December is the perfect time to visit Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. Seriously. Add all my reasons for visiting the zoo when it’s cold out with the enchantment of the holidays, and you can see why I recommend planning an Omaha zoo visit at Christmas time.
Where is the Omaha zoo?
Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium (AKA Omaha’s zoo) is located at 3701 S. 10th St. It’s located just off Interstate 80 and about a mile south of Omaha’s bustling downtown area called the Old Market.
Plan your visit knowing that in November and December, the zoo is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (except on those holidays mentioned above). Buildings will stay open until 5 p.m.
Omaha’s zoo is open on winter holidays like Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, as well as Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. The zoo is always closed on Christmas Day.
Why go to the zoo during the holidays?
Omaha’s zoo is the state’s most-visited attraction, seeing about 2 million guests each year. The busiest season — by far — is summer. There are plenty of reasons to go to the zoo in the summer, but crowds are not one of them.
So, avoiding crowds is one reason why I love winter at the zoo. The colder weather scares away a lot of people leaving you quite a bit of room to leisurely enjoy each exhibit.
However, there are some events at Christmas that are decidedly going to draw a crowd. I think they’re worth it, though. More on each of those events in a minute.
My other reason to go to the zoo in the winter is possibly unfounded scientifically, but I think the animals are more active in the winter.
Is the zoo in Omaha decorated for Christmas?
No, the zoo doesn’t string lights or put up a lot of holiday decorations. However, you will find event spaces decorated for the holidays, especially for Supper with Santa.
If you want to see something really Christmas-y at the zoo, plan your visit to watch a holiday-themed character dive in the shark tunnel at the aquarium. These special dives are on Dec. 7, 14 and Dec. 21.
On Dec. 7 and 14, you’ll see a variety of characters, including Santa. When we went, we saw an angel, elf and Mrs. Claus. On Dec. 21, you will only see Santa (but isn’t that enough?).
What are some special events during Christmas at Omaha’s zoo?
There are a few annual events at the zoo. These are ticketed events, so you will need to make your purchase in advance, not the day of. These events are likely to sell out.
Supper With Santa
When: Dec. 13-21; Fridays and Saturdays from 6 to 8 p.m.
Where: Lied Jungle and Durham TreeTops Restaurant on Dec. 13 & 14, and Scott Aquarium Conference Center on Dec. 20 & 21.
What: Enjoy a spaghetti dinner, activities, storytime, and of course, pictures with Santa.
Cost: $23, members; $28, non-members; and FREE for children ages 2 and young
Penguins and Pancakes
When: Dec. 26-30; seating times are from 9 to 10:30 a.m. or 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. seating.
Where: Scott Aquarium Conference Center
What: Enjoy pancakes from The Pancake Man, an animal visit from an African penguin and keeper talks, as well as a special penguin plush to take home.
Cost: $20, adult members, and $25, adult non-member; $15, child member (ages 3-11), and $20, child non-member (ages 3-11); and FREE for children ages 2 and younger
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I’ve been a member of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium for nearly a decade, and like many residents of Omaha, I feel like I’ve got every inch of the zoo memorized after visiting countless times. And so, I still am surprised by things there. The zoo updates exhibits, adds exhibits, adds animals and adds programs, so it’s forgivable if you don’t notice all of them. Here are things that you may not know you could do at the zoo:
Eat not-so-typical zoo food
Sure, you can find popcorn, hot dogs and hamburgers at the zoo, but if you want to try something different, head to one of these concession stands:
Tusker Grill: The food includes African favorites. Some of the dishes are perri perri chicken, a beef brai sandwich and boerewors sausage, which is a farmer’s sausage. You can also get sweet potato fries there, and they’re great. (It’s open seasonally). Find the Tusker Grill in the African Grasslands.
Sea Turtle Café – You can add some candy mix-ins with your soft serve ice cream at this cafe. (It’s open year-round).
