Taking Your Child with Special Needs to the Zoo

Taking Your Child with Special Needs to the Zoo

Spring and summer are the most popular time to go to the zoo due to the great weather and wonderful exhibits that are opened. The zoo can be a fantastic place for families of children with special needs due to the wide-open nature of the sites and the variety availably, not to mention that it’s a more observational opportunity instead of hands-on or overly active. In the interest of helping your family have the most fun and best time possible, we’ve put together a few tips to help you when taking your child with special needs to the zoo.

First, to be clear, every zoo is different. While all zoos would love to make the visitor experience great for everyone, whether through dynamic websites or special accommodations, this may not be feasible. Ultimately, we hope you will take these ideas as inspiration to how you can make taking your child with special needs to the zoo a fun and positive experience. Communication is the ultimate focus of many of these tips – pick up the phone and call if your local zoo is a bit smaller!

Planning for Your Trip to the Zoo

  • Online research. While this may seem odd, take a moment and check out the website of the zoo for more than just their operational hours. Each zoo is different in how it lays out its information but you would genuinely be surprised by the efforts some go to in order to make information about accessibility, special needs accommodations and more available to the public. Most zoos will also have a map of some sorts online, making it easier to plan routes around accessible bathrooms, concessions, exhibits and more.
  • Call regarding more helpful zoo arrangements. Zoos will accommodate families with special needs often when it comes to parking, perhaps making a long walk into a brief drop-off or, even better, parking close to the entrance (and exit!) This can also help when finding out what food options there are to accommodate certain dietary restrictions and more.
  • Find out about non-accessible/difficult to reach areas. While it may be a bummer, you can also find out which attractions aren’t exactly ‘accommodating’ to ensure your child does not get their hopes up or struggle to visit a particular exhibit. Though we wish every option could be afforded to children with special needs, the simple reality that, for instance, a gorilla exhibit requires an uphill trail walk can help you avoid this and spend more time at a more accessible area. The ability to avoid disappointment can be worth the call!
  • Discuss goals/attractions for each person going. Find out which exhibits each family member wants to see and plot your path accordingly! Even if it requires making a list of each person’s ‘wants,’ having this discussion ahead of time can help make sure no one feels left out (especially children without special needs who may face less attention during the visit) and make your route a bit easier to determine. Almost any family, even those without a child with special needs, spend time wandering a section of a zoo, museum, etc., that they do not care about simply because no one speaks up or there was no planning ahead of time (you can spot them easily, they’re the ones not having fun!)
  • Dress for success. Be sure to pack and bring plenty of shade and cool-feeling clothing to prevent your child (and family) from overheating. Even as a zoo can be wide open and, as a result, accommodating, it also can have limited shade. As a result, your child may get hot quickly. Be sure to check the weather ahead of time so that you can plan for breaks and be prepared. Also be aware you may want to bring a sweater or blanket for your child if you plan on spending time in a special exhibit (penguins, fish, etc.) The wildly changing temperatures that can exist in different parts of the zoo can pose a challenge; having a plan is your best option for success.
  • Pack accordingly. Cooling pads and the like can be a great assist, tucked into your child’s wheelchair or applied to the back of their neck as the day wears on. Hand-held fans, visors/hats, sunglasses, suntan lotion and more – you can always leave what you don’t need in the trunk while you enjoy a less stressful visit to the zoo!
  • Read up! One great way to get your child excited about the upcoming trip is to visit the library or watch shows associated with the animals featured at the zoo. This is a great way to give your child a ‘job’ at the zoo (sharing facts he or she learned before your visit), as well as to extend the overall happiness built into the visit. Zoo websites will often have a list of all of the animals they have to offer and it may be a ‘fun’ assignment to give your child to learn more about an animal they are not familiar with. Even if it’s just during the drive to the zoo, your child will feel a sense of confidence knowing more than everyone else about the animals at the zoo and provides a good activity outside the norm for the days (maybe weeks) leading up. It can also serve as a bit of prep for the upcoming school year to get your child in a mindset of learning.
  • Find out about zoo rules. Some zoos will accommodate guests by allowing coolers of water to be brought in, saving you money and making staying hydrated easier. When you reach out to the zoo as noted above, find out if they have any particular security or safety rules regarding bringing specific foods or dietary items your child may require.
  • What do they have? The zoo may have specialized equipment, including wheelchairs and strollers, that remove the need to pack up your own and putting stress into your visit. Find out what the zoo has to offer when it comes to these items and more to decide if you would rather rent (or use for free) a comparable option provided by them!
  • Bring a cell phone battery pack. Between taking pictures, making calls, traveling and more, it can be easy for a phone to run out of battery. If you are using a zoo’s interactive app, your cell phone battery can quickly run out of juice and create problems for your visit, as well as the drive back. This tip applies for any family visiting the zoo but we hope serves as a helpful reminder so that all segments of your visit go well!
  • Set a deadline. Figure out just how much time you plan to spend at the zoo and then tell the kids half an hour earlier. Doing this can make any additional time feel like a win for them while preventing your family from going into the experience arbitrarily. This helps with coordinating and planning, as well as avoiding “I don’t want to leave” drama!

