We were fortunate to grow up in Miami during the 1980s and have one of the most beautiful zoos in Florida. The backdrop to many Saturday family outings and summer camps was the Metro Zoo, now ZooMiami. It was a wonderful experience to see a zoo that is at the forefront of animal welfare and husbandry. Metro Zoo was the first zoo in the country to embrace open enclosures and move away from caged animals.
This ideology has been incorporated into zoos for thirty years. We, the paying public, have a responsibility to support Florida zoos that place animal welfare and conservation at the forefront. As such, we should also strive to educate our children and ourselves about the animals we share this planet with.
Why are Florida Zoos Important and Unique?
Many zoos used to exploit animals and kept them in small cages. These zoos were small and kept animals in tiny cages. This meant that they lived in miserable conditions and did not provide the best possible care. Although some people oppose zoos, they believe they should be abandoned like the circus, today’s Zoos are important in education and conservation.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums claims that modern-day zoos have high standards in education, research and animal welfare. Why Zoos and Aquariums Are Beneficial states that AZA and its members have spent more than $230million on field conservation work in 127 nations in 2019. Dr. James Borell, who is a conservation scientist, says that zoos can play an important role in animal conservation, by reintroducing endangered species to the wild, creating “insurance” populations, and acting as living museums.
We now know why zoos matter. But why is Florida’s zoo so important? Florida’s unique climate means that zoos in Florida are uniquely equipped for providing the sub-tropical and tropical climates many animals need. This means that you may see animals in these facilities that you won’t find at other American zoos.
Florida has many animal facilities and zoological parks. These ten are the best due to their outstanding animal welfare record and history of education as well as top-notch facilities. Consider adding a Florida Zoo to your next trip to the Sunshine State.
ZooTampa in Lowry Park
- Size: 56 Acres
- Parents Magazine named the Best Zoo for Children as a Special Recognition
My first visit to ZooTampa was disappointing. In years I hadn’t been to a zoo for at least 15 years. It was my birthday, so I went out alone. ZooTampa was the year I chose. It was so small that I managed to complete it in 2 hours. As I was leaving the facility, my thoughts immediately turned to ZooMiami’s vast exhibits. We’ve been back several times since then and have fallen in love with the Florida Zoo more and more.
Although the zoo has animals from Australia, Asia and Africa, it is the Florida wing that shines. The zoo aims to educate people about Florida’s endemic animals and plants. This facility is also a top choice for rehabilitation of Florida wildlife. ZooTampa is a must-see next time you visit Tampa. Find out more and book ZooTampa tickets.
- Size: 740 acres total, 346 acres developed
- Special recognition: USA Today’s 10Best Readers Selection Best Zoos (2018)
ZooMiami is a place that holds a special place for me and my family. The Florida zoo is the largest in Florida and the only one in the United States that’s sub-tropical. This facility is a landmark because it can house animals that thrive in subtropical and tropical climates. ZooMiami has over 9,000 species, which are used to beautify and create natural habitats. ZooMiami is also one of the largest botanical gardens in Florida. Although many tourists head to the Wynwood Walls or beaches when they visit Miami, this zoo is worth a stop on any budget-friendly trip. Learn more and get your ZooMiami tickets now.
- Size: 50 acres
- Location: Melbourne
- Special recognition: USA Today’s 10Best Readers Choice Top Zoos (2021).
Brevard Zoo, one of the most small zoos located in Florida is also the largest community-built Zoo. This facility was built by more than 16,000 volunteers who donated their time and talent. This zoo, like many others in Florida, has a special exhibit dedicated to Florida wildlife. Treetop Trek, which is a zip line high above the trees canopy, kayaking through Africa’s Africa exhibit, Florida’s only zoo where you can kayak, Paws On, which offers shallow water splash areas for children, and the Sea Turtle Healing Center are some other unique features of the zoo. Get tickets to Brevard Zoo or learn more about Brevard Zoo.
- Size: 110 acres
- Location: Jacksonville
- Special Recognition: 2017 AZA Significant Achievement In Diversity Award Winner, 2020 AZA Award for Innovation, 2015 AZA Award for Innovation, 2015 AZA Award for Exhibit, 2018 AZA William Conway International Conservation Award
The Jacksonville Zoo is unique because it overlooks the river and offers stunning riverside gardens as well as beautiful themed loops. To see the animals that we all love, visit the Asia and Africa loops. Take a break and enjoy the view from the riverfront. Wander through the gardens. Wild Florida offers information about Florida’s ecosystems and animals. Jacksonville Zoo, like many other Florida zoos, also has a manatee care center. The zoo also has beautiful animals. But that’s not all! The zoo has several permanent art collections. Temporary collections, like sculptures, highlight conservation efforts and the human-animal relationship. It is often cited as the top zoo of Florida and one of Jacksonville’s best attractions. Find out more information and book tickets for Jacksonville Zoo.
