America's most popular zoos, and 7 ways to save

A visit to the animal kingdom can be a memorable family outing. Some of America's most popular zoos are in places you would least expect -- here's where to go and how to save some serious dough once you get there.

Nati Harnik/AP
A sun bear reacts to triple-digit temperatures at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Neb., Friday, July 6, 2012. The temperature reached 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.5 Celsius) Friday. The Henry Doorly Zoo is number one on our list of best zoos. It boasts one of the largest indoor deserts in the world, and it won't drain your bank account to visit.

Nebraska is known for cornfields, not jungles and deserts. But according to a new survey, jungles and deserts are part of the reason it has the nation’s most popular zoo.

Just in time for summer, travel site TripAdvisor has released a list of the 10 most popular zoos in the United States based on user reviews. Here’s a recap, followed by some zoo-enjoying advice…

1. Henry Doorly Zoo (Omaha, Nebraska)

Highlights: “The largest indoor desert in the world,” says TripAdvisor, and “a rainforest setting featuring cascading waterfalls and monkeys jumping from tree to tree.”

Prices: $13.50 for adults, $12.50 for seniors, $9 for children.

2. St. Louis Zoo (Saint Louis, Missouri)

Highlights: More than 650 species in settings that include Penguin and Puffin Coast, Bear Bluffs, and the 10-acre River’s Edge exhibit, “a naturalistic habitat featuring roaming hyenas, hippos, elephants, and more.”

Prices: Free admission, although some of the coolest exhibits and activities charge a fee.

3. Cape May County Park & Zoo (Cape May Court House, New Jersey)

Highlights: More than 250 species along with nature trails, a train, and a carousel.

Prices: Free.

4. Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden (Columbia, South Carolina)

Highlights: Features more than 2,000 animals across 350 species, including an African-like savannah where “giraffes, zebras, and ostriches roam” and “an interactive walk-through area” with wallabies and kangaroos.

Prices: $11.75 for adults, $10.75 for seniors, $9.25 for children.

5. Memphis Zoo (Memphis, Tennessee)

Highlights: Daily shows that star “a lineup of cuddly cast mates” and settings including Cat Country, Primate Canyon, and Crocodile Cove.

Prices: $15 for adults, $14 for seniors, $10 for children.

6. San Diego Zoo (San Diego, California)

Highlights: You can take an evening tour of this 100-acre zoo, “home to more than 3,700 rare and endangered residents, including giant panda bears.”

Prices: $42 for adults, $32 for children.

7. Sedgwick County Zoo (Wichita, Kansas)

Highlights: Lions, tapirs, and red pandas, oh my!

Prices: $14 for adults, $12 for seniors, $9 for children.

8. Brevard Zoo (Melbourne, Florida)

Highlights: Natural habitats where “travelers can feed white-tailed deer or climb into a kayak for a guided tour.”

Prices: $14.50 for adults, $13.50 for seniors, $10.50 for children.

9. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo (Colorado Springs, Colorado)

Highlights: An open-air chairlift ride on the mountainside showcasing more than 800 animals, from giraffes to meerkats and grizzlies.

Prices: $17.25 for adults, $15.25 for seniors, $12.25 for children.

10. Audubon Zoo (New Orleans, Louisiana)

Highlights: A water park, posed pictures with animals, and “bug tosses.”

Prices: $16 for adults, $13 for seniors, $11 for children.

No matter what zoo you go to, the costs quickly add up. Even if you’re lucky to live near a free one, there’s still the cost of getting there, parking, and food. Here’s some advice to make your next zoo visit more worthwhile and less expensive…

1. Look for partnerships

Many zoos, gardens, aquariums, parks, and museums team up to offer discounted membership or free admission to each other’s exhibits. So if you’re a nature lover or even plan to visit more than once, a reciprocal membership can be a great way to get more bang for your buck.

For instance, a $71 family membership through ZooSociety.org will get you free or half-price admission at every zoo in the list above, with the exception of San Diego, Cheyenne Mountain, and Audubon. It also offers discounts for attractions and gift shops.

There are more than 150 participating “Association of Zoos and Aquariums” member locations across the country, so check the full reciprocal zoo list.

2. Watch for social deals on memberships

Last year, I scored a $40 membership for two at Florida’s Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens on Travelzoo. (Despite the name, it’s not specific to zoos.) My wife and I had been twice before and loved it, and at a regular admission of $13 a head, we already knew a half-off membership was worth it. We ended up going five times, including on a few special festival days, so we saved at least $90. (You also get discounts at the cafe and gift shop.)

Watch for entertainment deals like that on sites like Travelzoo, Groupon, and Livingsocial – but pay attention to restrictions and expiration dates.

3. Try it out and upgrade

Not sure you want a membership right now? When buying your tickets, ask whether you can put the paid admission toward a membership later. Some places will let you upgrade the same day or within a certain time frame, as long as you keep the receipt.

4. Look for coupons and discounts

If you’re looking for a one-time adventure, look for admission coupons. Start by checking the zoo’s website, which may mention upcoming promotions, have a printable coupon, or list where to find one. Also flip through newspapers, tourist brochures and travel guides, and other places. Here in Florida, Lion Country Safari has advertised on soda cans!

Many places offer group discounts, so coordinate with another family or two. Senior and military discounts may be available, and AAA or AARP memberships might save too.

5. Plan your trip

Zoos can be huge – you can stay overnight at the San Diego Zoo. There are also limits to how much walking a child – or even an adult – is willing to do, especially if it’s mostly outdoors. So look up a map, a zoo-specific guide (like in St. Louis and North Carolina), and a list of animals and attractions to make sure you hit your personal highlights. And if you have kids, perhaps plan a route that skirts the pricey souvenir shop.

6. Eat at home and bring food

Avoid the high prices of on-site cafes and restaurants by having a big meal before you arrive and bringing a backpack or two with snacks, sandwiches, and drinks. Some zoos prohibit outside food and drink, but many offer picnic areas.

7. Take great photos

Unless you buy souvenirs, all you’ll have after your adventure are the memories, the bill, and the photos. These days, everybody has a camera, but few take the time learning to avoid blurry, distant, overexposed shots.

You don’t have to become a master photographer, but a few pointers: Bring fully charged batteries, clear your memory card before you go, and take several photos of everything – then delete the obviously bad ones on lunch break to make more space. Fences and glass reflections can ruin shots, so get as close as you’re allowed and put the lens right up against the barrier, with the flash off. (Bring a cloth to clear away glass smudges or fence crud.) You’ll find more zoo photography tips online.

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