By Sherida Mock
Let your kids get up close and personal with an array of creatures from the lowly to the exotic at these special places!
Details: The 2½-year-old aquarium offers a substantial number of interactive exhibits. You can feed and touch many of the animals on display. Even the smallest visitors can reach over the short walls of touch tanks to gently interact with sharks, rays, octopus, starfish and other aquatic life. You might even get splashed by a frisky fish.
Some equally fascinating creatures that can’t be touched include caimans (a type of small crocodilian), eels and jellyfish. Other animals you might not expect to find at an aquarium, but are also available for touching and feeding, include iguanas, pythons, macaws and parakeets. Visit in February, March and April to see shark eggs—harvested from the touch tank—develop in a separate nursery tank.
Location: 13530 US-183 #101, Austin
Hours: Open Sun. – Thu., 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Fri. – Sat., 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Admission: $14.95 adults; $6.95 children 2 to 11
If you go: Expect a lively atmosphere from opening until about 3 p.m., as the aquarium hosts field trips from local schools. From about 3 p.m. until closing, the place offers a quieter experience. Parking is adequate; the aquarium is situated in a shopping center.
Austin Nature and Science Center
Details: This City of Austin venue has been educating visitors about the natural world since 1960. You’ll find lots to explore, including live animal enclosures, a lily pond and a sand pit with artificial fossils called the Dino Dig. Animals live at the center because they could not be released into the wild. Some have vision problems or challenges in mobility.
You’ll see a fox, a bobcat, prairie dogs and more at the mammal enclosure. An indoor exhibit called Small Wonders houses reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds and insects. The shady Birds of Prey area provides a home to vultures, hawks, owls, road runners and more.
In addition to the wildlife displays, the center includes a visitor pavilion full of touchables, such as snakeskins, taxidermy, shells and more. At the entrance to the pavilion, visitors can watch an active bee hive under construction and safely enclosed in plexiglass. Visitors are welcome to hike through the adjacent 60-acre Zilker Nature Preserve between dawn and dusk.
Location: 2389 Stratford Dr., Austin
Hours: Open Mon. – Sat., 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sun., 12 to 5 p.m.
If you go: Expect parking challenges on the weekends, because the center shares lot space with Zilker Park visitors. Parking is free.
Details: The Austin Zoo celebrates 26 years in operation this year. It provides a permanent home to over 300 animals on 15 acres. The zoo takes in animals that have retired from other zoos, orphaned animals, those seized for illegal possession or cruelty and former pets surrendered because their owners could no longer care for them.
You’ll see large mammals such as lions, tigers, cougars, wolves and bears. You’ll also see smaller mammals such as lemurs, foxes, monkeys, raccoons, prairie dogs and hedgehogs. The zoo houses alligators and tortoises, as well. Visitors can feed deer, llamas, goats and sheep in the feeding area.
An optional 15-minute train ride covers 2.5 miles of hill country views. Outside food and drink are welcome, and a snack trailer offers options, as well. There is a large, shady picnic area.
Location: 10808 Rawhide Tr., Austin
Hours: Open daily, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Winter hours, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Nov. 1 – Jan. 31)
Admission: $11 adults; $8 children 2 to 12
If you go: Expect an intimate setting. Chickens and peacocks roam the grounds. Parking is free and plentiful. Free strollers are available for use while visiting.
Capital of Texas Zoo
Details: Founder Michael Hicks proudly calls this “the smallest zoo in Texas.” Started in 2002, it may be small, but it provides a home to 500 animals, many of them endangered species. Highlights include a 4-year-old hippo and a white tiger, both of which arrived at the zoo as babies. Other animals you’ll see are a camel, a lion, zebras, monkeys, kangaroos and parrots. You’ll also see plenty of snakes, lizards, owls, peacocks and other birds. Goats and sheep live in the petting zoo area.
In addition to being open daily for visitors, the zoo takes its show on the road with 300 outreach programs each year. Scout troops, schools, retirement homes and libraries are among the groups that request the traveling show.
Location: 376 Jenkins Rd., Cedar Creek
Hours: Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: $9.99 adults; $7.49 children ages 2 to 11
If you go: Expect a farm-like setting. The zoo sits on an unpaved road well off Highway 71 near Bastrop. GPS will help you get there.
Meadows Center for Water and the Environment
Details: Long-time Austinites may remember that this venue was formerly known as Aquarena Springs, opened in 1951 and operated as an aquatic amusement park. But since being taken over by Texas State University in 1994, this spot has shed its commercial trappings in favor of educational experiences.
The discovery hall houses numerous fish, salamanders, turtles and more. The glass bottom boat tours provide an up-close view of the animals that call Spring Lake home. The wetlands trail offers a chance to see nutria and aquatic birds. (A portion of the boardwalk that extends over the lake was damaged in recent flooding and is currently closed.) Across the street lies 25 miles of hiking trails.
Location: 211 San Marcos Springs Dr., San Marcos
Hours: Open daily, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission: Free access to the discovery hall and wetlands trail. Glass bottom boat rides are $9.75 adults, $6 children ages 3 to 12. $3 parking.
If you go: Expect road construction near the entrance. In fact, a visit to the center’s website before you hop in the car will save you the frustration of GPS instructions that take you in circles.
Drive-Through Animal Safaris
Exotic Resort Zoo
Location: 235 Zoo Tr., Johnson City
Admission: $14.95 adults; $12.95 children ages 2 to 12
Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch
Location: 26515 Natural Bridge Caverns Rd., San Antonio
Admission: $22 adults; $13.50 children ages 3 to 11
Topsey Exotic Ranch and Drive Thru
Location: 945 County Rd. 118, Copperas Cove
Admission: $11 adults; $9 children ages 3 to 12