When I was a kid, my parents took my brother and myself on a road trip to Omaha, Nebraska, to visit the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. That trip is one I have never forgotten, and I knew that when I had kids, we would have to travel to Omaha for my little ones to have the same experience. From our location in the Kansas City metro, it's about a three-and-a-half hour drive. The beginning of summer seemed as good a time as any to take a mini Midwest family vacation, so we headed off on an adventure at the end of May.
Traveling with toddlers is no joke, so choosing a location that is within a day's driving distance and provides ample entertainment for kids is a must. By far the most prominent tourist destination in the area, the Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium is located in a convenient spot for travelers and is near the charming downtown district.
We love to see all of the variety of animals being cared for at the zoo. The Omaha Zoo offers plenty of ongoing exhibits for visitors; some of our favorites include the Lied Jungle, the Scott Aquarium, the Hubbard Gorilla Valley, Cat Complex, and Expedition Madagascar. We have actually visited this zoo three times now with Lincoln, and he thinks it is pretty cool. On our trip this summer, we arrived right around lunchtime and were able to bring in our cooler of snacks to have a picnic - with giraffes nearby! We are always looking for ways to save money when we travel, so having the option to bring our own food is great. Lincoln typically won't eat food that he doesn't recognize, and there's nothing worse than a hungry kid who is trying to have adventures all day long!
After our lunch, we started off on our zoo adventure by taking a peek at the giraffes! Addie especially loved being up close and personal with these magnificent creatures! Giraffes are one of my favorite animals, too.
The zoo is set up very nicely, so there is always something to see, even while traveling the grounds! Lincoln had fun spotting the cheetahs from atop Daddy's shoulders. The kids were pretty restless after having spent all morning in the car, so one of our first activities was letting them run around on the playground near the Sea Lion Picnic Pavilion.
There are lots of tunnels to climb and explore, plus a fun out-of-commission train car to see, and Lincoln and Addie enjoyed it all. The playground is situated on the grounds to make a very nice break in the day for kids who are getting restless!
We had fantastic (albeit somewhat warm) weather for our trip, and it was not long before we decided to move on and find more animals and some shade!
Our first big exhibit viewed was Expedition Madagascar. This building is 300 feet long and features some of Madagascar's most unusual animals. There are fourteen indoor exhibits that hold a variety of species including fish, reptiles, small mammals, birds, and lemurs.
Hubbard Gorilla Valley is one of our favorite spots in the zoo. The gorillas are easily viewed as they roam about their three acre valley. The interior of the building features a 16' wide, 12' tall, 520' long window that offers awesome visibility of these magnificent animals. When we stopped by on this trip, however, it was naptime!
I love all of the photo opportunities scattered around the zoo. There is always an animal statue to stand beside (or climb on), or some other visually pleasing design element, like the waterfall outside Hubbard Gorilla Valley!
We got to see a tiger wake up from a nap when we stopped by the Cat Complex, and the kids were surprised by how loudly he could roar! This exhibit currently houses 30 cats, including three subspecies of tiger, lion, jaguar, Aur leopard and the North American puma. Last year, we were able to see five lion cubs playing and interacting in their exhibit - it was so cool to watch!
By the time we made it to the Red Barn Park children's area, the kids were definitely ready for some exercise! They hopped out of the stroller and ran into the petting zoo, where they were able to play with some baby goats.
Lincoln found a brush and insisted on brushing every single goat. Addie stayed with one goat most of the time, and just loved it.
We had intended to ride the carousel, but forgot to bring cash with us (whoops), but thankfully the kids were so excited about petting the goats that they didn't seem to mind much.
Before we left, we had to hit a couple of our very favorite exhibits. Next up was the Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium. This was the most prominent memory from my childhood trip to Omaha, and I knew that Lincoln and Addie would love seeing all of the sea creatures, too!
The aquarium recently went through a $6.5 million overhaul, and the result is simply beautiful! From the schooling fish that greet you as you enter the door (seen above) to the 500 gallon touch tank featuring urchins, anemones, and starfish, you can tell upon entering that you will have a spectacular experience!
The Aquarium features not only sea creatures, but ocean birds such as puffins, murres, and over 85 penguins of varying species.
For sure, my favorite part of the exhibit remains Shark Reef: an oval-shaped, 70 foot long tunnel that showcases coral heads, canyons and caves in a 17-foot deep tank.Visitors can imagine they are on the ocean floor as stingrays, sand tiger sharks, zebra sharks, and other creatures swim past on two sides and overhead. The exhibit contains over 900,000 gallons of circulating salt water at 77 degrees Fahrenheit! Lincoln and Addie were content to just sit and watch the fish swim by for a few minutes while Mom and Dad caught a break!
I can't even touch on all the creatures in the Aquarium, but rest assured that there are many - and they are all amazing!
We also had to make a stop in the Lied Jungle, another family favorite. The exhibit - one of the largest of its kind in the world - covers one and a half acres and is as tall as an eight-story building. Visitors wander through the rainforests of Asia, Africa, and South America to encounter animals such as Malayan tapir, gibbons, small clawed otters, pygmy hippos, spider monkeys, and so many more!
There are many fun places to explore and even more photo opportunities - from the second-tallest waterfall in Nebraska to the swinging suspension bridge, to the underwater pygmy hippo viewing area. It is easy to feel completely immersed in the jungle!
I am so thrilled that we live only a short distance from this fantastic, educational resource for my children. We hope to visit at least once every couple years when Lincoln and Addie reach school age to supplement our homeschooling adventures!
You can see the Desert Dome in the background of the photos below - I didn't get any great shots inside the building on this trip, but it's another must-see at Henry Doorly's Zoo and Aquarium! The dome is one of the most unique exhibit buildings I've ever seen, for sure!
Thank you to the Omaha Zoo for being so amazing! Our little family thoroughly enjoyed our time exploring the zoo - and I know there are still a lot of things we have yet to see! That's just an excuse for us to continue to go back for more adventures.
We encountered some construction during our visit, which I learned is in preparation of the upcoming African Grasslands project (the largest project in Zoo history) - a $70 million endeavor which will open in 2016. We can't wait!
If you're planning a trip Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, it's definitely an affordable family vacation option. Adult tickets are $15, children ages 3-11 are $10, and kids 2 and under are free. If you have a membership to your home zoo, make sure you ask about reciprocal rates (we can normally get in for half price with our Kansas City Zoo membership).
You can check out all the exhibits and animals at the Omaha Zoo website, and keep up with the latest news on Facebook and Twitter.
Disclosure: In exchange for my post and to facilitate my honest review of this experience, I received tickets to this attraction for my family. No other compensation was received and all opinions expressed are my own.