Finally after months with nothing to do in the pandemic, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington DC is open! Woohoo! With many outdoor exhibits, it’s theoretically not too hard to have a good visit and maintain social distancing (self-enforced). Masks are required for everyone over 6 and strongly encouraged for all above 2 years. That said, there will be always be people who don’t properly wear their masks and may get too close, so you need to always watch your back as the zoo grounds get busier. You need to give yourself extra time, patience and often step back when people are not aware or as thoughtful of your space. Try to go when there are less visitors (8-10am seems to be good according to moms’ groups) and I would avoid the weekends when it’s bound to be more crowded. Here’s some general advice on what to expect and how to survive a visit with your family.
First, you’ll need to get your tickets off the National Zoo website. This is new for Covid-19. They’ve separated types as with or without parking. Parking is an outlandish $30 per visit, and free for FONZ zoo members if you are able to reserve it in advance. They have a limited amount of member spots saved and run out. So if you don’t see the option for member ticket parking, that’s because it’s all gone for that day. Right now, it seems like you need to reserve at least a week in advance, but that will vary as time goes by.
Getting a parking pass is a lifesaver with a family because it gets you straight in the middle of the park. The park is big and exhausting to walk around — the last thing you want to do is walk even further back to your car at the end of your visit. The zoo is on a huge hill, so that walk back to your car is uphill and especially grueling on a hot day pushing a stroller. The parking shuttles are not operating right now during the pandemic. The entrance from Rock Creek Park is also closed at the moment, so you need to enter from Connecticut Avenue.
However, if you can’t justify this cost, I’ve managed to get free parking on Connecticut Avenue across the street. I’d recommend coming early to stake out a spot. It’ll likely require you to drive around the block a couple times while throwing out some parking juju and saying a few prayers. I imagine this will be easier on the weekdays, and wouldn’t press my luck on the weekend.
Best parking lot, IMO is parking lot B by the Elephant house. If it fills up, try to loop around one more time because people are leaving all the time.
Getting healthy, normal-priced food at the Zoo has never been great. I’d suggest bringing your own drinks, lunch bag and snacks. I also bring my favorite sweatless icepacks to literally hold to stay cool and they’re handy in case anyone gets a boo-boo. These silicone bags are my favorite reusable food bags, great for fruit slices or snacks.
My normal go-tos pre-pandemic would be picking up slices of pizza at Vace’s Italian Deli further up Connecticut Avenue or stopping by Yes! Organic Food grocery store on that same block to buy a sandwich, soup, etc. I have seen one food truck at least on the premises though.
There are a few picnic table areas and benches the park to sit at. Ideally, eat a good meal before going so you can just bring snacks for the kids rather than trying to feed your whole family there to avoid those logistical issues.
With this DC summer heat, it’ll be extremely hard to avoid buying Ben & Jerry’s ice cream at the zoo. You will cave. You will not pass go. You will pay two bazillion dollars for it. But, it will be worth it. Your cheap date at the zoo is no longer — with parking and ice cream, you’re easily out $50. A kid’s scoop on a waffle cone is $7.40! At least they take credit card.
RESTROOMS / TOILETS
You’ve probably read the articles about avoiding bathrooms and enclosed indoor spaces in general for droplet transmission. Do you best to hold it in. Bring a Pottete portable toilet for your toddler to use outside in a secluded area or in the car. That said, I’m sure they are doing their best to clean and sanitize the bathrooms right now. I’m a bit over the top, so I’d bring another mask to wear two masks if I had to use the public facilities and definitely bring hand sanitizer.
WHAT TO SEE / WALKING PATH
I’d really suggest taking a look and even printing out the map for the zoo in the zoo guide part of their site. The only two buildings that were open when we went were the Elephant house and Great Ape house. Again, I’m pretty strict with my social distancing and practices, so we didn’t go into these exhibits. I don’t believe there can be good distancing inside and I’d also be concerned with air circulation. You can see the elephants from outside, and honestly I’ve always found the Great Ape house depressing. It’s dark, smelly and there is no nature inside, just slabs of concrete. As an aside, I would love if they would seriously rethink this space and make it a better environment for our closest animal ancestors.
We went with 4-year-olds and saw the cheetahs, zebra, then started from the top of the Asia Trail, saw the sea otters, which leads down to the elephant outdoor area, where you can see an elephant enjoying a swimming hole. There are outdoor panda exhibits, but it’s unlikely to see them in the current heat. This is a good stopping area for the kids to have a quick snack or jump around on the rocks under the tarp.
Then, we walked from the Elephant Outpost down through the American Trail. You might get another glimpse of the Elephants (not extremely likely in the heat), then see another couple sea otters as the path winds downhill to the pelicans and seals (prob my favorite animals of the zoo).
Pre-pandemic, they would have feeding times, which was always fun to see. Now you can at least see one swimming underwater through the see-thru glass. There’s another small outdoor cafe to buy water or a scoop of Ben & Jerry’s (see what I mean about not getting out of there without ice cream).
This is where I recommend turning back and walking back uphill the way you came. The above route from start to finish was already almost 3 hours (!) with a break for a snack.
If you have a good stroller, are a bit masochistic and the weather is nice, you can continue walking down the trail where it takes you to the brown bear (he might be climbing the tree) then to the bottom of the park. You’ll pass the closed Amazonia, and end up at the kids farm and see a few hot cows and an alpaca. The playgrounds and the carousel further up are not open right now.
This is where the uphill walking battle begins. You can see the prairie dogs (another favorite) and the exhausted lion in the Great Cats area. Please leave the cat-calling (bad pun, but people are really doing this and driving the poor cats mad) at home.
Along the way in the park, there are a few water misting showers. The kids love these and it might very well be the best part of their trip. I recommend doing it just to keep cool. Try to be mindful of others to ensure social distancing. I would call out taking turns and not getting too close to hint to others as well. People were respectful for the most part. If people came by who were oblivious, I would make us step aside and wait it out for another group to leave.
Then at long last, tears of joy as you’ve made it back to your car or the exit. You’ve survived! Remember to take pics so that you can buy yourself some time before the next visit ;).
Pandemic Zoo checklist:
- The best sunhat (you’ll want one too)
- Bug spray
- Water bottle
- Snack food bags
- Freezable lunch bag
- Sweatless Ice pack
- Potette portable potty seat
- Stroller (this is my favorite umbrella stroller)
- Handheld fan with water mister (bonus)
- Zoo map
- Hand sanitizer
- Patience (haha)
Let me know how your experience was and if you have any tips you think would be useful for other parents!
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