Travel Tips: Taking Kids to the St. Louis Zoo

EDITOR’S NOTE: Prices and hours are accurate as of 2019. 

The St. Louis Zoo has repeatedly been named one of the best zoos in the United States according to USA Today, so it’s a place that’s well worth visiting if you’re in the area. Here’s everything you need to know for a great visit.

st. louis zoo with kids

Hours and Admission

First, a trip to the St. Louis Zoo is affordable. Admission is free! You can pay $15 per vehicle to park in one of the zoo’s two parking lots (the kiosks accept cash and credit), or if you’re willing to walk a bit more, you can find free street parking in Forest Park where the zoo is located.

The zoo is open year round except for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Hours vary depending on the season and whether it’s a weekday or weekend. Generally, though, the zoo opens at 8 a.m. daily during the summer and at 9 a.m. daily during the fall, winter, and spring.

Zoo Zones

The St. Louis Zoo is large, and to make it easier to navigate, it is divided into six themed zones.

  • Historic Hill: features the bird house, primate house, and herpetarium housed in historic buildings.
  • Red Rocks: features big cats, zebras, giraffes, gazelles, and more.
  • Lakeside Crossing: features stingrays (for a small admission fee) and sea lions along with a cafe and concessions. The sea lions are a must see, and you can view them in a walk-through exhibit without having to pay to see the sea lion show.
  • River’s Edge: features rhinos, elephants, cheetahs, painted dogs, and more. Don’t miss the hippo exhibit or the elephants.
  • The Wild: features grizzly bears, penguins and puffins, a polar bear, orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and more. A word of warning: most of the penguin exhibit is indoors, where the temperature is always chilly, but it’s worth a few shivers to see swimming penguins up close.
  • Discovery Corner: features the Children’s Zoo (for a small admission fee), the insectarium and butterfly dome, and a large entrance building (one of two zoo entrances) with cafe and gift shop.

Which Exhibits Charge a Fee?

st. louis zoo with kids

While admission to the St. Louis Zoo is free, there are a few attractions that charge a fee. They are optional and you can easily make a full day of all the free exhibits alone. If you want more, though, below is a list of the exhibits that charge, along with their prices as of 2019.

It’s good to know that the Children’s Zoo, Stingrays, and Conservation Carousel are free during the zoo’s first hour of operation each day, but the zoo’s opening hours depend on the season, so check their website before you go. During the summer, the zoo opens early at 8 a.m., and it can be difficult to get the family out the door in time to take advantage of the free admissions, and you’ll be dealing with some morning rush hour traffic at that time.

If you plan to do several of the extra exhibits and you don’t arrive during the first hour the zoo is open, consider purchasing an Adventure Pass for $12.95 per person, which is good for one day and includes admission to the Children’s Zoo, railroad, carousel, 4D theater, sea lion show, and stingrays. (Keep in mind that the sea lion show and stingrays are seasonal and may not be open if you’re not visiting during the summer months.)

  • Zooline Railroad. Tickets cost $7.95 per person and allow you to get on and off at the various stations throughout the day. Tickets are only good for one day. Children younger than 2 are free, and groups of 15 or more may receive a discount by calling (314) 646-4718 in advance. Strollers and wagons are not allowed on the train, so families usually park them at the stations. I’ve never had anyone bother my stroller or wagon (that I know of) when I’ve left it at a train station, and I’ve left them many times over the years, but make sure you don’t leave valuables such as a purse unattended.
  • Sea Lion Show. Tickets are $3.95 per person, and children younger than 2 are free. This is a seasonal exhibit open during the warmer months. There is an area just inside the show gates to park strollers and wagons.
  • Children’s Zoo. Tickets are $3.95 per person, and children younger than 2 are free. Admission is free during the first hour the zoo is open; to get in free you must enter the Children’s Zoo gates before the end of the first hour and you may then stay as long as you wish. The Children’s Zoo features indoor and outdoor play areas (including a splash pad), animal shows, a goat petting zoo, and a building with several small animal exhibits where children often have the opportunity to pet an animal such as a guinea pig, hedgehog, rabbit, snake, screech owl, and more under the supervision of a staff member or volunteer. There is usually only one or two types of animals out for petting at a time, but they get switched in and out fairly often, so it’s common for us to pet two types of animals in one visit. If you visit the Children’s Zoo, plan to spend at least an hour there.
  • Stingrays. Tickets are $3.95 per person, and children younger than 2 are free. Admission is free during the first hour the zoo is open. Optional food cups are $1. Zoo staff will show you how to pet stingrays as they swim past you in a shallow pool. This is one of my family’s favorite activities, and once you’re in, you can linger and pet rays for as long as you want. This covered outdoor exhibit is open April through October. People with shellfish allergies should be aware that the stingrays are fed shrimp, and the water may contain residue from their meals.
  • Conservation Carousel. Tickets are $2.95 per person, and children younger than 2 are free. Children shorter than 42 inches must be accompanied by a paying adult.
  • 4D Theater. General admission is $4.95, and admission for zoo members is $3.95. I don’t typically see a lot of people visiting this attraction, and I think you can pass it over without worrying you’re missing anything, unless you really like 4D theater.
  • Safari Walking Tours. Tickets are $5 per person, and children younger than 2 are free. Walk along with interpreters who offer stories and animal facts. Tours happen during the summer months, and there are three different themed tours from which to choose. Tours don’t include touching live animals or accessing non-public zoo areas. The zoo is easy to navigate if you have a map, and there is plenty of signage offering educational facts about the animals, so I’d say skipping this option is fine unless you really want the opportunity to interact with an interpreter and have things explained.

