The St. Louis Zoo in Forest Park is a great place to take the kids–not only is our zoo world class, it’s free.
You heard that right. Free.Thanks to a little thing called the Metropolitan-Zoological Park and Museum District (whew!) St. Louis City and County property tax dollars go to support the St. Louis Zoo. The money also goes to the Art Museum, History Museum, Science Center, Missouri Botanical Garden and Butterfly House. This is why there’s so many fun places to take your kids to in St. Louis that are (sorta) free.
OK, if you’re a local, it’s technically not free. You paid for it with your tax dollars. But that’s all the more reason to go visit all these great institutions!
If the Zoo is “free” why do I need to write a blog post? Ahhhh, because you can still drop a ton of cash at the St. Louis Zoo if you’re not careful
Here’s my tips on visiting the Zoo on the cheap or totally free:
1) Street parking, baby! After March 4th zoo lots are $15 to park in 2016. Yes, they are convenient. You can also avoid paying to park by either becoming a member or parking on the street. You’ll walk a little more, but if you’d rather spend that $15 bucks on funnel cake and ice cream, it’s worth it.
My favorite place to park is on Oakland Avenue or Berthold Avenue near Turtle Park. This is directly across Hwy 40 from the zoo and you can cross on the Tamm Avenue bridge with a nice safe sidewalk. Be sure to check out the giant concrete turtles–they were made by the late, great Bob Cassilly of the City Museum. FYI: all the turtles represent Missouri species
2) The Early Bird Gets the Freebie! If you arrive at the St. Louis Zoo during the first hour it is open, you’ll be rewarded with free admission to the Children’s Zoo and free rides on the carousel. They don’t actually hand out free tickets, so the best idea is to hit the carousel first then get inside the Children’s Zoo before the hour is up. The carousel normally charges $3 for people over 2, and the Children’s Zoo is $4 for everyone over 2. Both of these are free for certain levels of zoo members.
The Children’s Zoo has a play area with a slide through the river otter’s habitat and an indoor exhibit to learn about animal care. During the summer you’ll want to bring your kid’s swimsuit and a towel so they can splash in the fountain.
3) Pack a Snack! If you’re at the zoo for any length of time, the kids are going to get hungry. You can buy them an overpriced burger or the aforementioned funnel cake…or you can pack a picnic from home. The Zoo doesn’t mind if you bring in your own food or a cooler–they even provide picnic tables. It’s up to you if you want to lug this stuff around, but if you’re bringing a stroller or toddler wagon you’ll have room for a snack or two.
Cheap tip for people without a pack mule: Zoovenir Sipper cups might seem outrageously priced ($10 bucks!) but they are refillable with soda for a buck and ICEE for a bit more. The zoo WANTS you to refill your cup as part of their green recycling efforts. They even let you bring your cup back to the zoo for more refills on another visit–and they never go out of date! We’re still using one that gotta be 4 years old! The cups are huge, so two people can share a sipper.
4) Avoid the tourist traps! Yes, the whole zoo was laid out for tourists, but do you really need a souvenir if you’re a local on your 10th visit? No. Steer little Billy around the gift shops and save a bundle. Most kids are attracted to the cheap toys and candy, which you might recognize from your last trip to the dollar store.
It’s tricky to avoid some of the gift shops. You’ll be forced to exit through one after the polar bear, penguins & stingrays. My favorite souvenirs are from the squish a penny machines–they’re only 51 cents, they’re fun to make and they fit in a pocket. I always bring a few quarters and extra shinny pennies when we hit the zoo.
What extras are worth the cost? I know I called this post how to do the zoo for FREE, but there are a couple things definitely worth paying for at the St. Louis Zoo. I’ve been a member for 12 years now and I know that place like the back of my hand.
The Sea Lion Show is totally worth the cost–the arena was just opened last summer and it is state of the art. The sea lions are awesome and the new arena has a glass pool for them to swim in so they are always in view. Do it!
The Zooline Railroad is good if your kid is a train nut. If not, skip it. It’s mostly a ride around the park and a crappy form of transportation once you factor in the massive lines when the zoo is crowded. The only thing you’ll see on the train that’s not available by foot is the Elephant Forest–and there’s no guarantee that any elephants will be back there.
The Children’s Zoo is worth the cost if you come on a hot afternoon and want to sit on a bench while your kid plays in the fountain. You’ll get a break and your kid will get recharged for more zoo action. Otherwise it’s just a place to pet a gerbil and a goat with a couple (very cool) play areas. You’re not missing much if you skip this. If you have younger kids (not babies) it’s a fun place to play and learn about animals. If you’re on a tight budget, come early and do this during the free hour–you can stay as long as you like.
The Stingrays at the Caribbean Coast are totally worth it if you’re not allergic to shellfish and want to pet a fish. Small kids have trouble reaching into the pool, so you’ll need to help. If you think your kid won’t get near the water, skip it. If they like fishy creatures then go for it–they’re pretty amazing. If you get lucky, they’ll sell you some fish nibbles to feed to the stingrays–but they don’t offer this all the time to keep the critters from getting fat. And who wants a fat stingray?
The Conservation Carousel is $3 to ride unless you’re under 2. Adults with a baby still need to pay. It’s a nice carousel, and if you’re into that sort of thing, then go for it. You’ll have a nice photo op. Otherwise….skip it or come during the first hour when it’s free.
The 4D Simulator is a skip-it in my book. It’s a “ride” that lasts for about 5 minutes and simulates a roller coaster with 3D glasses, moving seats and spray nozzles that squirt you on cue when the ride “splashes” through water. I figure I’m at the zoo to see animals, not a carnival. There’s also a 3D theater in the Living World building. Skip it.
Face Painting is something I will never understand. The kid won’t see it unless they’re looking in the mirror and by the end of the day your kid will look like a cranky tiger. That’s just silly. Skip it.