Making the Most of Your Trip to the Zoo

  • Introduce yourself! Go to guest services, explain your child’s special needs and ask any questions you might have about specific exhibits or options. Doing so can help in avoiding time-consuming delays while also revealing unique options afforded to children with special needs. Whether it’s a ‘fast pass’ or an option to see the animals a bit closer, you won’t know until you speak with the zoo’s customer service team.
  • Explore your options. In the same vein as speaking with guest services about your child’s needs, also be sure to explore what options they have beyond shorter lines or wheelchair/stroller assistance. Some zoos may have assistive technology like headsets or apps that can enhance your child (and family’s) experience.
  • Keep an eye on the clock. Children in general often fail to report problems until they have progressed too far; dehydration is a condition that only emerges after it has set in. Based upon the weather, keep an eye on how long you have been out in the sun in order to build in breaks. This can not only help your child and family stay hydrated, it can make bathroom stops and boutique shopping part of the plan rather than an extension of your visit. What’s more, you may be able to spend more time in one area knowing you will have plenty of time in a more cool, chilly area (think penguins!) later on. As your child’s primary caregiver, you know best when to cut things short. However, in the heat (literally) of things, it may be easy to lose track.
  • Read the guides. Taking time to stop and read the helpful information placards outside each exhibit not only helps in setting a rhythm for your visit, it also makes your child engage with each stop. Whether your child can read the information independently or you read it to them, this helps encourage education while also creating pace in your trip. Far too often, families find themselves running from stop to stop, which can create exhaustion and burn through your options.
  • Ask for help. Beyond the introduction to guest staff/customer service, parents of children with special needs should not feel hesitant to ask passersby to help take a picture or the like. Too many families miss out on capturing amazing moments because they don’t want to bother a stranger; the world is full of advocates and kind people – be willing to ask because, ultimately, this is your fun moment!
  • Know your limits (and your child’s). You will be appreciate more going home half an hour early than you will the added time at the zoo. Your child may put up a fight on leaving ‘early’ but this is much better than the alternative(s).

After Your Trip to the Zoo

  • Determine what worked and what did not. Having a family discussion about what each person liked and did not like isn’t intended to temper down positive emotions but, instead, learn insight on how family experiences can be improved. You not only can learn what to focus on next time you go to the zoo, you may also learn how to better improve experiences at other destinations. Even within a routine visit to a place like the zoo, you can compile valuable ‘data’ that works: did your child speak up when they were hot? Did you find an outfit that ‘worked’ in keeping your child cool? Was there something that posed a challenge that you can avoid down the road? Even though likely know how long  your child can go without a snack, there should be some unique elements in your zoo visit that you can build on top of to make the next visit even better (even if it’s things you should do the exact same!)
  • Share your experience. When destinations go the extra mile to help, it’s important to share that experience. Whether it’s on your own social media profiles or the Page of a zoo’s Facebook, Yelp, etc., it’s important to speak up. Doing so can not only help other parents doing their research, it can also provide critical feedback on how these services are gaining the zoo loyalty. In the event of a problem, try to limit your reaction to productive lines of communication. You should not have to deal with poor treatment but social media managers may simply dismiss a complaint that is presented angrily rather than working with you and your family to document and resolve the problem for next time. Speaking with the zoo directly via email or phone is effective also; some locations may not have an active social media presence but still appreciate the direct feedback on your experience! Side Note: When you have praise, be sure to share the (first) names of the helpful staff members. The special needs community needs more advocates in the world and employees being rewarded for being helpful encourages similar behavior from co-workers, as well as helping that team member understand the difference they made in your visit!  It can also help another family learn whom to ask for at guest services, for instance, and build a positive reputation around team members that are making the difference for children like yours.
  • Nurture interest. If your child enjoyed a specific exhibit, you now have a blueprint for a lot of fun! Whether it’s finding nature movies and books that highlight a particular animal or finding toys that are a good fit, there are a ton of options around animals that can be valuable for holidays, special events and more. You can also use your visit to ‘assign’ your child to do a recap of their visit to get a bit of school into their life, as well as challenge their skills at communication in an organic way.
  • Start planning your next visit! If the visit was a big hit, find out how much membership costs. Whether this can be reserved as a gift request around the holidays or to make the zoo a part of your future planning, a membership can save you money while creating scheduled family time! What’s more, given the fact far too many family destinations do not have accommodations for children with special needs, finding a great place that stimulates your child can be worth its weight in gold! Some zoos may even have discounts or unique options for families of children with special needs, including after-hours events, so it doesn’t hurt to look into. What’s more, it rewards the zoo for their focus on making your zoo visit accessible, fun and special needs-friendly!

With each of these tips, there is going to be some obvious adjustments needed around your child’s unique needs. We don’t mean to present this as an all-inclusive, definitive guide but, instead, to help inspire thoughts and ideas you may not have considered. Ultimately, our goal is that your child has an amazing time at the zoo, not only learning more about the animals but also having a fun, INCLUSIVE bonding experience with the family.

The zoo isn’t the only place to have fun in the summer, but it sure can make for a wild time. What zoos have you visited that were especially accommodating to your child’s special needs? Have you had an experience at a zoo that made you keep coming back… or never return? Let us know in the Forum!