Nothing beats a day in Central Park with kids. From carriage rides to carousels, Central Park is full of possibilities for children of all ages, but the best way to spend a day in the park with kids might just be the Central Park Zoo, where children under three are always FREE.
Nestled on the east side of the park near 64th Street and 5th Avenue, the Central Park Zoo feels like a natural extension of the tranquil green space. Limestone carvings of animals adorn the brick buildings, and are reminders of the history of this iconic spot. I recently visited the Central Park Zoo with my two toddlers on a Monday in the early summer. Here are our toddler-tested (and parent-tested) highlights, including where to see sea lions...and where to find bathrooms.
Feed the animals in the sweet Tisch Children's Zoo. Photo by Louise Finnell
We started our visit with the Tisch Children's Zoo, via a separate entrance adjacent to the main gates. A stroller-friendly trail takes visitors past an aviary, turtles, and frogs. The whole trail can be walked in about 10 minutes, but kids will want to linger and check out every detail. At the petting zoo, kids can get up close with the animals, including a Vietnamese potbellied pig, goats, alpacas, and sheep. Children are even allowed to feed the animals, with special food from machines that accept quarters (but only between the hours of 10am and 2pm—we don't want them to eat too much!). There are plenty of places to sit and climb, and bronze statues of animals that kids can touch. My toddler especially loved the hatching egg sculpture he could climb inside. Word to the wise: It is not designed for adults to gracefully climb in and out of, as I learned the hard way...
RELATED: Best of Prospect Park Zoo: What to See and Do
Kids will be charmed by the George Delacorte Musical Clock. Photo courtesy of Central Park
On your way back to the main entrance, make sure to stop and check out the George Delacorte Musical Clock. Perched on top of three brick arches, the clock chimes every 30 minutes between 8am and 5pm. The clock plays 44 different songs, each one performed by a pan-piping goat, a hippo with a violin, and several other animal friends. These charming, historic touches are what set the Central Park Zoo apart and make each visit special, above and beyond a day with the animals.
Ready, set, dive! Photo courtesy of WCS
Don't use up all your energy in the children's area, since there's lots more to see inside the main zoo! When you first enter, you can make a right to end up at the beautifully landscaped sea lion enclosure, a good place to regroup and figure out what you want to see. Underwater windows allow visitors to watch the sea lions swim beneath the surface. You can also catch one of three daily feedings that are fun to watch, but fill up quickly. Try to arrive a little early to snag a spot close to the water's edge for the best views.
RELATED: See the Bronx Zoo Like a Local: Top Tips for a Great Visit
The grizzly bear is a formidable sight. Photo courtesy of Central Park
We made our way to the "Tropic Zone" first, but discovered it was a stroller-free building. With a baby asleep in his seat, we skipped that exhibit (sorry, bats and lemurs!) and headed straight to the grizzlies. We spent the most time watching the grizzly bears. The enclosure is large, and there are lots of different vantage points that make spotting the animals feel fresh and exciting each time. One bear was relaxing in the water, which my toddler got a kick out of. The harbor seals were right next door, and we had a great time watching them glide by underwater.
Can you get any cuter than this red panda? Photo by Julie Larsen Maher for WCS
The snow monkeys were another highlight. Large windows along the enclosure offer great views of the monkeys leaping from perch to perch. The red pandas were a little harder to spot, but worth the wait. We heard many ooooohs and ahhhhs from the crowd when the critters lumbered around the enclosure. It was well past naptime by the time we made it to the pandas, so we didn't stay long. Speaking of naps, the snow leopard was nowhere to be found when we stopped by, so perhaps it was his nap time, as well. Part of the fun was looking for the animals in their habitats—my 2 year-old was so excited each time he spotted a new habitat and found great pleasure in being the first one to spot each creature.
Feed the animals at the Children's Zoo. Photo by Louise Finnell
There is so much to see and do, one visit didn't feel like enough. For one, we missed the penguins, a noted fan favorite. We also missed the gift shop, which my wallet was thankful for, but which tends to be a fun last stop. The 4D theater has gotten rave reviews, and it's worth checking their offerings if you've got children over 6. It's almost worth planning a morning for the Tisch Children's Zoo, and coming back for a full day for the main zoo. Afterward, if you're up for it, head to one of Central Park's many playgrounds for some monkeying around.
What to Know Before You Go
Planning Your Visit: Though there were the usual NYC crowds to contend with at the zoo, overall the space felt manageable and the lines were reasonable. It did get more crowded as the day progressed, so arriving on the early side might be best.
Food and Snacks: Before you enter the zoo, there are food carts and the Dancing Crane Cafe to fuel up for your visit. Inside the zoo, there's also a snack stand in the Central Garden near the sea lions.
Admission Tips: Children under 3 are FREE! Make sure you purchase a ticket that includes the entire zoo experience so you have access to the Children's Zoo.
Bathrooms: Be aware that there are no public restrooms available until you get inside the park. If, like me, you are with a potty training toddler, there are restrooms tucked away in the Arsenal Building. Advise your kids to be courteous—this is a working administration building!