Ultimate Guide to a 100% FREE trip to the Free St. Louis Zoo

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The St. Louis Zoo in Forest Park is a great place to take the kids–not only is our zoo world class, there’s no admission fee charged at the door.

Does that mean the Zoo is free? Hmmmm, technically…but if you’re not careful you can end up paying quite a lot for your “free” trip to the zoo.

Kid in red hat watching the elephants at the St. Louis Zoo

No tickets needed to Enter the St. Louis Zoo

You heard that right. No admission tickets! 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!

Kid in red hat watching the hippos at the St. Louis Zoo where there's no admission fee

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 buying all the extras. Parking, train tickets, rides, shows…it all adds up. A single visit for a family of four can easily cost $100 if you indulge on all the fun stuff. Don’t get me started food prices! This is why I highly recommend buying a zoo membership if you’re local.

Here’s my tips for visiting the Zoo on the cheap or totally free:

Street parking: Save $15

The zoo lots are currently $15 to park! Yes, it’s super 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 cash 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

St. Louis zoo parking: kid in play jeep at the St. Louis Zoo children's Zoo

Early Birds Save $3 – $7 per person

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. In the summer you’ll also get free admission to the stingrays. They don’t actually hand out free tickets, so the best idea is to hit the carousel first then decide if you want to see the Children’s Zoo or stingrays before the hour is up. The carousel normally charges $3 for people over 2, and the Children’s Zoo and stingrays are $4 for everyone over 2.

Zoo members can get free tickets depending on their member level.

Pack a Snack–or a whole picnic!

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.

map of picnic areas at St. Louis Zoo

Get Cheap refills!

Zoovenir Sipper cups might seem outrageously priced 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.

Kid shopping at a St. Louis Zoo gift shop full of fish toys.

Avoid the Gift Shops

We all love a souvenir when we’re on vacation but do you really need a plush animal toy to celebrate your 10th visit? Nope! Steer little Billy around the gift shops and save a bundle. Most kids are attracted to the cheap toys and candy, some of which you might recognize from your last trip to the dollar store.

Penny squishing machine at the St. Louis Zoo

Get this Cheap Souvenir instead!

My favorite souvenirs are from the squish a penny machines–they’re only 51 cents, they’re fun to make and they fit in your pocket. I always bring a few quarters and extra shiny 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 16 years now and I know that place like the back of my hand.

2 brothers at the St. Louis Zoo, posing with an orange frog sculpture.
How long have we been zoo members? These boys are now in middle school and college!

The Sea Lion Show: Yes!

Totally worth the $4 ticket cost–the new arena is only a few years old and it is state of the art. The sea lions are awesome and the arena has a glass pool for them to swim in so they are always in view. Do it!

kid interacting with a sea lion at the St. Louis Zoo

The Zooline Railroad: Maybe

The train is fantastic BUT ONLY IF your kid is a train nut. Tickets are $8 per person. It’s a cute ride around the park and through a couple parts off limits to foot traffic.

HOWEVER it is NOT a good mode of transportation after you account for the massive lines on crowded days. You’ll get there faster walking.

mini train at st. louis zoo

The Children’s Zoo: Depends on Age

It’s well worth the $4 price to enter, especially if your kids are younger. Need a place to run around a blow off steam? This is it! There’s a great fountain for cooling down on a summer afternoon, an indoor play zone to learn about animals, goats to pet, a pretend farm and outdoor play area with a two good slides. If you’re on a tight budget, come early and do this during the free hour–once in the door you can stay as long as you like.

kid playing with fountain at st. louis zoo children's zoo

Stingrays at the Caribbean Coast: Yes!

Totally worth the $4 ticket if your kids 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 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?

Remember: the Stingrays are free during the first hour the zoo is open.

father and son petting stingray at St. Louis Zoo

Conservation Carousel: Maybe

It’s $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.

Mother and son on the Conservation Carousel at the St. Louis Zoo

4D Simulator: Nope

This $5 “ride” is a skip it in my book. It’s about 5 minutes long 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: Nope

I will never understand face painting. The kid won’t see it unless they’re looking in the mirror and by the end of the day they just look like a cranky tiger. That’s just silly. Skip it.

face paint on child. boy as tiger with make-up in garden
Ultimate  guide to visiting the fantastic St. Louis Zoo for %100 free.

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