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30 Animal Encounters to Experience Around Dallas-Fort Worth

put the animal kingdom at your child’s feet

Few topics fascinate kids more than animals. And lions, tigers and bears are just the beginning. Take a walk on the wild side at these 30 North Texas destinations—zoos, drive-thru safaris, aquariums, petting zoos and more—where you can see, interact with, and even feed them by hand.

Aquariums

1. Dallas World Aquarium: Trek through a cloud forest, wave to a friendly manatee, see sharks and sawfishes swimming all around as you traverse a clear tunnel—it’s all possible at this massive collection of aquarium and zoo animals located in the Historic West End District. An octopus, an ocelot, leafy sea dragons, miniature seahorses, sloths, colorful birds, a gigantic croc and a huge anaconda: They’re all there, and that’s just the beginning. Dallas; 214/720-2224

2. Sea Life Grapevine: This aquarium inside Grapevine Mills mall houses some 3,000 creatures and gives you the opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with a number of them. Check out the interactive touchpools, where you can touch sea stars and anemones, then head to the Sea Turtle Rescue Center. Your budding wildlife biologists will also enjoy Stingray Bay, the Rainforest Adventure and other exhibits. You can even take a behind-the-scenes tour. Make a day of your visit by stopping into Legoland Discovery Center or Peppa Pig World of Play, also inside Grapevine Mills. Grapevine; 469/444-3050

3. SeaQuest Fort Worth: Experience animals from five continents at this aquarium at Ridgmar Mall, offering 20,000 square feet of land and sea adventure. You can snorkel with stingrays, feed an otter, interact with a sloth and hang out with a kinkajou as part of the aquarium’s enhanced interactions. With regular admission, make your way through animal exhibits ranging from an Icelandic fishing village to the Great Wall of China. Need a pedicure? In a Seaside Spa Session, tiny toothless doctor fish will nibble at dead skin on your feet. Fort Worth; 817/731-5357

Horseback Riding

4. River Ranch Educational Charities at Texas Horse Park: Saddle up and experience the sights and sounds of Dallas’ Trinity Forest on horseback. Trail rides are for age 12 and up; younger kids can enjoy pony rides or lessons that will get them ready for the trail. Dallas; 469/804-2660

5. Benbrook Stables: Guided trail rides on miles of scenic trails around Lake Benbrook are available for age 8 and up; younger kiddos can get a ride on the property with a lead line. Fort Worth; 817/249-1001 

6. Stockyards Stables: Meander down the Old Chisholm Trail on horseback (if you’re 11 or older). Little ones age 3 and up can take an arena horseback ride during the week. The family will also enjoy stagecoach and carriage rides. Fort Worth; 817/247-2510

7. YMCA Camp Carter Trail Rides: Starting at age 8, kiddos can take an on-property trail ride at the YMCA Camp Carter Equestrian Center, which features a hardwood forest, grasslands and one of the highest points in Fort Worth. Fort Worth; horses@ymcafw.org

8. Little Harts Pony Parties: Gather up to a dozen kids for a weekend outing with pony carts and horse riding at Little Harts Ranch, or schedule a private pony ride. Lucas; 214/923-0370 

9. T Bar T Pony Rides: Want the ponies to come to you? T Bar T Pony Rides is based in McKinney but serves surrounding areas. They’ll bring out ponies for any occasion. McKinney and surrounding areas; 214/924-5680

10. Paws for Reflection Ranch: This ranch about a half hour southwest of downtown Dallas offers therapeutic horseback riding, including for children with special needs. The site has a covered arena, nature trail and sensory trail. Be sure to make the drive out for the ranch’s annual Easter and Christmas festivals. Midlothian; 972/775-8966

11. Southfork Ranch Trail Rides: This Collin County ranch—home of the Ewing Mansion featured in the television series Dallas—is a great spot for horseback riding. Trail rides are open to age 8 and up. Parker; 972/442-7800 

12. Marshall Creek Ranch: Take a trail ride through wooded acreage and across creeks surrounding Lake Grapevine. Rides are open to age 7 and up. Southlake; 817/490-8796

Petting Zoos

13. Country Critters Farm: During the summer, you can book a party here (about 10 minutes south of Mansfield) and let the kids enjoy goats, sheep, pigs, a donkey, a cow and a rabbit in the petting zoo—there’s even the occasional praying mantis. Other activities include a bounce house, playground areas, a pony ride, barrel train, a hayride and a wooden maze and games. The petting zoo and pony rides can also travel to you. Alvarado; 682/593-1866

14. Preston Trail Farms: You’ll find this petting farm just north of Prosper in Grayson County. Your family can get up-close-and-personal with about 40 farm animals—including goats, sheep, cows and even longhorn cattle. Gunter; 972/382-4995

15. Stockyard Stables Petting Zoo: Head to the Fort Worth Stockyards Historic District to see, touch and feed farm animals, the usual and some more unexpected. Entry is $5 per person, all ages and $3 per cup of feed. Fort Worth; 817/247-2510 

16. Cathy’s Critters: From frolicking mini horses and fuzzy alpacas to piglets, kangaroos, peacocks and iguanas, what can’t you see here? This Collin County destination is a petting farm (a mobile petting zoo is available too) that also offers pony rides. Trail rides are available on Saturdays for age 8 and up. Princeton; 972/562-0583 

