The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens is an all-ages adventure. I have taken toddlers, infants, tweens, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. There is something there for them all. The Cincinnati Zoo has a lot of good exhibits, and the botanical garden aspect makes it a nice place to stroll. It is located in Uptown near the University of Cincinnati, and the VA hospital/University Hospital complex. Being in an in an urban setting means the zoo does not have a lot of room to grow, but it also means it is not too large to cover in a day. They pack a lot in, but I do have some top tips that might make your day a little easier.
I recommend arriving right when the zoo opens. By lunchtime, the zoo can get pretty crowded, especially during the summer, weekends, school holidays, and during school field trip season in the spring. The Cincinnati Zoo opens at 9 a.m. to zoo members and 10 a.m. to the general public.
The main parking for the Cincinnati Zoo is on the west side of Vine Street. Traffic can get backed up coming from the south (MLK) because there is no traffic light or turn lane going left into the zoo parking lot. If it is not too far out of your way, I recommend coming in on Vine Street from the north (Mitchell Ave.). This allows you to turn right into the parking lot.
There is a $10 parking fee for non-members that is paid at the zoo ticket counter. On the way out of the parking lot is a booth where you show your parking receipt or membership card.
There is overflow parking during busy times. If you are having to park in one of the overflow lots, be prepared for crowds. Fortunately, this only happens later in the day on perfect-weather days when schools are not in session.
When parking in the main lot, you have to make your way up to the walking bridge across Vine Street to reach the zoo entrance. There are escalators, elevators, and stairs that lead to the bridge. The elevators can sometimes get backed up with guests with strollers. If your child/children can navigate the escalator and your stroller folds easily, you may want to bypass the elevator. However, the wait should not be an issue if you arrive early.
Once across the walking bridge, you turn left to enter the zoo if you already have your tickets or membership card. Turn right if you need to buy tickets and pay for parking.
There are bathrooms at the entrance of the zoo (including a family bathroom).
There are bathrooms underneath the Base Camp Cafe (entrance is on the side – a bit hidden).
There are bathrooms next to the rhinos behind LaRosa’s (I think there is a family bathroom there).
There are bathrooms behind the 4D theater near the carousel.
There are also bathrooms inside the Education Center at the southeast corner of the zoo (a sloth can sometimes be found hiding in the trees inside the Education Center), but this is a bit out of the way from the rest of the zoo.
Eating at the Zoo
The Cincinnati Zoo does allow you to bring food. If you have a soft cooler that fits into your stroller or backpack, you can pack a lunch for your family. There are tables near the entrance of the park, near the entrance of Africa behind the Base Camp Cafe, near the carousel, and there are picnic shelters behind the carousel – the picnic shelters a bit hidden, but they are there.
There are snack stations near the main gift shop, the Base Camp Cafe, and near the carousel. You can get water, lemonade, popcorn, pretzels, and other treats.
There are ice cream shops near the train station and near the rhinos.
Of the Cincinnati Zoo dining options, the Base Camp Cafe has the most variety. There you will find burgers, chicken tenders, pizza, but also alternatives to those like salads, grilled chicken sandwiches, and more. The Base Camp Cafe has both indoor and outdoor seating.
There is a Skyline Chili near the entrance of the zoo and a LaRosa’s pizza near the rhinos. Both have outdoor seating.
I would not recommend eating at the food trucks next to the carousel. The food is not bad, but as of date of this writing (September 2018), they haven’t worked out the kinks for ordering. There are three separate lines for burgers, chicken, and fountain drinks. It can be difficult to navigate unless everyone in your family wants the same food and water to drink.
Navigating the Zoo
The Cincinnati Zoo is not too big to cover in a day. However, I recommend planning your route before you start walking. The map you get at the entrance does not indicate the the zoo is on a big hill. The area that goes from the entrance to the petting zoo, and across to Africa is all relatively flat. From there to the carousel is all downhill. You will want to plan a route to go down one side of the hill and back up the other side. If you have very little ones with little legs, you will want to think about how tired they might be by the time they reach the bottom of the hill and whether or not you want to push/carry them back up the hill.
What I do with my kids is go quickly from the entrance, past the gibbons, past the entrance to the children’s zoo, past the Base Camp Cafe, and straight the the hippo exhibit to see Fiona. Fiona is the most popular hippo in the world (and my favorite hippo in the world), so this exhibit gets crowded as the day goes on. I am told Fiona is more active later in the day, but it is easier to get close early. (I have seen her playing in the morning, but not usually). *Note – the hippos are not out if the temperature outside drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once we have visited the hippos, we visit the meerkats, the painted dogs, the lions, and the giraffes. We stop there and everyone tells me what animals they want to see. That is when I make our walking plan. Looking at the map, you will see that that the zoo has a circular path. You can either start your walk past the bears making your way down the hill, or walk back toward the entrance and start walking down the side with the Reptile House.
The carousel and 4D theater are the bottom of the hill. Remember, if you are at the bottom of the hill at lunchtime and you want to eat at the Base Camp Cafe, it will be an uphill hike.
The Zoo Train, The Carousel, and The 4D Experience Theater
Gold and Platinum memberships include unlimited rides on the zoo train and on the carousel. The 4D Theater costs $2/person for members. Non-members can get tickets next to each of the attractions.
Kids love the zoo train. You actually do not see a lot of animals during the ride. If you are lucky, you will get to see the wolves on your right. You can usually spot llamas and flamingos on your left and sometimes zebras down below on your right. The zoo also goes around Swan Lake – with its ducks, swans, and turtles – before going back to the station. It is not a long ride, but kids do love the zoo train.
The carousel has wild animals for the kids to ride instead of horses. Little ones will need an adult to stand next to them during the ride.
The 4D Theater is $2/person for members. They have 10-15 minute shows. There is usually one that is a cartoon for kids and one that is more documentary style. The shows alternate between the two. During the 4D show, you can get a little wet from a spray. There may also be a smell associated with a particular scene, or bubbles that fall from the ceiling. Sometimes there will be a scene where you seat will poke you in the back. In my opinion, it is an unpleasant poke in the back. Be ready for it. My family does not do the 4D Theater that often, but the kids enjoy it when we do.
Shopping at the Zoo
There is a small gift shop next to the 4D Theater and the larger, main gift shop near the zoo entrance/exit. I think the main gift shop is pretty nice. It has good variety. There are toys, clothes, books, and nicer items like stationary and knick-knacks. Items are not cheap but they are not exorbitant like they can be at some gift shops.
The Cincinnati Zoo shops do not have free shopping bags due to a green initiative. You can buy a reusable at the register or use your own bag.