Treat your kids to a real animal adventure at one of New Jersey's amazing zoos, aquariums, and animal preserves. At these day trip–worthy spots, little animal lovers can meet their favorite furry friend, check out exotic wildlife from other continents, or swim with the sharks (yes, really!). We've rounded up the best places in the Garden State for New Jersey kids to have an up-close-and-personal encounter with animals of every kind.
Adventure Aquarium — Camden
Most aquariums have tropical fish, penguins, and seals or sea lions, but not all have the amazing touch tanks offered at this all-star aquarium. Nearly every exhibit has a touchable component (think sharks and jellyfish), plus there are two massive hippos on display. In total, Adventure Aquarium houses 8,500 aquatic species in two million gallons of water, including the largest collection of sharks on the East Coast. Kids 12 and up can even swim with the sharks! Perfect for preschoolers, the KidZone offers a new Splash and Bubbles exhibit inspired by the PBS show, as well as a sea-themed playground for little guppies to work out the wiggles. Another new exhibit, Journey to Piranha Falls, offers a unique, multi-sensory experience of life on the Amazon, virtually transporting you deep into the largest rainforest on Earth without leaving New Jersey. Open daily, admission also includes a 3-D movie as well as live shows.
Bergen County Zoological Park — Paramus
Conveniently located within the day trip–worthy Van Saun Park, little zookeepers-in-training can explore wild and domestic animals such as bison, lions, reptiles, birds, and farm friends throughout the smaller-scaled, shady grounds. There’s also a zoo train, pony rides, and a carousel. In July and August, the zoo’s outdoor amphitheater presents live animal shows. Open year-round, and admission is free from November 1 until the official May opening. Bergen County residents receive reduced admission.
Two snow leopard cubs are among the zoo's newest residents.
Cape May County Park & Zoo — Cape May Court House
Enjoy free admission and free parking year-round at the Cape May County zoo. A well-known haven for several endangered species, the zoo is committed to conservation. Its newest residents are two snow leopard cubs born in mid-May as well as a baby bison born in June. Beyond visiting the animals, you can take a spin on the carousel, try the 25-foot rock climbing wall, and enjoy a scenic train ride around the park. Kid-friendly programming includes scavenger hunts, critter crafts, and junior zookeeper camps.
Cohanzick Zoo — Bridgeton
Billed as NJ’s first zoo, this 1,000-acre facility located 45 minutes from downtown Philadelphia and Atlantic City features more than 200 animals. Some of the exotic species include a white-nosed coati, a Brazilian porcupine, and an African serval. The newest residents are 10-month-old Bengal tiger brothers Mahesha and Rishi, who were born last September in North Carolina and donated to the zoo. Open daily every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas, and admission is free. Pack a picnic lunch to enjoy on the grove overlooking the scenic raceway that runs through the park. There’s also an adorable, animal-themed splash pad nearby.
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Chill with the penguins at Jenkinson's Aquarium.
Jenkinson’s Aquarium — Point Pleasant Beach
There’s more to Point Pleasant than sun, surf, and sand. Step right off the boardwalk into this aquatic oasis featuring sharks, penguins, alligators, seals, and plenty of fish. An interactive touch tank allows kids to get hands-on with sea stars and sting rays, and you can observe daily feedings of the sharks, sea lions, and penguins. A wide range of educational programs held throughout the year includes Lunch with a Keeper for a behind-the-scenes tour, Tea By the Sea, and annual events celebrating World Oceans Day and Shark Week. Once you pay, your hand is stamped so you can leave and return throughout the day. Open every day except holidays.
Johnson Park Zoo — Piscataway
A wide variety of farm and exotic animals are on display at this animal sanctuary located along the banks of the Raritan River. Open from dawn to dusk daily, this lovely playground zoo is quiet, quaint, and best of all, free. Here, kids can meet and feed pigs, deer, a mini horse, goats, llamas, and an emu. You could easily make a family day of it at this nearly 500-acre Middlesex County park (named after the Johnson family who founded Johnson & Johnson and donated the original 100 acres). There are three playgrounds, including a brand-new, pirate-themed playground right near the animal haven, tennis courts, ball fields, two ponds, a bike path, and picnic groves with grill stations.
