September 13, 2019

Making Memories at the Detroit Zoo

If you’ve been around here long enough you know that I’m a big (ok, maybe a HUGE) animal lover. So, when visiting a city (new or old) and the opportunity to check out the local zoo or aquarium comes up, I’m all in. 

Zoos and aquariums are a fantastic way to learn about the variety of animals that call our planet home, and to build a connection with wildlife we may not ever have the chance to experience in the wild. Not to mention, they're also a fun way to spend the day with your family.

child watching penguins swim at polk penguin conservation centre Detroit zoo Michigan

I grew up approximately an hour from Detroit, Michigan, on the Canadian side. The times I’ve visited the city to go shopping, play soccer or even to visit my (then) boyfriend while he played junior hockey, are so many that I couldn't even take a guess. BUT, the number of times I’ve visited to go the Detroit Zoo? Sadly, I can count that on only a few fingers.

On a recent extended visit to my parents’, my dad suggested we take a day trip to the Zoo. When you throw out the words “Do you want to go to the zoo?” in front of a few animal lovers (including a 3 year old and her mama), the answer is YES. Always YES.

So, we packed in the car – my dad, my sister, the two little gals and I – and drove off over the border and down I95 to the Detroit Zoo.

family at Detroit Zoo in Michigan

Situated on 125 acres, the Detroit Zoo (run by the non-profit Detroit Zoological Society) is home to more than 2,000 different animals representing 230 species of amphibians, mammals, birds and reptiles.

The Zoo features many award-winning attractions including the National Amphibian Conservation Center, Great Apes of Harambee, Arctic Ring of Life, and my personal favourite, Polk Penguin Conservation Center.

I know, I was just as surprised as you that I favourited the penguin habitat over the polar bears. (Background story: For those of you that don’t know, I’ve had a thing AGAINST penguins, dating back to 2010. Living and working at azoo in Alaska that had polar bears, it was not uncommon for people to think polar bears and penguins were friends. The media portrayal didn’t help. But in fact, they live on opposite ends of the earth – polar bears in the Arctic, penguins in the Antarctic. So, hearing that on a regular basis became a bit of a pet peeve. But, I digress…)

Opening in 2016, Polk Penguin Conservation Center is the Zoo’s newest award-winning attraction. At 33,000 square feet - housing 75 king, rockhopper, macaroni and gentoo penguins - it is the largest penguin facility in the world. Its signature feature is a 326,000 gallon (1.2 million liter) 25 foot deep aquatic area where visitors can watch the birds swim and dive from two acrylic underwater tunnels. The $32 million facility received the 2017 Exhibit Aware from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums for excellence in exhibit design. An award very much deserved. We could have spent hours watching the penguins fly through the water all around us. The facility is also filled with a variety of interactive educational exhibits to help better connect visitors to the Antarctic and the tuxedo-wearing birds.

*Please note: The Detroit Zoological Society will be temporarily closing the Polk Penguin Conservation Center between September 9, 2019 and mid-June 2020 to make repairs due to faulty waterproofing. The penguins will live in the former Penguinarium while their home is being repaired, but that facility will not be open to visitors.

And while the penguins may have been my favourite of the day, I cannot share about the zoo without mentioning my other favourite habitat, the Arctic Ring of Life – home to polar bears, seals and Arctic fox. This state-of-the-art interactive facility is one of North America’s largest polar bear habitats and encompasses more than 4 acres of outdoor and indoor spaces. My favourite feature? The spectacular 70 foot long Polar Passage, a clear tunnel that winds through a vast underwater marine environment. It reminded me very much of the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Sadly, the polar bears were nowhere to be seen that warm August day (can you blame them?!), but it was still fun to watch their nextdoor neighbours, the seals, swim through the water.

Arctic Ring of Life Detroit Zoo
Arctic Ring of Life Detroit Zoo

For a Zoo that first opened their doors almost 100 years ago in 1928 (and saw 1.5 million visits in just their first 4 months of operation), I was extremely impressed with the many naturalistic habitats and modern-day zoo updates. The layout is extremely family- and stroller-friendly, and easy to navigate with the use of either a paper map or the interactive mobile map system called Detroit Zoo Treks. There are a few indoor exhibits where strollers are not permitted (including the Polk Penguin Conservation Center), however, there is ample stroller parking to accommodate.

Beside the penguins and Arctic animals, we especially loved checking out the rhinos, zebras, giraffes and camels. The pop-up windows in the prairie dog exhibit were not only a great photo opportunity, but also a good way to see their cute faces up close. The new red panda habitat, located in the Asian Forest, had us cross a rope bridge, through the actual habitat! It made us feel that much closer to the red pandas sleeping in the trees above our head. The brand new Devereauf Tiger Forest opens on September 13, and will be home to three Amur tigers. 

family friendly activities at the detroit zoo
family friendly activities at the detroit zoo
family friendly activities at the detroit zoo
family friendly activities at the detroit zoo

Besides viewing the animals, the littlest zoo visitors can ride the animal-themed carousel, take a trip on the Tauber Family railroad, visit the Korman Tadpole or Rissman PlayVenture playgrounds and more. And for the adults (whether kiddos in tow or not), there is also a 4D theatre and simulator ride to check out.

family friendly activities at the detroit zoo

If you find yourself in the Detroit area with your family, I definitely recommend spending a few hours visiting the animals of the Detroit Zoo. But, before you do, be sure to scroll down to read my tips for visiting the Detroit Zoo with your family.

family friendly activities at the detroit zoo
family friendly activities at the detroit zoo

Important tips for visiting with your family:
  • There are a few indoor spaces that do not allow strollers, including the Polk Penguin Conservation Center. If you have a little one that cannot yet walk, I recommend bringing a carrier to use when the stroller is not available.
  • Guests are welcome to bring their own food and beverages into the Zoo. Several picnic areas are available throughout the Zoo. 
  • Bring your own reusable water bottle to refill at one of the 21 filtered-water stations throughout the grounds. Bottled water is not sold on site, something the Detroit Zoological Society had worked hard to achieve.
  • There are several concession stands throughout the zoo, some seasonally available. Items are reasonably priced for an attraction, and include burgers, hot dogs, fries, pizza, chips, soft drinks, frozen beverages, ice cream, coffee, etc. There is also a location with an all-vegan menu. 
  •  Zookeeper talks are held daily at various animal habitats, giving guests the opportunity to interact with animal care staff while learning about the individuals living at the Zoo. 
  • To save a bit of time during the busy months and money, pre-purchase your tickets and parking pass online in advance.
  • Hours vary depending on time of year - check the website prior to your arrival. I recommend at least 4 hours to check out everything the zoo has to offer. Our visit lasted from approximately 10:00am to 3:00pm. 

The Detroit Zoo can be found at 8450 W 10 Miles Road Royal Oak, MI 48067.

If you liked this post, you may also like:
Toronto Zoo 1, 2, 3 - Toronto, ON
Alaska Zoo - Anchorage, AK
Assiniboine Park Zoo - Winnipeg, MB
Riverbanks Zoo - Columbia SC

Did you visit a zoo or aquarium this summer? I'd love to hear which one AND your favourite animal!


family-friendly fun at the Detroit Zoo, Michigan

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