From zebras and turtles to alligators and sea otters—greater Phoenix is a true Animal Kingdom | By Teresa Bitler
Phoenix has a wild side. Places where giraffes roam, sharks swim, and butterflies flutter. See for yourself at these five area attractions.
One of the largest nonprofit zoos in the country, the Phoenix Zoo is home to more than 1,400 animals, including 30 endangered or threatened species. Popular exhibits include the African Savanna, where giraffes, gazelles, and ostriches wander; the Bornean orangutan enclosure featuring two-year-old baby Jiwa; and Stingray Bay, where you can touch and feed 30 stingrays. The zoo also houses Asian elephants, Sumatran tigers, Komodo dragons, and Andean bears. Plus, the zoo offers the nation’s only walk-through squirrel monkey exhibit.
The zoo is often considered to be one of the top child-friendly destinations in the state, giving kids the opportunity to pet goats in the Red Barn at Harmony Farm, cool off in splash ponds in warmer months, ride the Endangered Species Carousel, play in a treehouse in the Enchanted Forest, or feed the giraffes.
Allow plenty of time to see the zoo’s 125 acres. And wear comfortable shoes—you’ll cover roughly 2.5 miles if you walk all the trails.
Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium & Safari Park
With more than 600 species, Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium, & Safari Park boasts the largest number of animals in Arizona and prides itself on bringing visitors as close to the animals as safety permits. How close? Only a rope separates you from kangaroos in the walkabout; the platform of the giraffe feeding station brings you face-to-face with these long-tongued creatures; and lorikeet parrots land on your shoulders and arms as you entice them with fresh apple slices. In fact, according to zoo director Mickey Ollson, Wildlife World Zoo was the first zoo in the nation to offer parrot feedings more than 30 years ago.
In addition, the zoo showcases 10 rides, including a train journey through the park and a zipline over kangaroos, orynx, and camels. There’s also a sea lion show, a rare albino alligator, and an aquarium. The new Adventure Land features 15 acres of buffalo, bears, cougars, bobcats, and other animals from North, Central, and South America.
Ollson recommends arriving early. “There’s a lot more to see and do than you think,” he says. “Come early and stay for the day.”
Out of Africa Wildlife Park
The rolling hills near Camp Verde, about a 90-minute drive north of Phoenix (perfect for a daytrip), stand in for the African savanna at Out of Africa Wildlife Park, a 100-acre cross between a traditional zoo and a drive-through safari attraction.
Once at the park, you’ll begin your journey by walking past enclosures housing wolves, bears, tigers, and lions, all of which know their names and often respond to them. Then, take the African Safari Tour through the park’s Serengeti preserve to see giraffes, zebras, and sable antelope. The safari tour is free with admission and includes no-barrier giraffe feeding.
Four shows are also included in the admission price: Tiger Splash, Creature Feature, Giant Snake, and Wonders of Wildlife. Insider tip: Arrive at least 30 minutes before Tiger Splash to get a good seat.
The largest—and newest—aquarium in the Southwest, OdySea features several attractions you won’t see anywhere else, beginning with the sphere-shaped tanks suspended from the lobby ceiling. There’s also an escalator enclosed in a clear tunnel that transports you through a fish tank from the second to the first floor; the Living Sea Carousel, which rotates between four exhibits; and a 3-D film on humpback whales.
Other fun things to do: Take a behind-the-scenes tour (where you’ll learn how the aquarium cares for the animals, including how they create ocean-quality saltwater), or participate in an up-close penguin encounter at Penguin Point. For an additional fee, you can don a wetsuit and a Sea Trek helmet to walk (yes, walk!) underwater through a tank filled with colorful fish.
Of the 30,000 marine animals at OdySea, the otters, sea lions, and sharks are the most popular, according to Greg Charbeneau, the aquarium’s general manager. Visitors also love the animal ambassador program featuring Pickles, the armadillo, and Squidney, the two-toed sloth.
Next door to OdySea Aquarium, the newly opened Dolphinaris invites you to swim with Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in their 900,000-gallon saltwater habitat.
Visits begin with a wardrobe change into your bathing suit, or a wetsuit if the water is cold, while also rinsing off sunscreen or other lotions from your body. While the dolphin tank is filtered every 16 minutes, removing lotions additionally ensures that the dolphins are healthy and their home is clean.
After orientation, you enter the tank. Your 20-minute, 30-minute, or 60-minute session with the dolphins introduces you to their behaviors and friendly and curious natures, plus gives you a chance to swim and play with these loving creatures. If you don’t want to get wet, try the land-only option. All of the interactive sessions are geared toward a gentle experience for the dolphins, and one that teaches guests about the conservation efforts of Dolphinaris.
Reservations are recommended; same-day reservations are available, most commonly for the land-only interactions.
Butterflies rule at two Greater Phoenix attractions.
At Butterfly Wonderland, the journey begins with a 3-D movie and continues through the Emergence Gallery, where butterflies birth from hanging chrysalis, then culminates with a visit to the largest glass-enclosed butterfly pavilion in the Unites States. There, approximately 3,000 butterflies representing 70 different species flutter from plant to plant, and sometimes even land on you.
While Butterfly Wonderland stays open year-round, the Desert Botanical Garden offers a seasonal butterfly pavilion each March. This year, the pavilion welcomes the general public on March 4, and will remain open through May 14. Located on the Desert Wildflower Loop Trail, the exhibit showcases hundreds of live butterflies, a caterpillar nursery, and an emergence chamber.