Arriving at the zoo just after opening, I expected to spend a few hours, maybe get lunch and go to the botanical garden next door. I ended up not leaving until closing time. General Admission is $20, but I went with the $28 Value Ticket which includes the safari train ($5), stingray bay ($3), and 4D theater ($5). The $36 Total Experience also gets you onto the carousel ($3) and a camel ride ($6). Any of the added experiences can also be paid for separately.
The zoo is arranged with a savanna/desert section on one side and a tropical section on the other. Going straight in from the entrance brings you to the African savanna exhibit, which contains several species all mingling together. One of the giraffes seemed to have a crush on a common eland, he was following her around the whole time I watched them, while she smacked his legs with her horns. From there you can turn left to continue with the savanna or right to head for the tropics.
The desert section has an exhibit of Arabian oryx and large display on the zoo’s efforts to rescue them from extinction. Oryx are beautiful animals that were hunted down to just 10 individuals. The Phoenix Zoo’s breeding program has been successful enough to release 300 animals back into the wild, in a sanctuary in Oman. For some reason they keep the Sumatran tiger over here as well, but they’re building him a big new exhibit in the tropical section. There are other big cats, a massive rhino, monkeys, a giraffe feeding station ($5), and plenty of other African animals.
Just off the main trail is the Arizona Trail, with displays of animals native to the area. In the aviary I noticed a vulture sitting in a tree right above the prairie dogs. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was contemplating eating one of them. The Arizona section had more than it’s share of reptiles and nasty bugs. There’s only so many sleeping lizards and coiled up snakes I can look at so I didn’t spend a lot of time in those buildings. I always feel bad for them because they’re usually in such tiny boxes. You’d think even a tarantula would notice that it really doesn’t have anywhere to go.
The centerpiece of the tropical section is a large lake with three islands where the lemurs and gibbons live, along with a menagerie of birds. No doubt some were captive, but quite a few were obviously wild. I saw one woman sit down with a bag of popcorn and immediately had two Canada geese trying to get it away from her. On the Forest of Uco, the South American section, I watched an Andean bear trying to get comfortable on an extremely uncomfortable looking tree. He had a nice hammock and plenty of other places to sleep, I have no idea why he wanted to be on that branch. This was also the section with the most stunningly beautiful birds. Parrots, flamingos, toucans, hornbills, numerous colorful doves, all just steps apart. I stodd for a while watching the two juvenile orangutans play in their large habitat. One of them kept running around with a sheet over his head, falling off of walls while bothering his friend. The other half of the habitat holds the adult orangs and their 4-month-old baby. He stayed at the top of a tower hidden by his mother, but the male one came down and sat by the window picking his nose.
One the other side of a second small lake is the Children’s Trail, but don’t be fooled, it’s not just for kids. This is where they keep emus, bald eagles, more monkeys, and a couple kinds of smaller cats. There’s also seasonal pedal boats to rent ($10) and a petting zoo (free) neither of which I personally checked out.
They had two movies going in the 4D theater, a documentary about grizzly bears and a shortened version of Ice Age 3, which is the one I went to. They run every half hour so it’s easy to catch one of them and they aren’t very long. You can go to both, the package tickets only include one so you’d have to pay for the other. I had never heard of anything referred to as a 4D theater before, turns out it’s a 3D movie with seats that vibrate, water that sprays in your face, snow that blows out of the ceiling, and a thing that pokes you really hard in the back, which I didn’t like one bit and spent the rest of the movie dreading that it would happen again. It might be a little scary for young children – I was surprisingly terrified the first time a huge carnivore showed up and my seat vibrated along with its footsteps, and one little boy started flipping out when a dinosaur sneezed and water sprayed in his face.
The safari “train” was a bit of a disappointment in that it was really an airport tug pulling several trailers with benches on the same road I had already walked, but it was still a fun break and very informative. Our guide seemed to know everything there was to know about the animals, their ages, names, when they arrived at the zoo, I was impressed but really she could have been making it all up and we’d never know the difference. Still, kudos to her. The kid in the back of our car kept asking his grandma if I was a “real cowgirl” because of the hat that I was wearing. Fortunately they never asked me because I couldn’t think of a single witty response except to tell them it wasn’t really a cowboy hat, but that probably wouldn’t have gone over well because I don’t actually know what the style is called.
I’m not sure I’ve ever passed up an opportunity to pet a stingray. Their skin feels so cool, I can’t get over it. According to the stingray bay workers the rays actually enjoy getting petted and will headbutt your hands and slow down in front of you to get attention. I found out as I was leaving stingray bay that they like to have the middle of their backs petted rather than their wings, which probably explains why so many of them seemed to hate and avoid me. At least they weren’t splashing me, one guy got completely soaked, I guess they do it when something touches their tail and freaks them out. At some times of day you can feed them ($2).
My favorite part was the monkey village. There are several large aviaries scattered throughout the zoo where you can walk freely with various birds, but in the monkey village you share the enclosure with common squirrel monkeys. You can’t interact with the monkeys at all but they’re an active species and it’s so much fun watching them without a fence to block the view. Apparently it’s the only walk-through monkey exhibit in the country, but seriously they should do this everywhere. Being surrounded by adorable yellow monkeys while they scamper around is the best thing ever.
By the time I left my pedometer said I had walked a hair over four miles, and I was way too exhausted to go to the botanical garden. I had no desire to do that at all anyway because the lakes, creeks, flowers, and birds singing everywhere make the zoo so beautiful it’s basically a huge garden with animals.