Do the Columbus Zoo in Two Hours


You know the drill: this morning you need to keep the kids entertained, fed, and happy while balancing different nap schedules, possible diaper blowouts, and the ever-present-danger of a toddler meltdown. One possibility? The Columbus Zoo.

I know, not a ground-breaking suggestion. Over two million people visit the zoo each year. But doing the zoo in two hours? That’s a game-changer.

One caveat: this advice is best for those with a membership or tagging along on someone else’s. Why? You won’t see the whole zoo with my plan. Following my ideas at full-price might be a waste. I’d want to see everything at full-price.

Some good news: you can bring all the snacks you want. On my family’s first visit, we were surprised that our bags weren’t searched. Perhaps it’s a purposeful family-friendly touch to keep things easy and happy as you enter. Go ahead and load your diaper bag with Goldfish, fruit snacks, applesauce pouches, and water bottles. Your little ones can nosh as you travel between exhibits.

When the gates open at 9:00am, don’t go to North America or Africa. Most visitors seem to walk that way, perhaps remembering their previous visit to Nora, the baby polar bear, or perhaps people just like to turn right first instead of left. We’re going to avoid the crowd. Plus, Africa and North America don’t have as much shade as other areas. Instead, head straight for Australia and the Islands.

On your way, stop for a peek at the flamingos, the humboldt penguins, and aldabra tortoise. These quick stops in the Shores and Aquarium area won’t take more than a minute or two each, and they’ll satiate the curious kid who can’t wait for Australia and the Islands.

Two possible distractions await: the carousel and the huge playground. Move quickly past the carousel and don’t let your kids see the playground peeking through the trees. Stride on and go for the kangaroos.

The kangaroos offer your first real chance to linger, and rightly so. Friendly staff await to chat about the kangaroos, which are just feet away beyond a low rope barrier. You may even be treated to a face-to-face greeting with a kangaroo, especially if you have a stroller. We learned that the kangaroos know strollers tend to have snacks.

Next, tour the rest of Australia and the Islands. You’ll see the koala, nocturnal building, gibbon, komodo dragon, and orangutan, all without walking too far–perfect for a day with toddlers. You’ll want to skip the lorikeets if you have a someone strapped in a stroller: you can’t stroll in, everyone has to walk.

When you leave the area, turn right to walk behind the big playground. Don’t worry, you’re not skipping the playground, you’re just side-stepping it to take a much needed bathroom break at the Congo River Market food court.

After the bathroom, spend ten or fifteen minutes at what might be the best playground around. The main playground is a multi-level playhouse with obstacles, slides, and hideouts. With a separate area for those just learning to walk, your kids can continue to burn off some energy while you sit on one of the many shaded benches.

Move on to the Congo Expedition and enjoy the aviary, colobus monkey, gorilla, bonobo, mandrill, and okapi. In my experience in the morning, the leopard tends to be sleeping. My favorite spot in the zoo is here at the bonobo exhibit. Their playful energy is endlessly entertaining. Watching the younger bonobos play with older siblings may bring back memories, especially when the older siblings just want to be left alone.

Finish in the Congo Expedition and head for the zoo entrance, passing the previously mentioned mandrill and okapi. Believe it or not, you’ve now seen fifteen animal exhibits. That’s almost one-third of the animal exhibits in the zoo in just about two hours.

If a trek to the parking lot doesn’t sound like the best plan now, you could make a momentary stop in Asia Quest to see the elephants. There’s a smaller, almost-hidden area just beyond the rhinoceros that always seems to have an elephant or two. (The main area just past the sun bear is sometimes empty.) The pachyderms are always a kid favorite–and a perfect way to say “til next time” after this quick trip to the zoo.

Here’s one other option for the family who still has energy after Congo Expedition and doesn’t mind waiting a little longer for lunch: you can spend one more hour at the zoo and see plenty more. Stop to see the manatee when you return through the Shores and Aquarium. Continue to Asia Quest, where you’ll see the red panda, aviary, langur, indoor exhibits, and of course the elephants and tigers. The tiger cubs are especially fun–they’re an energetic and playful match for your little ones. The tigers will be the last animals you see on this extended version of my morning zoo plan.

Whether you left after the Congo or managed to explore Asia Quest, you’ve certainly packed plenty into one morning. You’ve seen at least 15 exhibits, maybe even 22–not bad! My family and I love this zoo plan–I especially love it for the kids’ long naps afterwards. Congratulations, you just visited the zoo in one morning. You deserve a treat. Lucky for you, there’s a Graeter’s right down West Powell Road, about a mile away. Go ahead and get that second 50-cent scoop of Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip for me.


  1. This was great, Aaron! We love the zoo, but goodness it can be overwhelming at times! A trip like the one you’ve laid out seems like a great idea for little ones. My best zoo tip, get a membership! I know it can seem pricey to start, but this way when we go and Emily wants to leave after an hour, I have zero guilt since we can go whenever we want!

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