Thousands of wildlife preserves, zoos, aquariums, and nature institutes across the country continually entice visitors with face-to-face encounters, exotic creatures, and one-of-a-kind experiences that can’t be recreated. Most of us will never see some of the world’s most amazing animals in the wild, so the chance to see them up close anywhere is pretty incredible. Here are a few of America’s animal attractions that we deem to be absolutely visit-worthy.
Gatorland rests on 110 acres of central Florida land between Orlando and Kissimmee. Thousands of alligators and crocodiles, including the rare “white” alligator, call this wildlife park home, but what makes it so unusual is the Gator Wrestlin’ Show, which features live rookie gator wrestling. After the show, guests can climb on the back of a live gator and pose for a picture. Not many wildlife parks offer the chance to sit on a 700-pound alligator with a snout full of razor-sharp teeth. Maybe that’s why this 66-year-old park has seen so many visitors over the years.
A rare find, Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch is nestled deep in the heart of the midwest plains of Rantoul, Illinois and is home to a herd of authentic Alaskan reindeer. The five-acre property is overrun by a corn maze, paintball, family cook outs, and hay rides. Once the winter months arrive, visitors can browse the property’s 5,000 choose-and-cut Christmas trees and select the perfect one to take home. The ranch is open from the beginning of August to the end of December. Operating hours vary, so be sure to check the Reindeer Ranch site before you visit.
We included New Jersey’s Popcorn Park on this list mostly just because of the name. Its namesake comes from the fact that the park has air popped popcorn available for purchase to feed some of the farm animals and the birds that roam the property. Otherwise, feeding the animals is not allowed. But the 7-acre wildlife park isn’t your typical zoo. It was established in 1977 as a safe haven for more than 200 abandoned, elderly, abused, and injured animals.
The Sea Lion Caves in Florence, Oregon have been in operation for more than 80 years. The land is a privately owned wildlife preserve and bird sanctuary. The cave’s entrance can only be accessed through the gift shop, but once inside, onlookers can view an entire community of Stellar sea lions that consistently gather inside the main chamber. The cavern stands 12-stories high and serves as a full-time home for the sea lions.
People are encouraged to get up close and personal with black bears and more at Bearizona. This Arizona park is located in Williams and allows visitors to remain safely inside their vehicle while venturing through this 2-mile-long drive-thru wildlife park. Bearizona is home to arctic wolves, bighorn sheep, black bears, river otter, and many other species, but guests are absolutely guaranteed black bear sightings each and every visit.
One of the top zoos in the country, the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo offers special behind-the-scenes experiences and a variety of interactive exhibits including the Wildlife Safari Park, Lied Jungle, Hubbard Gorilla Valley, Kingdoms of the Night, and more. The instantly recognizable Desert Dome is a well-known monument in Nebraska and houses the world’s largest indoor desert. This zoo also features family-friendly rides like Sue’s Wildlife Carousel, the Omaha Zoo Railroad, and the Skyfari, a lift that takes visitors high above the wildlife park for a bird’s eye view of the animals.
SeaWorld has been one of the America’s most popular animal attractions since it opened in 1964. Recently, the controversy created by the popular documentary Blackfish, caused a dramatic decline in the park’s revenue and visitors, but the park remains one of the most well-known in the country. With locations in San Antonio, San Diego, and Orlando, the parks feature rides, interactive animal exhibits, marine-themed restaurants, and the popular Shamu show, “One Ocean” starring SeaWorld’s biggest celebrity, Shamu the killer whale.
Home to more than 80 different kinds of animals, the Toledo Zoo was voted one of the Top 10 Zoos in the United States in 2014 by FamilyFun Magazine. This Ohio zoo regularly hosts a variety of community events like its spring garden show, family friendly 5K run/walks, and regular wine tastings. The Toledo Zoo’s remodeled historic aquarium is more than 75 years old and holds 210,000 gallons of fresh and saltwater marine life exhibits.
Monkey Jungle offers a realistic rainforest experience in Miami, Florida, showcasing three different species of monkeys that roam free in the wildlife habitat: Howler Monkeys, Black-Capped Capuchins, and Squirrel Monkeys. This wildlife park also features hundreds of plants from the Amazon and South America.
The North Atlantic waters surrounding the Nantucket Island are full of different species of sharks. During the warm summer months, Nantucket Shark Divers love to take visitors down in professionally built shark cages to get a good look at the sharks up close. With two additional locations in the Bahamas and the Florida Keys, these divers provide guests with several ways to explore the sea including open water dives, shark cage dives, shark viewing from the boat deck, and whale and sea watching.
The Panaewa Rainforest Zoo & Gardens in Hilo, Hawaii is the only natural tropical rainforest zoo in the U.S. and admission is absolutely free. The 12-acre wildlife park features more than 80 different animal species including the Nene, Hawaii’s endangered state bird. Shaded by more than 100 varieties of palm trees and lush exotic plants like orchids, Tropical Rhododendrons, and Clumping Bamboos.
Venture all the way to Alaska where you’ll discover the only public aquarium in the state: the Alaska SeaLife Center. A nonprofit corporation dedicated to research, rehabilitation, and public education, the center provides visitors with year-round programs and interactive exhibits. One of the more popular exhibits features Woody the 2,300-pound sea lion and another favorite is the open touch tank filled with sea urchins, sea stars, and other fascinating underwater creatures. The aquarium is 125 miles south of Anchorage and also houses an assortment of birds including Tufted puffins, Rhinoceros Auklets, and Red-Legged Kittiwakes.
The Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans is really four different attractions in one. The aquarium, zoo, IMAX, and butterfly garden all feature dozens of exhibits and attractions worth a gander. One especially notable opportunity for guests of the aquarium is the underwater scuba diving and snorkeling with aquatic animals of the Great Maya Reef. In addition to all the fun the institute has to offer, the Audubon Park covers more than 300 acres and features a 1.8-mile walking path, horse stables, golf course and clubhouse, and more.
Ever since 1978, the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky, has been educating visitors on the relationship between man and horse for many years now. The horse park is an “educational theme park” and is home to the International Museum of the Horse and the American Saddlebred Museum. The park spans more than 1,000 acres and has housed some of the world’s most celebrated champion horses including John Henry, one of the top U.S. racehorses of the 20th century. Visitors of the Kentucky Horse Park enjoy horse-drawn tours, equine presentations and shows, a narrated trolley tour, horseback riding, and pony rides.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Florida houses the stars of the hit movies Dolphin Tale 1 and 2, Winter and Hope. These two dolphins have a permanent home in the Winter Zone exhibit, which was used as a filming location for Dolphin Tale 2. Winter was found stranded off the coast of Florida and lost her tail. Today, she swims with a prosthetic tail and guests will learn all about her story as well as Hope’s. Other exhibits include Otter Oasis, Turtle Cave, Stingray Beach, and Shipwreck Alley, an underwater viewing tunnel.
Do you have any other animal attractions you’d like to see added to our list? Leave a comment below!