Adventure Aquarium (Camden)
Dubbed the seventh-best aquarium in the country by USA Today, this Camden destination houses one of the shark collections in the Northeast, is one of the only US facilities to have Little Blue penguins, and is the only aquarium in the world to feature a hippo exhibit. Apart from these exciting animals, the Adventure Aquarium also treats guests to a variety of unique attractions, including a Shark Bridge and Shark Tunnel that allow the Shark Tank to be seen from above and below. The aquarium’s interactive KidZone is great for families with young children, and the Sea Turtle Cove, which highlights endangered species of sea turtles from around the globe, will turn all your little ones into animal advocates.
Bergen County Zoo/Van Saun County Park (Paramus)
The Bergen County Zoo— which intends to “develop and maintain exhibits which emphasize natural behavior, encourage longevity, and promote breeding success,” according to its website— features species from North and South America such as the exotic Andean Condors and Golden Lion Tamarans. Anyone worried about the ethical implications of a visit to the zoo should rest assured that this Bergen County facility meets the “physical, environmental, and behavioral needs of the animals in its care and “actively participates in wildlife conservation endeavors.” Fun attractions include the Van Saun RailRoad Train and Millennium Carousel. Make sure to check out the zoo’s new exhibits, which feature mountain lions, budgies, and even a chicken coop.
Cape May County Park & Zoo (Cape May)
This Cape May County destination offers a plethora of opportunities for both education and fun, and the best part is that it’s always free. The zoo is home to large variety of species, including black-headed ibises, dromedary camels, snow leopards, and golden lion tamarins. Special zoo features include private, guided 80-minute tours before regular zoo hours and special animal “encounters” with giraffes, camels, and reptiles. In light of COVID, the zoo is offering both virtual and (restricted) in-person outreach programs, all of which are educational and interactive. Aspiring zoologists can even learn about zoo operation through participation in the facility’s Jr. Zookeeper program. Plus, anyone looking to take a break from the animals can check out the zoo’s free Disc Golf Course.
Cohanzick Zoo (Bridgeton)
Looking for a low-key, cost effective way to spend an afternoon? Try a visit to Cohanzick Zoo. This facility, which was the first zoo to open in New Jersey in 1934, may be small, but it manages to pack some great opportunities for learning and animal encounters into only 15 acres of land. The zoo— which, according to its website, focuses on providing both “responsible and professional care” for its animals and “excellent service and attention” for visitors— is home to exotic and exciting animals such as Bengal tigers, African servals, a White-Handed gibbon, and an Asiatic bear named “Holly Bear.” Plus, admission is free, so there’s really no reason not to go check out this hidden gem.
Jenkinson’s Aquarium (Point Pleasant Beach)
What better place to learn about marine life than from right on the water? Visitors to Jenkinson’s Boardwalk can step right off the beach and into Jenkinson’s Aquarium, which contains exhibits featuring everything from Atlantic sharks and penguins to seals and coral reefs. Experience the Rainforest and Pacific Ocean with the aquarium’s Pacific Habitat and Rainforest Exhibits— or, if you want to stay a bit closer to home, the aquarium also contains wildlife indigenous to the Jersey Shore and the Pine Barrens. Jenkinson’s also has animal programs and educational opportunities for animal lovers of all ages, from the Scoop on Sloths to Marine Mammal Mania.
Lakota Wolf Preserve (Columbia)
Though the facility is perhaps not technically a zoo by traditional standards, visiting the Lakota Wolf Preserve is a great way of learning about endangered wolf species. Visitors can participate in Wolf Watch guided educational tours or simply have the experience of viewing British Columbian, Timber, and Arctic wolves in their natural surroundings.
Merrill Park (Woodbridge)
Described as a “well rounded park,” this 182-acre facility contains everything from a so-called “Progressive Playground” to playing fields, picnic groves, and— most exciting, at least for our purposes— an animal haven. This haven displays farm animals such as pigs, goats, a horse, and a peacock, all of which can be seen from dawn to dusk within fenced-in areas. The presence of “interpretive signage” allows visitors of all ages to learn more about the animals. And guests can see all of this for free!
