The Best NJ Zoos and Aquariums for Animal Encounters With Kids

Guests experience the safari at Six Flags Great Adventure from the privacy and safety of their own vehicles. Photo courtesy of Six Flags
Guests experience the safari at Six Flags Great Adventure from the privacy and safety of their own vehicles. Photo courtesy of Six Flags

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 friends, 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.

Looking for more animal encounters? Find the best zoo in each of the 50 states to inspire your exploration.

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1. Adventure Aquarium – Camden

Most aquariums have tropical fish, penguins, 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). In total, the Adventure Aquarium houses 8,500 aquatic species in 2 million gallons of water, including the largest collection of sharks on the East Coast. Perfect for preschoolers, the KidZone also features a sea-themed playground for little guppies to work out the wiggles. The aquarium is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year by offering FREE admission to guests on their birthday. Open daily; admission also includes live shows.

2. 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. The zoo recently opened a new 10,000-square-foot exhibit home to two rare red wolves. Open year-round; admission is FREE through May 1. Bergen County residents receive reduced admission at all times.

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zebras at the Cape May Zoo
See barnyard animals, bears, bison, zebras, lions, and lots of birds at the free Cape May County Park & Zoo. Photo by Rose Gordon Sala

3. 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. 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.

4. Six Flags Wild Safari Drive-Thru Adventure – Jackson

Lucky for us, NJ hosts the largest drive-through safari outside of Africa! During the 45-minute interactive ride along the 4.5-mile trail, you'll meet 1,200 animals from six continents, including elephants, rhinos, giraffes, lions, and several newborn babies, including four giraffe calves, two Siberian tiger cubs, an Asian water buffalo calf, and a rare African bongo calf. The drive-through adventure reopened on Saturday, March 19, and you can purchase tickets online.

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See the gracebul flamingos and more at the Turtle Back Zoo
The graceful flamingos are always a favorite at the Turtle Back Zoo. Photo by Rose Gordon Sala

5. 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, which has a modernized new entrance. There are also penguins, butterflies, and now giraffes. Kids can interact with horses, goats, and pigs at the Essex Farm exhibit, hop on the zoo train for a scenic ride through the beautiful South Mountain Reservation or ride a pony (the carousel is currently closed for renovations). The zoo is open daily (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day) and hosts a slew of seasonal family-friendly programming, including summer zoo camp and holiday lights. Parking is always FREE.

6. 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, with early closings on holidays.

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a boy looking at a tiger at the Cohanzick Zoo in New Jersey
The Cohanzick Zoo may be small, but its animals are larger than life. Photo by Lisa Warden

7. 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 enclosures at the Cohanzick Zoo are smaller, making the animals more easily visible, allowing families to get up close and personal with them. Open daily every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day; 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.

8. 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 beginning Saturday, March 26 (weather permitting), and admission also includes entry to the museum, which contains more than 50,000 artifacts of American and Native American history.

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Kids looking at penguins at Jenkinson's Aquarium in New Jersey
Chill with the penguins at Jenkinson's Aquarium. Photo courtesy of the aquarium

9. 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 stingrays, though animal feedings are currently suspended. A wide range of educational programs held throughout the year includes behind-the-scenes tours, animal encounters, and annual events celebrating World Oceans Day and Shark Week. Open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas.

10. 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 Friday-Sunday, and live 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 paint parties for kids.

RELATED: Best Nature Centers in New Jersey to Visit With Kids

a wolf at the Lakota Preserve in spring
An observation area allows you to watch the wolves in their natural environment at the Lakota Wolf Preserve while being safely tucked away. Photo courtesy of the preserve

11. 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 online reservations are required. 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.

12. 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 6,000 birds every year), it's also a forever home for birds that cannot be safely returned to the wild. Currently, there are about 50 hawks, eagles, and owls in residence, and visitors have the opportunity to observe these gorgeous creatures at close range. Open daily for FREE self-guided tours; staff-led tours ($100 for groups of up to eight) are available by online reservation.

RELATED: 100 Things To Do in New Jersey With Kids Before They Grow Up

Sea Life Aquarium at American Dream Mall in New Jersey
Watch the sharks up close at Sea Life Aquarium at American Dream Mall, Photo by Jody Mercier

13. Sea Life Aquarium – East Rutherford

Last year, the larger-than-life American Dream Mall added a Sea Life Aquarium to its ever-expanding lineup of kid-friendly destinations. Embracing its location, the Sea Life Aquarium takes on a "City Under the Sea" theme, paying homage to its across-the-Hudson neighbors in a big way. Most notably, the main tank, a 186,000-gallon enclosure housing more than 1,000 fish, sharks, and even an octopus, is styled after the New York City skyline. There's also a jellyfish tank, touch tank, and water-enclosed tunnels that allow you to get up close to the sea creatures.

14. SeaQuest Aquarium – Woodbridge

Make a splash in Middlesex County at SeaQuest Woodbridge, a 24,000-square-foot, hands-on global sea life education and entertainment experience. Kids can travel all around the world, from the Caribbean to the Mayan jungle, a rainforest to an Icelandic fishing village, and even to the Great Wall of China, all while meeting and greeting the animals that call these habitats home. SeaQuest is just one of several family-friendly attractions at Woodbridge Center, which also boasts a Dave & Buster's and All In Adventures escape room center.

This article was first published in 2010 is updated annually.

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