A free zoo on a lake, filled to the brim with animals and fun, Henry Vilas Zoo is a great stop on your way to Wisconsin Dells
Just another zoo? Absolutely not! We want to share with you the beauty of Henry Vilas Zoo and give you 10 reasons that it may be worth a road trip on your family’s list this year.
Note: Due to COVID-19, some public attractions may be closed or operating under restrictions. Please check the website or social media for Henry Vilas Zoo before planning your trip, and be aware of any safety protocols or travel restrictions currently in effect. Admission is first come, first served. Off-peak hours are after 2 p.m.
10 things to know about Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wis., one hour south of Wisconsin Dells
- The zoo is free! This is the top thing we want you to know, because regardless of how long you have to visit the zoo, you can make a full day of it or a quick stop-and-stretch-your-legs visit. Parking is free, too, but has a three-hour time limit. You can park on the streets as well.
- The Adventure Play Area near the Children’s Zoo may be worth a visit in and of itself. Play structures are large (climb the stairs to the top) and look to be made of more natural materials (think Porter Park in Champaign). We can assure you your kids won’t want to leave. It is located within the zoo, so you do need to enter in order to play (but remember that admission is always free).
- There are some simple rides here to enjoy for a small cost. You can ride an electric train that is more child-sized but can fit a parent or two (just don’t expect a full-sized large train on tracks). It rides around the children’s zoo. There’s also a carousel located in this area. Both cost $3 per person, per ride. Multi-ride punch cards are available and may make your visit easier.
- Vilas Park (and beach) is located right outside the zoo. This lovely park offers so much more than a playground. You can launch a canoe or kayak on Lake Wingra, do some fishing or even swim during the summer season. There are no lifeguards, so swim at your own risk. But waters are calm and roped off and the sand really does feel like a beach.
- You may bring in your own food and beverage to the zoo. No alcoholic beverages, along with cups with straws/lids and some other items. Get more of that info here.
- Dine with the polar bears! The Glacier Grille has a polar bear viewing area from inside the cafe. Note: we are unsure whether this is open during COVID-19.
- A unique educational spin on this trip is to visit the Wisconsin Heritage area of the zoo. Of course, any zoo trip can give you the opportunity to teach your kids something about animals. But in the Wisconsin Heritage exhibit, you can learn about animals native to this particular state.
- You can get really close to the giraffes here, particularly if they walk toward the fence inside their exhibit. This is not a guarantee, since they may be hanging out all the way across the exhibit when you are visiting. We happened to see two of them playing with each other and running near the fence — near us! — when we were there. The toddler with us was almost a little scared since they’re just so big, but the older kids thought it was pretty exciting.
- Look around for underwater and indoor viewing areas as many of the exhibits here have multiple places to see the animals: polar bears, seals, flamingos, to name a few.
- This zoo is located on the way from Champaign-Urbana to Wisconsin Dells. It’ll add a few minutes to your drive to get off the highway and navigate through Madison to the zoo, but if you are too early to check in to your lodging in the Dells, this makes a great stop along the way.
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