While Alex, Marty and the gang might have been more than eager to escape from the fictional New York Central Zoo in DreamWorks’ Madagascar, in the real world, there are zoological parks all over providing safe spaces to thousands of animal species. Whether you are looking for a fun-filled family weekend or an educational personal journey through nature, these 10 zoos (and nearby hotels to rest after the monkeying around) provide what you need for a wildly rewarding vacation.
Central Park Zoo
What to know: One of the oldest municipal zoos in the United States, this popular spot in the heart of Manhattan has attracted tourists since the 1860s. Since the Wildlife Conservation Society took over management in 1984, the attraction has introduced a host of exhibits, including the Tisch Children’s Zoo, the sea lion pool in the center courtyard (a visitor favorite) and, in late 2014, a grizzly bear showcase. Give the gift of a WCS membership for the holidays or take advantage of the off-season for a visit. The animals are known to be the most active around this time of year.
Where to stay: The Pierre, A Taj Hotel, New York
Directly across the street from Central Park lies this Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star hotel, which is known not only for its prime location but also for 140 guest rooms of history and elegant décor. And don’t hesitate to approach the esteemed concierge team with a request; it can create an itinerary that goes well beyond a sea lion feeding.
San Diego Zoo
What to know: A 100-acre space that houses more than 3,700 rare and endangered animals, this beloved zoo has been the source of unforgettable memories for San Diego visitors for 100 years. Join in on the centennial celebrations next year with mural displays, film showings, nighttime zoo experiences and more. Of course, if you can’t wait that long, Jungle Bells, the park’s holiday-themed wonderland, roars from December 12 through January 3.
Where to stay: The US Grant Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel
Reaching its centennial mark just five years ago, this Four-Star hotel remains a superior choice for zoo goers, seeing as how it’s merely two miles from the camels, leopards and other wildlife. Complete your vacation with the Holiday Feast and Celebration package that includes two tickets to Lamb’s Players Theatre’s An American Christmas, an interactive, four-course dinner for two during the performance and a US Grant holiday ornament.
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Colorado Springs
What to know: You may think that you’ve grown too old to enjoy the chirps and purrs from inside the cages, but before you put the muzzle on another kid-friendly vacation idea, visit this Colorado Springs destination for its Electric Safari, running nightly December 11 until January 1. (The only night that will be dark is Christmas Eve.) The seasonal dazzler for kids of all ages includes 85 light sculptures, warming fires and select indoor animal exhibits.
Where to stay: The Broadmoor
Consider a Five-Star vacation at this 3,000-acre resort. Apart from the fact that this resort offers a boatload of activities (tennis, fishing, paddleboating, etc.), an onsite theater and a kid’s concierge, its Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is perched just five minutes away. How’s that for hitting two birds with one stone? (Figuratively speaking, of course.)
St. Louis Zoo
What to know: While this 90-acre zoo in historic Forest Park provides you with free admission to the park, you’ll pay for special attractions like the sea lion show and Zooline Railroad. The U.S. Bank Wild Lights show is another adventure you will be more than willing to purchase tickets for. Through January 3, get a glimpse of the North Pole through fireside storytelling, s’mores and a special visit from Kali the polar bear.
Where to stay: The Chase Park Plaza
Just around the corner from the critter commotion sits this historical landmark. Snag the Home For The Holidays package available until January 9 for an amenity-filled room worthy of hibernating and a $25 food and beverage credit in Eau Café or for room service.
What to know: If your search for new adventures falls short, head to Germany for a trip like none other. Explore this diverse animal world in the heart of Berlin and you’ll be sure to meet everything from California sea lions to African hunting dogs. Tickets are available online, along with a handy list of feeding times and shows around the park.
Where to stay: Waldorf Astoria Berlin
With Art Deco charm and panoramic views of the city, this urban hot spot proves a great overnight option after you’ve encountered orangutans and such across the street. During your stay, be sure to also stop by Tierpark Berlin and Aquarium Berlin, two more spectacular sights just minutes away from the chic hotel.
Audubon Zoo, New Orleans
What to know: The Audubon Nature Institute is more than just a refuge for undomesticated mammals and reptiles. This zoological gem also houses an aquarium, a butterfly garden, an insectarium and a theater. Recently, the facility adopted a pair of rescued sea otters and took in a stranded dolphin. With a mission to preserve local habitats as well, Audubon Zoo gives you a taste of the Big Easy without minimizing the importance of wildlife across the world.
Where to stay: Windsor Court Hotel
Four-Star Windsor Court Hotel delivers English charm in the heart of the bustling Bayou. An added perk: While your canine companion can’t tag along for a trip to the zoo, this hotel, just six miles from Audubon, offers a pampered pet service so you don’t have to leave him at home, either.
What to know: Set in the breathtaking Rouge Valley, this wild space is home to more than 5,000 animals. From the African Savanna to the Canadian Domain and Indo-Malaya, stroll more than six miles of walking trails and explore the Discovery Zone, an area featuring a kids zoo, a water play area and more. Recently, Canada’s first giant panda cubs were born here. Though the cuties won’t be viewable to the public for a little while longer, follow their journey on the zoo’s Facebook page.
Where to stay: Shangri-La Hotel, Toronto
Toronto Zoo is outside of the city, so it’s a slightly longer trek to this Four-Star respite — but it’s so worth it. The entire space leans on natural, Chinese-inspired décor. Amenities range from childcare to butler services. And let’s not even mention that the 65-floor property offers views that a giraffe on stilts would find enviable.
Zoological Society of London
What to know: Considered the world’s oldest scientific zoo, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) isn’t just acres of captivating exhibits; it’s a historical experience. Navigate through history tours on Friday and Saturday mornings that include stories about Charles Darwin’s discoveries that came with ZSL’s help or a little background on Winnie-the-Pooh’s origin (hint: the real-life inspiration once ate honey here).
Where to stay: Four Seasons Hotel London at Park Lane
Conveniently located in London’s esteemed Mayfair neighborhood, this Five-Star stunner provides the perfect setting for any post-Pooh-and-penguin fun. After walking around all day, breathe a sigh of relief at the fact that recently renovated rooms, Five-Star spa and a 24-hour multilingual concierge are readily accessible.
Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago
What to know: This Chicago staple’s mission is to connect people to nature. The zoo believes in this so passionately that it opens its doors for free 365 days a year. Inside you’ll find multiple educational opportunities and over 200 species of animals. Beyond the everyday excitement around the Lincoln Park Zoo, though, the place has a couple of special things lined up — the luminous ZooLights (through January 3) and ice skating at the Farm in the Zoo rink (through February 28) — for a bit of seasonal fun.
Where to stay: Waldorf Astoria Chicago
While you’ll sort of feel like you are on a jungle safari during the day, by staying at this Four-Star hotel, your nights will have a more refined feel. Thanks to Coco Chanel-inspired design touches throughout the property, you’ll feel as if you’ve just come off the catwalk — even if you’re still thinking about the Amur tiger exhibit.
What to know: Texas’ oldest and largest animal haven began with just two deer and a pair of mountain lions in 1888. The zoo has since expanded to include more than 2,000 animals, including new residents at the Koala Walkabout. In September, the facility celebrated its first millionth visitor in a fiscal year. But it only takes a casual look at all that the zoo has going on (Snowfari Winter Camp, Penguin Days) to see why there’s so much excitement around this Dallas treasure.
Where to stay: The Ritz-Carlton, Dallas
Along with a zoo visit, book this property’s Ritz Kids package, which comes with overnight accommodations, entry for two adults and two children to the Dallas World Aquarium, the Perot Museum of Nature or Nasher Sculpture Center and much more.