Ever think you would spot a seal in Manhattan, or a giraffe in The Bronx? Did you ever hope you'd be surrounded by sharks at Coney Island? New York City zoos offer families the chance to get up close and personal with animals from all over the world. Each borough boasts its own unique zoo experience. Whether your children are big or small, there is a zoo somewhere in NYC suited to their age, interests and attention span. Best of all, access to these creatures doesn't have to break the bank. Free admission can be as easy as picking the right afternoon to visit. Check out our insider tips for making the most of New York City's zoos.
The Congo Gorilla Forest at The Bronx Zoo will amaze visitors. Photo by Christopher Postlewaite
Bronx Zoo — Bronx Park, the Bronx
The largest of the NYC zoos, the Bronx Zoo spans more than 250 acres and has 750 species on display—it's impossible to experience it all in one day, although it's certainly fun to try! Animal habitats are organized by geographic location and species, so you'll find the lions in the African Plains, the gorillas in the Congo Gorilla Forest, and the leopards in the Himalayan Highlands. Plus, there are giraffes, monkeys, bears, and tigers, to name just a small sample of the kid-favorite species you'll find at this epic NYC destination. The Children's Zoo offers a tamer, more tactile experience for those who are looking for a more hands-on visit: Little ones can interact with donkeys, sheep, and goats. In addition to animals, the zoo boasts a 4-D theater, a bug-themed carousel, and an epic Nature Trek experience that offers families a birds-eye view of the zoo—literally! It lets children as young as 3 climb through elevated tunnels and across rope bridges to see zoo attractions from the treetops. Older kids (7 and up) can navigate the Treetop Adventure, which offers a zipline over a river and an obstacle course suspended in the trees. It also requires a hefty admission fee all its own. Visit the zoo on a Wednesday and general admission is FREE, but keep in mind that not everything is included: Attractions such as the 4-D Theater, Children's Zoo and several animal exhibits require "Total Experience" tickets. Total Experience tickets are $29.95 for ages 3-12; $39.95 for ages 13+. Children under age 3 are free. Parking is $17 if you decide to drive, but several buses and trains can also take you there. Single and double strollers are available to rent, which can come in handy at a zoo as expansive as this one.
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It's a special experience to have farm animals eat from your hand. Photo by Louise Finnell
Prospect Park Zoo — Prospect Park, Brooklyn
Perfect for even the smallest animal enthusiasts, the Prospect Park Zoo is a fun and manageable family destination tucked in the Children's Corner of Prospect Park. Though you won't find the most exotic animals here, there are still tons of fun things to do with kids at this NYC gem. The Discovery Trail is a winding, shady path that snakes through an array of animal habitats and includes interactive games for kids like a climbable spider web. Red pandas, a duck pond (bring quarters to feed them), and an aviary are just a few of the awesome attractions you'll encounter. The Kid's Zoo has farm animals to feed and interact with, and the sea lion show is not to be missed. Admission costs less than $10, and children ages 2 an younger visit for free. If you have a little extra time, stop at the Prospect Park Carousel on your way out and take it for a spin.
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The Staten Island Zoo. Photo by Julienne Schaer
Staten Island Zoo — Staten Island
Staten Island, just a stone's throw from Manhattan and Brooklyn, is one of NYC's greatest destinations for family fun. Not only does Staten Island offer great beaches, hiking trails, and a Children's Museum, it's also home to a fantastic zoo that's worth the trip. The Staten Island Zoo is accessible by bus, ferry, or car (Bonus tip: Parking is free!), and boasts 300 different species of animals, including kangaroos, leopards, and a variety of impressive birds of prey. If you need a break between attractions, there's a cafe on the grounds as well as a covered pavilion with picnic tables where you can rest and snack between exhibits. The zoo hosts events throughout the year, in addition to its expansive roster of kid-friendly activities. And the beautiful Conservation Carousel features 25 hand-carved endangered species for kids to ride on. Admission to the zoo is reasonably priced, and families can visit FREE on Wednesdays after 2pm. Hard to part with your new animal friends? Check out the Adopt-an-Animal program: Kids will love the idea of helping an animal friend, and the proceeds are donated to the zoo.
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The Southern Pudu will win your heart. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher for WCS
Queens Zoo — Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens
Bison, bears, elk, and pumas all live in harmony at the Queens Zoo. It's on the smaller side, with a focus on North American animals. Wander down the Animal Trail, or explore the Aviary, which features a dome from the 1964 World's Fair. Like the other zoos, they have resident sea lions who perform for visitors at intervals throughout the day. There is a petting zoo for kids with food available on-site (again, bring your quarters...). If you've got any energy left, hit the playground near the petting zoo on the way out to do some monkeying around. Still not tired? Explore Queens—there's tons for families to do in the area! The Queens Zoo is accessible by subway, bus or car.
RELATED: 25 Best Things to Do with Kids in Flushing Meadows Corona Park
The Sea Lions at the Central Park Zoo. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher for WCS
Central Park Zoo — Upper East Side
The Central Park Zoo is steeped in classic NYC charm. This zoo offers a crash course in climates—kids can see everything from snow leopards and snow monkeys to grizzly bears and poison dart frogs. The Tisch Children's Zoo is adjacent to the main zoo, and is a perfect pit stop for the little ones. Follow the winding trail through a whimsical forest where kids can feed and interact with the animals—bring lots of quarters for animal food. Don't forget to pause and take in the George Delacorte Musical Clock to watch hippos, goats, and bears serenade visitors with a selection of nursery rhymes every 30 minutes. There's a lot to see at the Central Park Zoo, so don't forget to take a time out to fuel up at the Dancing Crane Cafe. Keep in mind that general admission does not include all the attractions (pricing guidelines are outlined on its website). Given its heavily trafficked location in Central Park, this spot draws a big tourist crowd and the relatively expensive price tag to match.
RELATED: 23 Fun Things to Do in Central Park
The Coral Tunnel at Ocean Odyssey: Sharks! at the New York Aquarium. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher
New York Aquarium — Coney Island, Brooklyn
Everyone is buzzing about the Shark Exhibit at New York Aquarium, and for good reason. Opened in summer 2018, visitors can walk through a glass tunnel, or crawl through an even smaller tunnel to be surrounded by ocean life on all sides. This immersive experience will unquestionably be on the list of highlights, but don't rush through the exhibit because there's plenty to see along the way. Tons of fish, playful otters, a squadron of pelicans and some very vocal sea lions will all be jockeying for your attention. The sea lion show, held in the Aqua Theater, is a must-see, so check the times when you enter. Though some of the attractions are indoors, keep the weather in mind when you visit, as many of the animals live outside. Parking is available at a cost, or take the subway, which is just a short walk away.
It's worth noting that, with the exception of the Staten Island Zoo, all the other picks on our list are Wildlife Conservation Society parks and one family membership grants gratis admission to all the zoos; a higher level of membership ensures your New York Aquarium visits are included, too. Membership is definitely worth the money and can pay for itself in as little as two visits. The Staten Island Zoo offers a reasonable membership of its own.
A version of this post was published in 2018; it has been updated for 2019.