Popcorn Park Refuge & Zoo (Forked River)
The Popcorn Park Refuge & Zoo provides a sanctuary for injured animals who cannot survive in the wild, as well as a permanent home for farm animals who have suffered at the hands of their owners or who cannot be safely returned to the wild. The refuge currently houses and provides care for over 200 animals and birds, all of whom you can visit for a small admission fee.
The Raptor Trust (Millington)
Although is is a bird rehabilitation and education center, that is lots here that a typical zoo provides, such as exposure to animals, facts to learn about and ways to help with conservation efforts.
SEALIFE Aquarium (East Rutherford)
There’s a lot to be excited about inside the new SEALIFE Aquarium which recently opened inside American Dream. Come face-to-face with over 3,000 animals and enjoy a variety of unique attractions, including panoramic views of the aquarium’s City Under the Sea (complete with “fishified” Manhattan landmarks) or a tropical oasis in the Urban Jungle. Animal enthusiasts can take a look at how the aquarium is run with behind-the-scenes tours or get their hands on rockpool and gelatinous creatures at the Tiny Giants Touchpool. Also worth seeing are the New York Ballet inspired Seahorse Mangroves!
Six Flags Drive Thru Safari (Jackson)
Last year Six Flags turned their safari back into a drive thru experience like it was prior to 2013. They’ve shut down their off-road experience that was part of the Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park for the time being, and are still allowing guests to stay in their cars and drive through the park for an unbelievable up close experience with some of the 1,200 animals that live in the park. This way you can see some of the 1,200 animals, including giraffes, rhinos, elephants and more, all from the comfort of your car. Currently reservations are not required.
Space Farms Zoo & Museum (Wantage)
This 100-acre zoo and museum complex has over 500 live wild animals, including species such as leopards, kangaroos, monkeys, llamas, and hyenas. Visitors can eat at the zoo’s picnic area or Extreme Pizza Restuarant before checking out the Space Farms Museum complex, which features antique modes of transportation— cars, motorcycles, carriages, and sleighs— as well as Native American artifacts, dolls, and more.
Turtle Back Zoo (West Orange)
The Turtle Back Zoo is home to over 30 animal species and a wide variety of exhibits. Visitors can be transported to the savanna with the African Adventure Exhibit or come face-to-face with the endangered Mur leopards and red pandas at the Amazing Asia Exhibit before going “down under” at the Australian Exhibit and stopping by the Reptile House (and these are just a few of the exhibits this zoo has to offer). Anyone looking for a more hands-on experience should check out the sting rays in the touch tank or the zoo’s many educational programs, which include Sophisticated Science Seminars— for anyone over the age of 14— and the Turtle Back Hatchlings Program, which is meant for infants and toddlers. Kids can also enjoy pony rides, get out on the water with the zoo’s swan-shaped paddle boats (which are only available on the weekends), partake in safari-themed mini-golf, or explore the South Mountain Reservation on the Zoo Train.
Thompson Park (Jamesburg/Monroe Township)
At an enormous 675 acres, Thompson Park has quite a lot to offer. From a 30 acre lake perfect for fishing, canoeing, and kayaking to a 2-acre dog park, hiking trails, playgrounds, and a variety of reservable picnic groves and sports fields, visitors have more than a full day’s worth of recreation and entertainment at their fingertips. The highlight of this (free) facility, though, has to be its animal haven: educational signs adorn fenced-in areas displaying a variety of farm and exotic animals, including an emu, peacocks, turkeys, and goats. You and your family can encounter all that wildlife without paying a cent!
New York/Connecticut/Pennsylvania and Beyond
Bronx Zoo (Bronx, NY)
The presence of over 6,000 animal species at this Bronx destination makes visiting feel like taking a trip into the wild. From adorable baby doll sheep, giraffes, and fennec foxes to exotic Indian gharials, Malayan tapirs, and king cobras, visitors can encounter creatures from around the world. Plus, those looking to get even closer to the animals can schedule an in-person “Wild Encounter” with animals such as giraffes, cheetahs, sloths, and penguins. The zoo also offers virtual “meet & greet” events and encounters with various animals. Apart from experiencing wildlife, visitors can bring out their own inner forest dwellers by hopping on the tree’s treetop adventure course or zip lining across the Bronx River. The Bronx Zoo also works to save wildlife along with the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Central Park Zoo (New York, NY)
With a variety of exhibits and experiences (some of which are temporarily unavailable due to COVID), the Central Park Zoo offers opportunities for learning and fun for all ages. This facility— located within the scenic Central Park Zoo— transports guests to the Polar Circle, the temperate forests of Asia, and the rainforest. The zoo also houses a group of rescued grizzly bears at Treena’s Overlook, as well as snow leopards and sea lions, the latter of which can be viewed from both above and below the water’s surface. Little animal lovers can even take a trip to the Tisch Children’s Zoo.
