Parents know that few other topics capture kids’ attention like animals. Dinosaurs, family pets, barnyard animals, zoo animals and exotics—you name it, children are obsessed with them (see your collective pile of teddy bears and plush animals) and often carry their love for animals through the rest of their lives. They’re catalysts for teaching kids about conservation and even developing their understanding of empathy.
Luckily Dallas-Fort Worth is home to a menagerie of drive-through safari parks, petting zoos, places to go horseback riding) and—most impressively—world-class zoos and aquariums accredited by the AZA. See below for a glimpse into the highly regarded and professionally-run zoos in and around North Texas and what you can expect to experience on your next outing with the kids.
Where: 650 S. R. L. Thornton Freeway, Dallas; 3 miles south of downtown
Open hours: 9am–4pm October through February; 9am–5pm March through September; closed only on Christmas Day.
Admission: From $15 for adults; from $12 for children 3–11 and senior 65 and up; free for children 2 and younger and for Dallas Zoo members; Come on Tiger Tuesdays (the first Tuesday of each month) for only $8.
Contact/follow: 469/554-7500; on Instagram @dallaszoo and Facebook
About: Texas’s largest and oldest of its kind is home to more than 2,000 awe-inspiring animals. Guests may see and learn about the animals up close every day during keeper chats and feed a few of them, such as lettuce leaves to the giraffes and the birds in the Lacerte Family Children’s Zoo. For your youngest kids who can’t get enough, consider registering them for the year-round Wild Earth Preschool or your K–sixth graders for camps during school breaks. However often you visit, don’t miss the special events throughout the year including Dallas Zoo Lights, a drive-through experience during the Christmas holidays. The parking lot tends to fill up quickly on weekends, so consider taking the DART light rail for less hassle.
Fort Worth Zoo
Where: 1989 Colonial Parkway, Fort Worth
Open hours: 10am–4pm daily (winter hours November through February). Open on major holidays but with limited hours: noon–4pm on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
Admission: $16 adults; $12 seniors 65 and older and children 3–12; free for 2 and younger. Half-price admission is every Wednesday.
Contact/follow: 817/759-7555; on Instagram @fortworthzoo and Facebook
About: USA Today readers ranked the Fort Worth Zoo as the top zoo in 2020, and locals know too that Fort Worth Zoo is far and away one of the best zoos in the country. And it keeps getting bigger and better with A Wilder Vision. The $100 million campaign has so far produced two major habitats: African Savana, home to giraffes, ostriches and even hippos, and Elephants Springs, tripling the habitat size for an Asian elephant herd and a greater one-horn rhino.
The paved sidewalks all around the zoo are stroller-friendly, but if you’re tiring on walking, hop aboard the Yellow Rose Express for a ride to and from Safari Depot and Texas Wild! No trip is complete without visiting the Toyota Children’s Ranch and Petting Corralor touching and feeding stingrays and sharks that swim at Stingray Cove. When visiting during the summer, be sure to dress the kids in their swimsuits so you all can cool off from the heat at the Safari Splash water playground.
The Dallas World Aquarium
Where: 1801 North Griffin Street, Dallas in the West End, near downtown
Open hours: Hours vary slight by season: 9:30am–5pm Monday through Friday and 9am–5:30pm Saturday and Sunday. Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
Admission: $26.95 adults; $22.95 seniors and military (plus one guest at the same rate); $18.95 children 3–12 years; free for 2 and younger.
Contact/follow: 214/720-2224; on Instagram @officialdwazoo and Facebook
About: Nestled inside the urban jungle of Dallas’ West End district is a jungle of another kind. The part-zoo/part-aquarium was first converted from a vacant warehouse in 1992 and built upward over the years. Arguably the coolest attraction is the Mundo Maya exhibit’s 400,000-gallon shark tank formed like a cenote, a deep natural well that the Mayans believed to be sacred and used for human sacrifices.
Free-flying in the rainforest canopy are more bird species than you could see in one trip, including red-capped manakins, famous for their mating-season “moonwalk,” and the barred owls whose hoots ask, “Who cooks for you?” Grab a blueberry from the attendant to feed the toucanets and aracaris and slide your hand through a glass opening. Their long beaks will pluck the fruit from your open palm before you can say, “You’re welcome.”