The Discovery Room

A few years ago, the zoo opened the Discovery Room, where children ages 0-8 learn about animals and nature through play. Admission is $2 for members and $3 for non-members, and children younger than 1 are free. Timed tickets and advance tickets can be purchased at the welcome desks at the North and South entrances to the zoo. Reservations are not available, and capacity is limited to 40 participants per session. Check the website for times.

Membership

st. louis zoo with kids
Petting stingrays at the St. Louis Zoo.

If you plan to visit the zoo several times a year, and especially if you want to do a lot of the extra exhibits that charge a fee, it may be worth considering a zoo membership. I’ve been a parent in the St. Louis area for more than a decade and we have yet to purchase a membership, although we’re thinking about it this year. We have benefited many times from our friends sharing some of their passes for the railroad, sea lions, and Children’s Zoo with us because they’ve needed to use them up before their yearlong membership ended.

Memberships come in several levels at different prices. View all membership levels here. Below are the best membership options for families:

  • The Family membership for $90 includes six free parking passes and 48 Anywhere Plus Passes for the railroad, Children’s Zoo, sea lion show, carousel, and stingrays.
  • The Zoo-Goer membership for $70 includes six free parking passes and 36 passes for the railroad, children’s zoo, and sea lion show.

Where to Eat?

The St. Louis Zoo has a couple of casual restaurants and many concession stands with prices like what you’d find at a ballpark. Food options include burgers, chicken fingers, bratwurst, hot dogs, pretzels, pulled pork, quesadillas, wraps, fries, salads, ice cream, funnel cakes, kettle corn, ICEEs, Dole Whip, and fudge.

Ray’s Snack Shack located in the Lakeside Crossing zone is a new addition that serves items that are free of gluten, tree nuts, dairy, and other allergens. Starbucks is another recent addition at the zoo. If you want to splurge on a treat, consider getting a smoothie served in a fresh-cut pineapple “cup” in the Discovery Corner zone (available during the warmer months).

The most affordable dining option at the zoo — and what most St. Louis locals with kids do — is to bring a picnic. The zoo allows you to bring in coolers, picnic baskets, and bagged lunches, although glass bottles are prohibited. There are plenty of picnic tables scattered all over the zoo grounds. The best thing to do, if you have kids in a stroller or wagon, is to pack your lunches in there so you don’t have to schlep out to the parking lot when it’s lunch time, or you can try to fit them into a backpack or two.

Additional Tips for Families with Kids:

  • The zoo can get crowded at times, so be aware of the potential challenges of getting a stroller or wagon through the crowds.
  • You can bring your own stroller or wagon. Or single, double, and infant strollers are available to rent on a first-come, first-served basis at both the North and South zoo entrances.
  • The zoo has two lactation rooms for nursing mothers, one in the lower rotunda of The Living World building and one at the first aid station near the carousel.
  • It is difficult, if not impossible, to see and do everything at the zoo in one day. It’s okay if you don’t get to it all. Plan ahead and prioritize what you want to see.
  • Check the zoo website for times for shows and animal feedings. You may be able to watch a keeper feed penguins, sea lions, or a tree kangaroo.
  • The zoo is open year round except for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, and there are fun events and decorations during certain seasons. Favorite season-long themes include Boo at the Zoo during October when the zoo is decorated and lit up for Halloween, and Wild Lights during the Christmas season with holiday decor and lights.

What are your tips for visiting the St. Louis Zoo with kids? Share your suggestions in the comments. 

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