If your gang is tired of the local petting zoos and parks and you’re up for a beautiful drive through the rollings hills of Wisconsin, then pack up the kids for a day trip to Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wisconsin. Read on for the upsides and downsides of this Gas-Tank Getaway.
Did I mention it’s completely free? As in, just walk in the gate, don’t pay a dime, free! Parking is free also! Even though we loved the price, we loved the zoo even more. They have lots of unique exhibits for a small zoo, such as giraffes, tigers, lions, primates and monkeys. One of our favorite exhibits was the prairie dog town where we watched the little critters dig holes and chase each other through their homemade mazes. In the brand new Arctic Passage Exhibit, my kids were able to come, literally, face-to-face with a polar bear, as well as experience a simulated ride in a Tundra Buggy research vehicle (this does make a loud noise, so it may be scary for young kids.) .
2. Kid Friendly
If it’s a sunny day, don’t be concerned because the whole zoo has ample shade. Whether it’s large shade trees covering the smooth, wide, stroller-friendly walking paths or the awnings and shelters over the exhibits, there are many places to escape the sun. They have also provided spacious, shaded picnic areas throughout the zoo to enjoy your homemade lunch. If you would rather purchase food from their walk-up counter restaurant, then you are able to eat inside the air-conditioned Glacier Grille overlooking the polar bear exhibit. The restaurant offers affordable, healthy options such as smoothies, veggies and fruit cups as well as some yummy treats. And, just in case your feet get tired, the zoo rents strollers, wagons and wheelchairs for $4 each.
3. Extra Fun
In addition to having exciting animals, the Henry Vila Park Zoo has one of the best play areas my kids have ever seen! The gigantic tree boasts ladders, lookouts, tunnels and slides for all ages. As a mom, I especially appreciated the rubberized pavement and mats to protect knees and bottoms of little climbers.
No visit to the zoo would be complete without some ride-on entertainment. The HVZ has a child-sized electric train and an exotic animal carousel for $1.50 each.
Although the zoo is free and the parking is free, the biggest downside is limited parking options. The parking lot only has approximately 60 spots that fill quickly and have a three-hour maximum. Your alternative is to park your car on the neighborhood streets. While the walk isn’t very far, the street parking has a two-hour maximum. The zoo is actually small enough to see it all in two hours if you have bigger kids with you. In our case, we had lots of little kiddos with short legs and lots of bathroom and snack breaks, so we had to take turns moving cars halfway through the day. It’s definitely not a deterrent, just something important to remember if you plan on leaving your lunch in the car or staying all day.
Overall, we had a lovely day visiting this little zoo that was a little drive away. Next time I would get there right before it opened to try and park in the lot, and I would plan another activity in Madison to do afterwards to take advantage of this beautiful, family-friendly city. What is your favorite thing to do with kids in Madison?
The Henry Vilas Zoo
702 S. Randall Avenue, Madison, WI | 608-266-4732 | Facebook
Hours 9:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m.