Maritime Aquarium (Norwalk, CT)
At the Maritime Aquarium in Connecticut, you can encounter animals both local and exotic. The aquarium features a variety of species from the Long Island Sound area, among them the harbor seal, green sea turtle, and lion’s mane jelly, as well as those from beyond the region; these include Japanese sea nettles, poison dart frogs, and meerkats. Visitors can also take part in daily scheduled daily activities, some of which are virtual, or take a public or private cruise via the facility’s 64-foot catamaran. Make sure to check out the the many exhibits— which include a touch tank and a display dedicated to toxic animals— as well as the 4D theater.
Mystic Aquarium (Mystic, CT)
The Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut combines a fun, family-friendly entertainment with important conservation and rescue work. Visitors will come face-to-face with exotic species such as beluga whales, seals, sea lions, and penguins and can even have hands-on exposure to non-threatening sharks via the touch tank. On-site and virtual animal encounter programs allow for private interactions with the facility’s animals, and a glimpse of the aquarium’s Animal Rescue Clinic will reveal the process by which its Animal Rescue Team rehabilitates injured animals and prepares them for release. The presence of a rescue clinic reflects this aquarium’s emphasis on animal care, sustainability, and conservation.
National Aquarium (Baltimore, MD)
At the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the exhibits are just the beginning. At this facility— which is home to 800 animal species and 20,000 animals in all, creatures both aquatic and terrestrial are on display for animal lovers of all ages. From zebra sharks to jellyfish and birds like the scarlet ibis, every visitor is sure to catch a glimpse of an animal they’ve never seen. Guests can also sign up for lots of extra attractions such as the Shark Catwalk Experience, Dolphin Training Session, Dolphin Tour, Private Reptile Encounter, and 4-D Film.
New York Aquarium (Brooklyn, NY)
Located on Coney Island’s boardwalk, this destination is known for its immersive, interactive experiences. The aquarium’s newest attraction is the award-winning Ocean Wonders: Shark! Exhibit, which holds over 500,000 gallons of water and allows visitors to get within nine inches of a hundred marine species, including 18 species of sharks. Other exciting attractions include the “Spineless” vertebrae exhibit, the Conservation Hall, and the Aquatheater, where sea lions show off their learned behaviors with the help of trainers at interactive shows. Aquarium guests can also take a trip to the 4-D Theater or participate in Sea Otter Feedings and get up close with sea animals via A Wild Encounter— the latter two experiences are currently unavailable due to COVID, but will hopefully be reinstated soon.
Philadelphia Zoo (Philadelphia, PA)
This animal-packed 42-acre facility was the first zoo to open in the United States. Now, the Philadelphia Zoo is known for its botanical gardens, which contain over 500 plant species, as well as for its research and veterinary facilities. The zoo’s animals can roam around and above zoo grounds with the innovative Zoo360 trail network, while visitors can reach new altitudes themselves with the WildWorks Rope Course. At the McNeil Aviation Center, walk-through habitats facilitate encounters with over 100 exotic birds, and the multi-sensory 4-D Migration Theater takes viewers on a virtual journey with a bird named Otis the Oriole. Lions, jaguars, pumas, tigers, and leopards are the stars of the show at the Big Cat Fells exhibit, and visitors get to hear the stories of real conservationists at the PECO Primate Reserve. At KidZooU, kids can pet a variety of barnyard animals and learn about energy preservation.
Smithsonian’s National Zoo (Washington, D.C.)
This popular 163-acre zoological park is home to over 1,500 animals (about 25 percent of whom are endangered) from 300 different species. The facility— which is also a conservation and research center, in addition to a zoo— is filled with veterinarians and zoologists who provide world-class care for all its furry, feathery, and scaly residents. Admission is free with entry passes, and guests can enter the zoo from 8 am- 3 pm. Separate entry passes are needed for giant panda viewing; these can be reserved during your visit.