Local families who fancy elephants, wallabies or giraffes are living in the right place. A survey released Tuesday ranks the Phoenix Zoo as the nation’s fifth most kid-pleasing.
Child magazine, which said its survey was the first of its kind, based its rankings on features at more than 150 zoos that are part of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.
Zoos have always been a smash with kids who want to see and hear exotic creatures normally reserved for story time, but they’ve grown beyond petting exhibits in recent years.
The proliferation of television and computer-based information has prompted zoos to liven up visits with enhancements such as sleepovers and exhibits that leave little or no barriers between visitors and animals.
"It’s become more important for us in the zoo industry to present animals in a way that gives kids an impactful experience, one that they can walk away from caring about conservation," said Aimee Yamamori, a Phoenix Zoo spokeswoman.
The zoo has boosted programs for kids in recent years. One of the most popular is a night camp, where families stay in a lakeside tent, go on guided hikes and learn about nocturnal animals.
The summer program is nearly booked every year.
The zoo has also changed the way animals are exhibited.
A wallaby exhibit allows guests to get within a few feet of the animals without a solid barrier.
Likewise, the zoo is building a monkey village exhibit that will allow visitors to walk through the habitat of small primates.
Some nets might separate man from beast, but the idea is to minimize barriers so people can get closer.
Few zoos have taken this approach so far, which is somewhat experimental, Yamamori said.
One of the features Child magazine noted was the zoo’s Enchanted Forest.
The exhibit is designed for children 5 and younger, featuring puppet shows, a toddler play area and up-close encounters with tortoises.
The zoo is among the few to offer courses for children as young as 18 months.
Some of the most kidfriendly features are basic, such as the savanna where visitors can see giraffes, ostriches and other animals interacting in wide-open areas.
"That’s something you can’t take kids out to see in an urban environment," Yamamori said.