by Erin Tarr
Maybe it was growing up in the St. Louis area with a zoo easily accessible (both because it was close and free), or maybe it is due to the fond memories I have with my husband at various zoos during our courtship or maybe it is the unmistakable joy that lights my daughter’s face when she see a new animal up close.
Whatever it is, I love zoos. So, when a friend from Bloomington called to see if our family wanted to join her and our mutual friend from Liberia at the Miller Park Zoo on Memorial Day, I jumped at the chance.
On the west side of Bloomington, nestled in what appeared to be a residential area, we found Miller Park Zoo. Our first pleasant surprise (after noticing there was plenty of free parking close by) was that children under 2 and younger are free, so already my pocketbook breathed a sigh of relief.
From the start, there was almost a family feel to the zoo, smiles from each person we encountered, a crowded but well organized gift shop, an understated entrance and just … a feel that I can’t quite explain different from St. Louis or Lincoln Park Zoo. All the employees were extremely friendly and helpful and genuinely seemed to love what they do. Given this feel however, I wondered if the zoo itself would be underwhelming and disappointing. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised to the contrary. Despite the Memorial Day drizzle, we had a great time, spending about 2 hours there – and feeling like we definitely got our money’s worth.
Here are the top five things I loved about this zoo, and reasons why I think you should make the short trek to Bloomington for this family-friendly and child-pleasing opportunity:
Wallaby Walk. This was one of the coolest zoo experiences I have ever had, period. You walk through the enclosure and the wallaby’s are completely free to roam within the enclosure. You have to stay on the sidewalk that winds through, but the wallaby’s can bounce right up to you, on the sidewalk, wherever they want to go. It was SO COOL to be THAT CLOSE to a creature I had never seen before. Do I sound like a kid in a candy store? ‘Cause I kinda felt that way, it was SO COOL! This alone was worth the price of admission.
Big Cats. At a zoo this small, you wouldn’t necessarily expect to have several big cats, but they did, and the tiger particularly did not disappoint! There were two beautiful snow leopards and a bear as well that seemed happy and well-adjusted in their indoor/outdoor homes.
The Carousel. I must say this is not the state of the art Disney (or even Market Place Mall) Carousel, but there was something so sweet and special about the quaint ride complete with the sweet older gentleman who ran it, giving my 2-year-old high fives each time we went around. Incidentally, the only elephant at the zoo happens to be on this carousel. At $1.50 a ride (parents ride free) it was a one-time thrill – which was enough.
Junior Zookeepers. Throughout the zoo, there were kids that appeared to be anywhere from middle through high-school holding animals for us to look and pet at along the path between exhibits. As a teacher and parent I loved that the zoo was providing such leadership opportunities for the youth of Bloomington, and my kids loved seeing the turtle and giant cockroach (among others) up close.
Petting area. With Prairie Farm and Curtis Orchard in Champaign, our children are no stranger to farm animals, and petting zones, but it was just another sweet addition to the enjoyable day that only enhanced the charm of the unique zoo experience.
If I was doing top 6, I would include a list of some of the cool animals we saw including lemurs, bald eagles, wolves, a bobcat, meerkats, otters and seals and … I almost forgot…an awesome rainforest walk-through display – again, where the birds can roam about while you remain on a sidewalk.
In addition to the zoo at Miller Park, there is a FANTASTIC playground and “Spray Park,” which is part of Bloomington Public Park District and absolutely free. My children were beyond disappointed the rain prevented them from partaking in this part of the trip, but I assured them we would return. I hope you do too!
Erin (Trent) Tarr made the three-hour drive from Southern Illinois to Champaign in 1997 to attend the University of Illinois and never left. Mother of two beautiful girls (2 & 4 years old), she is currently working at the University of Illinois and enjoys reading non-fiction, listening to leadership podcasts, singing, taking pictures of her kids, and blogging at www.erintarr.com. The epitome of an extrovert, she is an active participant at Quest UMC and loves getting together with strong women for book clubs, writing clubs, and wine tastings. You can often find her (with two kids in tow) at Champaign Centennial sporting events where her beloved husband of nine years, Adam, works as an Athletic Trainer.