Nebraska with kids: Henry Doorly Zoo

In 2014, the Travelers’ Choice Awards named the Henry Doorly Zoo, in Omaha, Nebraska, its #1 zoo. This park, with its wide walkways lined with evergreen and deciduous trees, is well worth an extended visit by families of all ages. Here’s how to plan your day at Henry Doorly Zoo with kids:

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What to see at Henry Doorly Zoo with kids:

Henry Doorly Zoo is a sprawling complex, and for the most part you’ll find animals in expansive habitats that mimic their natural environs. You cannot take in the entire experience in a single day; there’s just too much there. So take it easy, decide what’s most important to you and plan accordingly, or else give yourself permission to wander until you run out of time and energy. A small sample of highlights:

  • The Desert Dome, the Lied Jungle Forest, and the Scott Aquarium. All three lie close to the zoo entrance and are well worth the time. The desert dome is the world’s largest indoor desert (though it’s not as hot as you might expect). Below it is the “Kingdom of the Night,” in which the day-night cycles are reversed so visitors can see the nocturnal animals in their active time. The Lied Jungle has both an upper trail and a lower; we only had time for the upper, which put us at eye level with macaws and spider monkeys. The aquarium is simply beautiful—although it was also very crowded.
  • Multiple play areas. Particularly of note: the Red Barn petting zoo and the African Grasslands, where kids can play on a retired helicopter and a couple of safari trucks.
  • A huge aviary with mature trees inside. A boardwalk winds through it, with benches to rest and take in the beauty.
  • The Alaskan Adventure Spray Park. This spectacular sculpture park lets kids play among sea lions and whales while splashing in the water. Let them come to the zoo in swim gear, because after this they’ll be completely soaked.

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Practical tips for zoo-goers:

  • Admission isn’t cheap, so make the most of the investment by coming at opening time and staying as long as you can. Early in the day the zoo was almost deserted, but by shortly after noon on a weekday it was crowded.
  • This is a big zoo. Bring your walking shoes or be prepared to pay extra for the tram, train, or Skyfari (a ski lift-type ride that bisects the zoo).
  • Download the free zoo app, which includes a map and pretty much everything on the web site. We did see some people carrying traditional paper maps, but we never saw where to pick them up, and directional signage was not as clear as I would have liked. Having the map on the phone was very helpful.
  • If you can plan ahead and are willing to splurge, consider camping overnight in the Safari tent camp, next door to the lion enclosure.

Shopping and dining at the zoo:

The cafes and kiosks are clean and well-run, and offer mostly standards. However, next to the elephants you’ll find a window serving four African-themed entrees. We had a pork kabob, sambusa, and sweet potato fries, which were all excellent and a user-friendly way to experience a new ethnic cuisine. There are two gift shops, one at the main entrance and the other at the exit to Scott Aquarium. Zoo members receive a 5% discount.

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Hours/Admission:

The zoo is open from 9-5 daily in the summer and 10-4 in the winter, though the buildings stay open an hour later. Summer admission for children 3-11 is $12.95; 12 and up is $18.95, with discounts for seniors, military, and others. Train, tram, Skyfari, IMAX and carousel tickets are separate, and can be bundled into packages, which are outlined here. Members of other zoos may be eligible for a hefty discount on admission; also be sure to take advantage of the $2 discount on the Omaha Savings app, available through iTunes.

Parking/Directions:

Henry Doorly Zoo is at 3701 S. 10th Street, Omaha, Nebraska. Parking is free, but on busy days it fills quickly. Additional parking is available off-site, with free shuttles, and vouchers for $1 off admission are offered to those who use the shuttle.

Our family visited the zoo as guests of Visit Omaha in exchange for an honest review.

About the author

Kathleen Basi Freelance writer Kathleen Basi has lived her entire life in "flyover country," but she's an old pro at road trips, having taken the first of many extended driving vacations at the tender age of five. She's a huge proponent of letting kids see and experience the space between "here" and "there." Find her at http://kathleenbasi.com/blog/.

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