Camp at the zoo
There are a couple options for camping at the zoo, and all of them sound awesome (if you like camping, that is). The lower price option is called Family Sleeping Bag Safaris, and they range from $45 to $48 per person. With these, depending on the date you choose, you might sleep in the aquarium, African Lodge, or the Wild Kingdom Pavilion. A few require you bring a tent, and for those, you can sleep in the Desert Dome or the Lied Jungle. The Family Sleeping Bag Safaris include zoo admission, an evening snack, breakfast and a visit from one Animal Ambassador.
For something a little fancier, you can also stay overnight at the Safari Tent Camp near the African Grasslands, right by the lion enclosure. This sounds a bit more like glamping, where you’ll get a tent with cots, a rug, night stand, lantern and an electrical outlet. For Family Safaris, the cost is $100 per person (two-person minimum and a five-person maximum in the tent). Included with that cost is zoo admission, educational programming, snack, breakfast, a morning hike, and a visit from Animal Ambassadors.
There are requirements for each of these camps. For most, if you bring a child, he/she must be at least 4 years old. If you bring many children, you need one adult per 10 youth. And some camps
Camp with no kids around
I bet a few of you like the sound of this (I know I do). Similar to the Family Safaris above, it offers all the programming, animals, hike and such, but one-ups it by adding a gourmet dinner, drinks, and an additional hike. It also costs more ($120 per person). And you have to be 21 or older.
There’s also a Photography Safari for those 18 or older. Camps for adults are held a few times a year so check the zoo’s website for details.
Be a keeper for a day
Learn how to take care the zoo’s animal ambassadors in the Animal Programs Keeper experience. You’ll work side-by-side with keepers in the Wild Kingdom Pavilion. These happen only on select days of the month. Kids under the age of 17 will need to be accompanied by an adult.
Workout at the zoo
Yoga sessions take place in the aquarium on select Saturdays and Sundays in the morning. The cost includes an hour of yoga and admission to the zoo. Participants must be 16 years old or older.
Each September, there’s a fun run in the zoo. This one’s open to all ages. Watch out, though, there are more hills than you think.
One of the oddest experiences is feeding a giraffe; though, it’s second only to feeding a stingray. You can do both at the zoo each summer (for an added fee, of course). Giraffe feedings are $3 and happen on the weekends, weather permitting.
Admission to Stingray Bay is $3 for members and $4 for non-members; feeding cups are $1.50 and they limit the quantities daily. Keep in mind that you will have to pay admission into Stingray Beach AND pay for a feeding cup. You don’t have to feed stingrays if you don’t want to.
Other food experiences include feeding a budgie (parakeet) in the Children’s Adventure Trail area. It’s only $1 a stick. The feedings are on the weekends, weather permitting.
Have a beer at the zoo
Little known fact, alcohol is available for purchase at the zoo. Beer is available at the Durham TreeTops Restaurant (and you can’t take it out of the building). Some special events also have alcohol available for purchase.
Watch monkeys while you eat
Durham TreeTops Restaurant is the restaurant to go to if you want to eat with a view of the indoor rainforest. Stalk the tables near the windows for the best views.
Go behind the scenes
The zoo has a program called Backstage Pass. My son was gifted a chance to go on the Octopus Backstage Pass, where he got to meet a keeper and go behind-the-scenes at the aquarium.
Other options include an aquarium general one where you can watch a feeding of sharks, Kingdoms of the Night, and a Lied Jungle experience. These happen only on select days and are limited to a small group. Kids under the age of 17 will need to be accompanied by an adult.
Catch the bats at their most active moments
Love bats? You’ll want to head to the Lied Jungle at the end of the day to see them when they’re most active (aim for 4 p.m. or later). Me? I don’t personally like having bajillion* or so bats flying even remotely close to me, but my kids love it.
