We’ve mapped out steps beginning in the Historic Vine Street Village at the zoo’s main entrance and following the main path so that visitors can take a ‘Walk on the Wild Side.’ Adults can compare their steps against those of an elephant, while children can see how their steps measure up against those of a penguin. Map stands note how many fractions of a mile visitors have logged in addition to the animal steps.”
For example, from section 1 to 2, it is 158 feet -- about 61 adult, 98 child, 20 Asian elephant or 752 penguin steps.
Emily Schaeper, a zoo member from Union, Kentucky, with a 13-month-old son, said, “It’s kind of a workout for me, especially with the hills.” Her family’s zoo path usually starts right when zoo members can arrive (9 a.m. versus 10 a.m. for nonmembers) and they see almost everything that is outside before leaving.
Up your step goal and head to the zoo when you are dreading your normal workout.
4. Playing favorites
Fiona stalkers, this is for you. No, she’s not (necessarily) going to be out yet. We know, Fiona is adorable. She has dominated more news sites, social media feeds and Cincinnati hearts than any animal since, well, that baby giraffe birth that almost broke the internet.
As Fiona begins to venture into her outdoor enclosure, zoo visitors looking to catch the newest animal abound. But Fiona’s integration into her hangout can be a process, according to Fiona’s spokespeople.
“There’s a lot to get used to in the great outdoors,” said Christina Gorsuch, curator of mammals at the Cincinnati Zoo. “She has to learn that sand is not food and that you can see faces on the other side of a strange, hard surface that you can’t get through (glass).”
With 133 births this year, Zoo Babies season also attracts this type of specific animal lover: 226,618 of them last year, to be exact. These people have no time for lions, tigers, or bears unless they are brand new.
5. Toddler tour guide
For the youngest among us, the zoo is not just a place to see animals, but also to learn valuable skills like navigation and using a map. Yes, a map. In fact, this may be one of the only places the future generation is learning to use a map that doesn’t have the word "Google" in front of it.
Two such toddlers who get to take the lead at the zoo are Andrea Granieri’s children, ages 1 and 3. They're from Anderson Township.
“I generally let my daughter decide what she wants to see and do, even though that often means I hike from the giraffes to the carousel, and then back to the train," she said. "I figure it's good exercise for me, and how often does she get to call the shots?”
Her family usually stops at McDonald’s drive-through on the way home to feed the hungry toddlers before nap time.
“My kids tend to reject anything I pack anyway," she said. "They're too distracted and excited by the zoo. It definitely works best to pit stop at the one right around the corner on MLK.”
Nakeeshia Rosser, of Bridgetown, lets her kids, ages 9 months to 6, have a turn being the "tour guide" and using the map to get to their animal.
“It gives each child a sense of leadership and takes the stress off of me. I get to sit back and let the kids run the day,” she said.
For more specific tips on zooing with preschoolers, click here.
Regardless of your zoo visit strategy, following a few tricks for avoiding crowds can help, such as walking counterclockwise through the zoo and other tips. Read details about these and more in Cincinnati USA Insider’s Guide.