Central Florida Zoo
- Size: 116 Acres
- Special Recognition: AZA Volunteer Engagement Award, 2020 AZA Significant Achievement in Research Award
This Florida zoo has so much more than just zoo stuff. You can enjoy zip lines, obstacle courses, night hikes and family sunset pricing, as well as the botanical gardens that are scattered throughout the zoo. There are animals, too. The Central Florida Zoo was established in 1975 in the current location. It occupies 106 acres of protected wetlands near Lake Monroe. Jack Hanna is its director. The zoo has grown in size and added exhibits. The reptiles, birds and Florida animals are some of the most popular attractions. This zoo is most popular with families, but it also attracts an adult-only crowd through its Sunset at the Zoo events that are held on Friday nights to kick off the weekend. Get more information and your tickets to Central Florida Zoo here.
Palm Beach Zoo
- Size: 23 acres
- West Palm Beach
- AZA North America Conservation Award 2018 – Special Recognition
Palm Beach Zoo is one of the most small zoos. It is easy to navigate the entire zoo by following a well-planned layout. You won’t have to go backtracking or pass through sections twice. The main sections are Tropics of The Americas, Asia and The Islands. Each section has unique animals that have attracted visitors since 1969. These include white alligators and Chilean Flamingos. Palm Beach Zoo is small and intimate, but it offers a unique experience that lasts two to three hours. Find out more and book your tickets to the zoo here.
- Size: 43 acres
- Locality: Naples
- Special Recognition: 2016 AZA Wildlife Emergency Response Award
Naples Zoo was established in 1919 as a private botanical gardens. It was created by Dr. Henry Nehrling to protect and house his rare plants collection. In 1969, the gardens opened their doors to the public as Caribbean Gardens. It is approximately 1 mile long and has many exhibits. Alligator Bay and Primate Expedition are favorites. This last exhibit features primates that live on islands in the lake. You can only see them by taking the primate expedition cruise. Find out more and book tickets to Naples Zoo.
Lion Country Safari
- Size: 600 acres
- Special recognition: USA Today’s 10Best Readers Choice Best Wilderness Parks (2021).
Lion Country Safari is often ranked as one of the top zoos, and was even voted the 3rd best in America by USA Travel Guide 2009. This Florida zoo has four miles of driveable exhibits. Visitors arrive in the park with their own vehicle and follow the safari road slowly. The park allows most animals to roam free, but they do keep the lions or chimps away from cars for safety. Lion Country Safari is also a place for chimpanzees that have been used in entertainment or research.
After touring the zoo visitors will enter Safari World, a 33-acre amusement park. Safari World offers a small water park with water slides, giraffe-feeding, mini golf, and paddleboats. This is the place to go if you are looking for a unique experience at a Florida zoo. Learn more and book your tickets for Lion Country Safari.
- Size: 580 acres
- Bay Lake
- Special recognition: 2014 AZA Edward H. Bean Award
Disney’s Animal Kingdom is most well-known as a theme park. It’s actually the largest theme park worldwide. It’s also an accredited park by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. They are committed to animal welfare and conservation, which is why they do things differently than other Disney parks. There are no fireworks shows, and all attractions take into consideration how these attractions will impact animals nearby.
Animal Kingdom is a popular attraction with guests. However, it has been subject to a lot of controversy. In Defense of Animals ranked it as the 10th most dangerous zoo to keep elephants in 2014. PETA and several Florida-based organizations have expressed concerns about the park since its opening in 1998. Animal Kingdom, on the other hand, was the first zoo in Uganda to successfully reintroduce the endangered white rhino to Uganda in 2006. Two white rhinos from the park, one of which was born in the park, were taken to the Ziwa animal sanctuary in Uganda. One of the white rhinos had his first child in Uganda in 25 years in 2009. Find out more about Animal Kingdom.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
- Size: 335 acres
- Special Recognition: No zoo awards; top amusement park.
Busch Gardens, like Animal Kingdom is best known for its theme park. It is also home to some of Florida’s most dangerous roller coasters. It is the largest zoo located in Tampa. It was originally established in 1959 as both a brewery and botanical garden. Although the brewery has since closed, and the roller coaster still operates there, the botanical gardens are an integral part Busch Gardens. They are a beautiful natural decoration throughout the park and one of the most photographed attractions at the park.
Busch Gardens Tampa has four sections dedicated to animals. The oldest section is Serengeti Plains. This habitat, which is free to roam, was opened in 1965 and it is the first in the United States. The Serengeti Express and Skyride can take guests to the park to see the Serengeti Plain. Bird Gardens features a large part of the original gardens as well as a free flying aviary. The Animal Care Center allows visitors to see the animals being taken care of, while the Edge of Africa exhibit lets them walk through several habitats. Find out more and book your tickets.
Final Thoughts about the Best Zoos of Florida
Visitors and residents of Florida have the opportunity to visit zoos that offer a wide range of exotic species, as well as native species. ZooMiami’s unique climate permits them to display tropical and subtropical animals and plants, as well as participate in conservation efforts. The best Florida zoos place animal welfare, education and conservation at their forefront, just like great zoos around the world, including those in Europe and North America.
These Florida zoos are a must-see for anyone planning a Florida vacation. This article can be saved to your Florida vacation planning board. Are you familiar with these zoos or have you visited them? We’d love to hear from you!