*My estimate may not be exact
Walk around lemurs
Back in my newspaper days, many years ago, I attended the grand opening of Lemur Walkway (located in front of the Expedition Madagascar exhibit). At that time, the lemurs were pretty curious creatures, and they got pretty close to us.
The walkway is one to definitely visit, but I’ve yet to see the lemurs get very close to people since that first day. Keep your expectations in check for this one.
Ride the rides all day long
If you wanted to, there’s the option of having unlimited rides all day long at the zoo, seasonally. This is for unlimited rides on train, tram, Sue’s Carousel and Skyfari.
Tons of animal encounters
You probably knew the zoo had animal encounters each day, but did you realize how MANY they had?
Here’s what I’ve come across:
Touch Tank Open, Scott Aquarium African Animal Discovery, Kopje Outcropping – African Grasslands Antarctic Penguin Feeding, Scott Aquarium Elephant Enrichment (Memorial Day – Labor Day), Lower Elephant Yard – African Grasslands Sea Lion Training (Excluding Wednesdays), Sea Lion Pool Shark Feeding (Wednesdays and Saturdays), Scott Aquarium Animal Discoveries, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Pavilion Meet a Reptile Keeper (Saturday – Sunday) Orangutan Enrichment (Memorial Day – Labor Day), Hubbard Orangutan Forest Lion Training (Memorial Day – Labor Day) Lion Viewing – African Grasslands All animal encounters are weather and staff-dependent. Check the website for specific times.
Asian Highlands is opening in two phases, so with Phase I, you will encounter only a handful of animals that will be a part of the complete exhibit (which is slated to open in spring 2019).
You’ll see two red pandas named Tofu and Wasabi, as well as white-naped cranes, two Indian rhinos, tufted deer and Pere David’s deer.
They’re well adapted to live in cold environments so this will be a year-round exhibit.
Part of the charm of Asian Highlands is the story line that is incorporated into the exhibit, one where guests feel like they’re on an immersive journey through Northern India and the Himalayan Mountains.
Tip: The train passes by Asian Highlands, giving passengers a peek at what’s open in the Asian Highlands, as well as the areas that are under construction.
The entryway, a replica of a temple ruin, is a nice to touch to it all.
What else should you know? First, there are no restrooms in the exhibit nor food service (yet). Those are to come in 2019.
Also, this exhibit isn’t quite complete, because it’s rolling out in phases. So if you visit now, expect the trail to be a short out-and-back. There are barricades blocking entry into the areas under construction. But, what’s to come is going to be worth the wait!
What’s coming to Asia Highlands in 2019
I’m especially looking forward to Phase II of Asian Highlands, which should open in the spring of 2019. The expected animals that will be included in Phase II will be sloth bears, tigers, snow leopards, takin and Chinese goral. I think all families are going to love the Kid’s Discovery Trail, which was described to me as a place with rocks to climb and misters to cool people off.
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I had a sneak peek at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium’s newest addition: The African Grasslands. It opens to the public this weekend.
This area of the zoo is huge – it’s 28 acres and is by far the largest project ever undertaken there. This is just the opening of Phase I and there’s more to it than I had expected. You won’t recognize the area that once housed the rhinos.
What’s about to open in the African Grasslands
African Grasslands include major exhibits for elephants, giraffes, white rhinos, cheetahs and impala, as well as a children’s African pygmy goat petting area, mixed-species habitats, animal wading pools and interactive demonstration areas.
There’s a whole new area with smaller species native to Africa located between the Skyfari and where the giraffes and ostriches will soon roam. Here, you’ll likely find an animal encounter (like the snake, Lucille, that I met above).
The pygmy goat area is going to open. Your kids may recognize the goats – they were once part of the Red Barn exhibit.
The surprise, for me at least, is that the lion training center is almost completed, and lions are expected to move in by this weekend.
Here, zoo visitors will be able to watch training up-close. There is a Pride Rock-esque area in the exhibit that will be heated. I heard the lions don’t mind the winters here and that heated rock will likely attract no matter the weather.
