By Alison Bailin Batz
Despite being a desert, Arizona has some of the most unique ways to interact with animals around the world – no matter what age you are. Here are some not to be missed:
Though founded less than a decade ago, this 160-acre park just over two hours north of the Valley allows visitors to drive their own cars through more than 3 miles of Ponderosa Pine Forest. During the drive, guests can view North American animals in natural habitats up close and personal. But, the fun doesn’t stop there. More animals are exhibited in Fort Bearizona, a beautiful 20- acre walking area, which also provides snacks and drinks. Tickets are reasonable, ranging in price from $11 for a child to $120 for an entire carload of people, which can hold in excess of 10 people. Insider tip: go when there are baby bears!
Bearizona, 1500 W. Historic Route 66, Williams, bearizona.com.
OdySea – the largest aquarium in the Southwest – features more than 65 exhibits, 500 species and over 30,000 animals. Taking advantage of one or more of its enhanced park tickets, however, makes the 200,000-square-foot space feel intimate. There are three VIP experiences: SeaTREK underwater walking, a charismatic Penguin Interaction Program and a general behind-the-scenes tour. The penguin program ($49.95 plus cost of admission) is unlike most enhanced experiences at any other aquarium in the country, bringing a small group of guests into the actual enclosure to play with the penguins, as well as teaching participants about their life cycle, favorite foods and even dating rituals (it’s like an episode of the Bachelorette when there is a single lady penguin on the market!). The tour also allows for ample photos, all taken by their professional photographer.
OdySea Aquarium, 9500 E. Via de Ventura, Scottsdale, odyseaaquarium.com.
Out of Africa
Just an over an hour north of the Valley, Out of Africa is a wildlife park and preserve featuring animals from across the globe from rhinos and bears to snakes and lions. The park is set up so the animals – many of them rescued from homes or from abuse – can live much like they would in the wild. There are several tour options, ranging from bus tours to more authentic safari options, but noting is as spectacular as the VIP behind-the-scenes option ($175). This three-hour experience is limited to small groups who reserve in advance and takes guests deep into its Serengeti to learn about the animals on a deeper level as well as interact with them. You even get to walk into some of the (noncarnivorous) enclosures before enjoying a private, shaded lunch surrounded by snakes and reptiles – all available for holding and touching – and getting reserved seating for some of the day’s main stage shows. You also get to feed a tiger.
Out of Africa, 3505 W. State Route 260, Camp Verde, outofafricapark.com.
The granddaddy of all the animal sanctuaries and research centers in Arizona, the Phoenix Zoo is the largest privately owned, nonprofit zoo in the country. Taking advantage of the Backstage Adventures Tour ($99) is a must to help determine the high points of the park and to get a little one-on-one time with animals and their keepers. The tour is one hour and gives an insider’s glimpse into several of the animal habitats directly with zookeepers. While the animals you will see vary by day, there are opportunities to get up close and personal with elephants, reptiles, African Painted Dogs and even cheetahs. For those looking for something an even more lux, consider the Premium Adventure Tour ($300), a 90-minute fully customizable experience for your group.
Phoenix Zoo, 455 N. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix, phoenixzoo.org.
Wildlife World Zoo
Wildlife World Zoo boasts more than 600 species, including a rare white alligator, between its zoo and on-site aquarium, Safari Park and Adventureland. In addition to seeing so many animals up close, there are rides for the entire family throughout the park, including a wet and wild flume ride, a carousel and even a sky ride across the park. Start looking into its Safari Camp for 2019 now, as it takes place each summer and almost always sells out early ($500 per child).
Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium and Safari Park, 16501 W. Northern Avenue, Litchfield Park, wildlifeworld.com.
For other fun, family-friendly activities, visit our attractions page.