Fossil Rim Wildlife Center
Where: 2299 County Road 2008, Glen Rose, about an hour southwest of Fort Worth
Open hours: Open daily 8:30am–4:30pm; last vehicle must exit by 6:30pm. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Admission: Self-guided tours are $24.95 for adults; $19.95 children 3–11 years; free for 2 and younger. Guided tours are $39.95 for everyone 3 and older.
Contact/follow: 254/897-2960; on Instagram @fossilrim and Facebook
About: You can drive your vehicle (great especially if you’ve got a sunroof) along the 9.5-mile Gosdin Scenic Drive to see rhinos, giraffes, wildebeest, zebras and many more species, or leave the driving to the zookeepers at Fossil Rim. Either way, you’ll get a free cup of food pellets feed to toss on the ground and lure them in for a better view of the gentle giants. At the Overlook, located halfway down the drive, step out into the Children’s Animal Center, with houses Nigerian dwarf goats, pot-bellied pig, and more animals gentle enough to pet. Traveling from afar? Fossil Rim also offers overnight stays at their lodge, which operates like a bed and breakfast.
Cameron Park Zoo
Where: 1701 North 4th Street, Waco
Open hours: Monday–Saturday 9am–5pm and Sunday 11am–5pm; closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
Admission: $13 for adults; $12 seniors 60 and older; $10 children 3–12 years; free for children 2 and younger.
Contact/follow: 254/750-8400; on Facebook
About: Road tripping through Texas? Make a stop at Waco’s Cameron Park Zoo, located along the Brazos River. The kiddos will be delighted to find Grammy Nell’s playground with a splash pad, and no shortage of animals to say hello to, such as white rhinos, tigers, greater kudus, a Komodo dragon, orangutans, American bison, and an American Black bear. Speaking of Baylor’s beloved mascot, the private university cares for two such black bears, Judge Joy and Judge Lady, in the Bill and Eva Williams Bear Habitat on campus.
Frank Buck Zoo
Where: 1000 W. California Street, Gainesville
Open hours: 10am–4pm daily; closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
Admission: $7.50 adults; $6.50 seniors 55 and older and active military; $5.50 children 1–12 years.
Contact/follow: 940/668-4533; on Facebook
About: The Frank Buck Zoo is smaller in size but not short on experiences. Feed a giraffe or a flamingo and meet other animals, primarily originally from Africa, at this zoo close to the Oklahoma border.
Where: 3430 Skyview Drive, Wylie
Open hours: 11am–6pm every Saturday and Sunday
Admission: Requested donation amounts are $12 for adults and $8 for seniors 65 and older and children 4–12 years.
Contact/follow: 972/442-6888; on Instagram @insyncexotics, Facebook and Twitter
About: In-Sync is not a zoo but a full-licensing and highly regarded animal sanctuary for a variety of big cat species: lions, tigers, cougars as well as ocelots, servals, bobcats, cheetahs, leopards—all of whom came from inhumane breeding facilities, entertainment facilities, other sanctuaries or from private owners who could no longer care for their pets and all of whom cannot be returned to the wild. Come for guided or self-guided tours or during special events throughout the year that focus on animal enrichment, like the birthday bash and pumpkin toss. Teens and adults welcome at the annual camping overnight outside the cat enclosures.
Sharkarosa Wildlife Ranch
Where: 11670 Massey Road, Pilot Point, near Ray Roberts Lake State Park
Open hours: Open to the public 9am–4pm Friday–Sunday
Admission: $15 for adults; $10 for seniors and children 3–12 years; free for children 2 and younger and for military/first responders; $5 parking. Annual passes available.
Contact/follow: Call 940/686-4600 or email email@example.com; follow on Facebook @Sharkarosa and TikTok @sharkarosawildlife
About: Sharkarosa 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 on its 126 acres are, well, sharks. Horses, lemurs, kangaroos and monkeys can be viewed at your own pace at the habitats by the entrance. Animals that can be fed with purchased food are clearly marked with signs.
Guided safari rides run around 35 minutes. Pack a lunch or dine at the Bears Den restaurant adjacent to the (you guessed it) bear habitats. Don’t miss the pony rides, petting zoo and barrel rides. See a list of daily programs and feeding presentations on the dry-erase board by the entrance.
Photo courtesy of Fort Worth Zoo