[ lighter crowds make winter zoo visits extra special ]
What a zoo -- part I addresses the issue of crowds and seasonality.
When It comes to visiting the National Zoo, the thing that works best for our family is to think small. Making it work for our small people benefits us all. This is our simple approach:
Arrive the moment they open
cover only a select territory
Stay for a short amount of time (1 & 1/2 - 2 hours max)
leave before noon.
We don't think of it as 'A day at the zoo', but rather -- a stop.
You can afford to do it this way because there's no admission charge and parking (typically $10-$20) is FREE with a FONZ membership, which offers discounts and benefits to other zoos nationwide. It pays for itself in a couple of zoo visits. It's the best deal going.
The zoological park sits on a long winding hillside between Connecticut Ave. and Rock Creek Park. Even though it's gradual, that hill can be killer on little legs under 10 years of age. We avoid a climb alltogether by choosing either the top OR the bottom and park our car in that area of the lot accordingly. We locals drive.
I know that the zoo web site recommends taking the metro, and that may work, but the metro is several blocks south of the zoo. Bear in mind that by the time you reach the zoo entrance, your children will have already walked several city blocks to get on and off the train. I'm not suggesting that my kids are lazy -- they have boundless energy for things of their own choosing, but they don't have much of an attention span, or grasp of delayed gratification.
Regarding which animals to see, there are simply no bad choices. I know some of our best discoveries have been the less prominent sections like the aviary, the wild 'Prezwalski's' horses, or lingering while the seals splash and play in their pool on a hot day. Hard to say whether that correlates to less bustling activity in that particular area at the time.
Panda viewing tip: You don't need to enter the Panda trail to see them. The Asia trail which runs parallel to the Panda walk sits about 10' higher, offering a slightly different but equally good vantage point. Also, from there you can take in the river otters and fishing cat without backtracking.
We don't eat at the zoo. Sticky, salty, pricy options at the various cafe's leave much to the imagination. Rather we pack a small cooler. Even so, we leave the hectic zoo atmosphere behind before enjoying our picnic. It's just usually time for a break from all of the overstimulating sensory commotion. The kids need some down time. That may be even more important if they are off-schedule on a vacation trip.
If you've arrived by metro you might opt for an outdoor table across Connecticut Ave. at Starbucks or the Zoo Bar, which serves a pretty good burger, a delicious carrot soup and a cold beer.
The National zoo web site includes maps and a ton of useful information.
In what ways do you make the most of your visits to the National Zoo?