Editor’s Note: We have updated this article as of 2014 to reflect current pricing.
by Laura Weisskopf Bleill
A few days before our annual trip to the Chicago suburbs for the Fourth of July weekend, my 4-year-old mentioned that she wanted to go to the zoo. Any zoo.
Chicago is unique in that it has two zoos. Two years ago we went to Lincoln Park Zoo, the venerable old park that occupies a central location near the Chicago lakefront. I hadn’t been to Brookfield Zoo, which is located in a western suburb, in a good 25 years. I had a vague recollection of the monkey house, but that was about it.
Brookfield is actually a very old zoo. Its grand promenades and even grander fountains are certainly relics of a time gone by. But it is a modern zoo in the sense that it’s not just about ogling animals on exhibit. It has jumped on the bandwagon of interactivity, as well as promoting conservation and other environmental education initiatives.
For instance, the dolphin show (more on that later) talks about not polluting our oceans (cringe, cringe, cringe). The new Great Bear Wilderness area — which has on exhibit a polar bear and two grizzly bear cubs rescued after their mother was killed — features information on threatened species and habitats.
But most kids just want to see the animals, and there’s plenty of those to be seen here. And that would be my biggest warning: Brookfield Zoo is very large, in terms of acreage. There is a lot of walking between exhibits. For younger kids, a stroller is a MUST, and some families had wagons for older kids. There is some shade — and some of the exhibits are indoors — but don’t forget the sunscreen and plenty of water.
As I said, there is a lot to see and do here, and it can be overwhelming. You can see a dolphin show (a must, in my opinion); pet stingrays (a seasonal exhibit); visit a butterfly garden; ride an old-time carousel.
All of those to-do list items, however, cost extra on top of the entrance fee. (So does the children’s zoo, which we skipped, since a lot of the animals there we can see for FREE in Champaign at Prairie Farm.)
Of the animal exhibits, our favorites were the polar bear; the gorillas (the monkey house in general is pretty entertaining if you can stand the smell); and the aforementioned dolphin show. Brookfield Zoo’s dolphin show is the oldest in the nation, and it’s worth the extra fee ($4 for “adults” 12-64; $2.50 for children 3-11 and seniors 65 and up). By the time we left, my daughter – enthralled with the dolphin tricks and the trainers – decided she too would be a dolphin trainer when she grew up. (As a disclaimer, we sped past the elephants, kangaroos, hippos, giraffes and other animals – by that time the kids and parents were exhausted.)
The zoo has a great website to help you plan a trip. But there is way too much to do in one day; if you think you might return one more than once in a year, it might be worth it to purchase the appropriate membership.
Brookfield Zoo is about a 2.5-hour drive from Champaign-Urbana (get directions here). There are various ticket packages available that include some of the add-ons, but base admission is $16.95 for adults (12-65) and $11.95 for children 3-11 or seniors 65+; admission is free for children under 3. Parking is an additional $10 for cars/vans, more for busses. Plenty of food is available for sale and there are even some organic or “healthy” options; however, you are allowed to bring in coolers.