Insectropolis — Toms River
Welcome to the “bugseum” of NJ! Designed like a giant, bug-themed city, Insectropolis introduces you to many of the world’s smallest animals. Learn bug basics at the Bug University exhibit, watch insects eat in the Caterpillar Café, and take a tour of the Hive Airport, home to a live honeybee hive. Insectropolis is open year-round Tuesday—Saturday, and daily touch presentations are held daily. There is also a robust calendar of events, full of buzzworthy activities offering hands-on opportunities to interact with insects, as well as fun contests and yoga for kids.
Lakota Wolf Preserve — Columbia
The preserve is home to four different packs of wolves. See and learn about the wolves, their habitat, and their habits on a 60- to 75-minute Wolf Watch Tour. Tours are held twice daily and reservations are required on weekdays (the preserve is closed Mondays). Enjoy a scenic, 30-minute hike from the parking area to the preserve, or hop on the shuttle bus. An observation area allows you to watch the wolves in their natural environment while being safely tucked away.
Popcorn Park Zoo — Forked River
An animal refuge for abandoned and injured wildlife, this spacious park in the heart of the Pine Barrens is home to more than 200 animals and birds. Residents include black bears, bobcats, camels, and wallabies, as well as reptiles and tortoises. Every animal here was rescued from suffering or exploitation and rehabilitated, and you’ll learn their stories as you explore the zoo. And as the name implies, popcorn is available for purchase to feed the free-roaming birds and some of the farm friends. The park is open daily, including holidays.
The Raptor Trust — Millington
This hidden treasure is one of the premier wild bird rehabilitation centers in the U.S. Primarily a medical facility for injured birds (it treats up to 4,000 birds every year), it's also a forever home for birds that cannot be safely returned to the wild. Currently, there are about 60 hawks, eagles, and owls in residence, and visitors have the opportunity observe these gorgeous creatures at close range. Open 365 days a year, and there’s no charge to visit, but a small donation of $2 per person is suggested.
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Kids can meet reptiles and other creatures at Rizzo's Wildlife World in Morris County.
Rizzo’s Wildlife World — Flanders
While Rizzo’s has been wowing kids at birthday parties and schools across NJ for more than a decade, now everyone can meet the reptiles, snakes, and alligators at this Morris County nature center. Popular residents include Butterscotch, a 15-foot-long Burmese python, Oreo, a non-venomous snake native to NJ, and a legless lizard named Slinky. Be sure to also check out the extraordinary 1,700-gallon aquatic tank, tarantulas, turtles, and toads.
Six Flags Safari is home to 1,200 animals from six continents.
Six Flags Safari Off-Road Adventure — Jackson
Lucky for us, NJ hosts the largest drive-through safari outside of Africa! Entry is included with your theme park admission, so you can start your days of thrills here. Wait times can exceed two-and-a-half hours on busy days, so if animal encounters is on your must-do list, head here first before jumping on any roller-coasters or sliding into Hurricane Harbor. During the 45-minute interactive ride along the 4.5-mile trail, you'll meet 1,200 animals from six continents, including elephants, rhinos, tigers, giraffes, and lions. Swing by Camp Aventura to zipline over the safari, feed a giraffe, and pet some of the animals.
Space Farms Zoo & Museum —Sussex
Just as cool as its name suggests, this 100-acre complex is home to more than 500 wild animals including leopards, jaguars, lemurs, buffalo, monkeys, llamas, and snakes, making it the largest private collection of North American animals in their natural surroundings in the U.S. Stroll the grassy grounds with free-roaming chickens, ducks, and geese, and stop by special-access areas where kids can feed the animals. Space Farms is open daily starting April 1, and admission also includes entrance to the museum, which contains more than 50,000 artifacts of American and Native American history.
Turtle Back Zoo — West Orange
Lions and tigers and bears…oh my! Those are just a few of the animals you’ll find at this world-class zoo. There are also sea lions, penguins, butterflies, and now giraffes and lions. Kids can interact with the horses, goats, and pigs at the Essex Farm exhibit and visit sting rays and sharks in the Touch Tank. Hop on the zoo train for a scenic ride through the beautiful South Mountain Reservation, ride a pony, or go for a spin on the Endangered Species Carousel. The zoo is open daily (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day) and hosts a slew of seasonal family-friendly programming, including summer movies, a zoo camp, and holiday lights. Parking is always free.
First published in 2010; updated in 2017.
Top photo: Elephants at Six Flags Safari. Photos courtesy of the venues.