17. Hochatown Rescue Center & Petting Zoo: Take a road trip up to Broken Bow, Oklahoma, where you’ll meet Alfalfa the alpaca, Blakey the kangaroo, Pixie the flying squirrel, Queen Ruby the raccoon and more rescued animals. Broken Bow, Oklahoma; 580/494-7387

Wildlife Experiences

18. Sharkarosa Wildlife Ranch: The name is wild and so are the creatures who live there! Sharkarosa, near Lake Ray Roberts, is home to alpacas, beefalo (yep, that’s a thing), a zorse (and that’s a thing), a zedonkey (and that’s a thing), black bears, macaw, wallabies and too many other animals to list. About the only things you won’t see at Sharkarosa are, well, sharks. Pilot Point; 940/686-4600

19. John Bunker Sands Wetlands Center: This unique habitat will give you a unique wildlife experience. About 25 minutes southeast of downtown Dallas, the wetlands are home to more than 250 species of birds, including American bald eagles, plus rabbits, deer, snakes, native green tree frogs, dragonflies, turtles and other creatures. Join guided bird tours every first Saturday of the month and boardwalk tours every third Saturday monthly. Seagoville; 972/474-9100 

20. In-Sync Exotics Wildlife Rescue & Educational Center: If your kiddo loves the family cat, visit In-Sync to really blow their mind. You’ll see tigers, lions, cougars, leopards, cheetahs, bobcats, lynx, servals and ocelots—plus the honorary cats, the coatimundi (a racoon-like omnivore) and lemurs. The Big Cat Birthday Bash (one for all the residents) is set each June, with many more special events throughout the year such as pancake breakfasts, movie nights, and holiday events on Easter and Thanksgiving. Wylie; 972/442-6888

21. Texas Safari: Africa isn’t the only place to go on safari. Texas Safari is the state’s oldest wildlife park and home to more than 700 exotic animals. There are even 15 species that are extinct or nearly extinct in the wild. Stay in a luxe cabin on the 1,000-acre ranch in the northern Hill Country—maybe you’ll even get a wakeup call from Marsha the camel. Go online for a live feed of the giraffe house. Clifton; 214/384-3000

22. Fossil Rim Wildlife Center: You barely have to leave your car to experience the animals. Drive through the park and see animals such as the addax, the African spurred tortoise, black-tailed jackrabbits, gazelle, southern white rhinos, ostriches, giraffes and the greater kudu. Some you’ll gaze at from afar, while other animals will be really close—eager to get some of the food pellets you’ll toss their way. Stay for the night at the lodge or in a cabin. Glen Rose; 254/897-2960

23. Arbuckle Wilderness Park: At this drive-through wildlife experience in Oklahoma, hundreds of exotic animals—American bison, aoudads, antelope, camels, donkeys, markhors, nilgai and others—roam free across more than 200 acres in the Arbuckle Mountains. And yes, you can feed these animals from your car too. Davis, Oklahoma; 800/738-7275

Zoos

24. Dallas Zoo: Check out more than 2,000 awe-inspiring animals across 106 acres at the Dallas Zoo. Your family can take part in the Backstage Safari to find out how zookeepers care for the animals, then enjoy a spin on the carousel or catch a train ride for the grand tour. For 2022, dinosaurs have returned in a special exhibit of animatronics, accessible only by the tram tour. See Dinos at Dallas Zoo through Labor Day. Dallas; 469/554-7500 

25. Fort Worth Zoo: A 2020 USA Today poll ranked the Fort Worth Zoo as No. 1 in the nation. Come see 542 species, including the herd at the new Elephant Springs habitat. Your kiddo can also be a junior conductor on the zoo train, ride the carousel and get wet at Safari Splash. Fort Worth; 817/759-7555

26. Cameron Park Zoo: Tripping through Texas? Make a stop at the Cameron Park Zoo in Waco. Rhinos, tigers, greater kudus, a Komodo dragon, orangutans (including one we hear likes to get guests wet)… There’s no shortage of animals to discover, and the kiddos will be delighted to find the zoo’s playground and splash pad. Waco; 254/750-8400

27. Frank Buck Zoo: The Frank Buck Zoo isn’t big in size, but it’s not short on experiences. Feed a giraffe or a flamingo and meet other animals at this zoo north of Dallas-Fort Worth. Gainesville; 940/668-4533

Llama Farms

Whether you have a Fortnite fan at home or just want to check out these very social animals, there are some places tailor-made for you.

28. ShangriLlama Castle: A herd of pedigreed llamas resides at this replica Irish castle northeast of Rockwall. This summer, book Llama Lesson—a photo session and learning opportunity inside the castle barn for age 4 and up. Barack O’Llama, the Dalai Llama, Bahama Llama, Pajama Llama and the others await the honor of your presence. Royse City; 972/632-9385

29. Llamazing Party Animals: Come visit these Ellis County llamas that get decked out in colorful finery, or let them come to you. And there’s more than just llamas—ponies, mini donkeys, alpacas, pigs and other animals are at your service. Palmer; 469/999-5989

30. Laughing Llama Farm: Book a Laughing Llama Farm Experience to meet Bruce, Callie, Bunny Pearl and the rest of the hard at this farm between Waco and Temple. Enjoy other farm activities and stay in the on-site Silo House for an eclectic getaway. Troy; 254/723-0747

31. TX-Ture Farm: See the herd of gentle alpacas up-close on a private walk-a-paca experience available year-round or come back during special events throughout the year, including Shearing Fest in April, Lavender Festival in June, and National Alpaca Farm Days in September. Aubrey; 940/343-5054


Photo courtesy of TX-Ture Farm