The lion area also has an area designated for games, where children can learn some traditional African games.
What’s opened already
If you’ve visited in the last few months, you’ve likely seen some exhibit areas that were already, including the Giraffe Herd House and Elephant Family Quarters. The elephants can be spotted outdoors now.
The African Lodge is also already open with indoor and outdoor seating. Tusker Grill sells concessions including some African entrees.
The lagoon that had the koi and monkeys has been refilled, and now there is a new bridge on the south end of it. The monkeys are back, but now you’ll also find some pelicans and a flock of geese.
The new Pelican Lake Bridge with a view of the south end of African Grasslands.
Called Pelican Lake Bridge, it takes you to the east in of African Grasslands where you’ll encounter bongos and lions, hopefully, starting this weekend. There’s a display of one of the crates the elephants were shipped in as well as a helicopter.
This area is unrecognizable from what it once was – and it’s a great thing!
What’s to come
The giraffe feeding area looks like it’s nearing completion, but I don’t know the date when visitors can take part in this animal encounter (for an additional fee).
Phase II, projected to open in 2017, will showcase Africa’s top predators and their prey near the Skyfari terminal and a safari tent camp for those who want to try out an overnight stay at the zoo.
You need more than a day to fully explore the Omaha Zoo, whether it’s your first visit or your 100th. To make the most of your time, follow the advice of some zoo experts: Locals. I recruited Omaha and regional bloggers to join me in sharing the best tips with you, including the best time to visit the Omaha zoo!
This post was first written in 2016 and has been updated in October 2019 to include tips for new areas at the zoo (the second phase of Asian Highlands and Glacier Bay Landing) as well as a new event.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, if you make a purchase after clicking an affiliate link, bloggers like me receive a small payment.
When to visit Omaha’s zoo
“We love going a few hours before closing because a lot of families have left for the day, especially if we are going on a Saturday where it will likely be busy!” Kitty B., Kitty and Kevin
“Winter is also a great time to visit – less crowds, many indoor exhibits, and sometimes having the aquarium all to yourself!” Julie S., Family Fun in Omaha
“If you are local or nearby, get a season pass and don’t try to do the whole zoo in a day, especially if you have young children. Consider it a walk, take pictures, and go back frequently!” Jen S., Liv Laugh Love
“Fall is great to go with little ones. The other great times to go are either first thing when they open, or two to three hours before they close.” Kelly R. suggested on an Oh My! Omaha Facebook post
My tip: Members, never skip the member days in the summer. Members receive passes for free train rides that are good for more than a month. Hold on to those passes (the train will be crowded that day) and use them on your next visit.
“Take your own bread to feed the fish and ducks…and take your own water bottle.” Bolton C., Bolton Carley’s BS-O-RamaEditor’s note: It’s been pointed out that bread can harm fish and ducks, so it’s better to brings some coins for the fish food machine and feed them the approved food.
My tip: Bring comfy shoes and hats for everyone in the summer. They make great hats with SPF protection, like this toddler one with a chin strap.
Tips for bringing a stroller to the zoo
“If you plan to spend the entire day there, bring a wagon or stroller (or rent one when you get there if you don’t have one). You can easily bring a cooler filled with ice and beverages, sack lunch, snacks, plus anything else you might want need (especially if you need to bring towels or a change of clothes for the splash park) and carry it along effortlessly in the wagon. Elevators and extra space outdoors makes it easy to move levels and store when you are going through buildings.” Mary J., Living a Sunshine Life
My tip: A wagon or a stroller is essential if you have little ones in your group. If you didn’t bring one, you can rent a single stroller for $9 or a double stroller for $13. Wagons are also available for $13.
What to do at the zoo
“We take a look at the IMAX schedule before we head to the zoo…that way we can plan according to see shows we haven’t seen before.” Kitty Boone, Kitty and Kevin
“Be sure to get a map. There are things like the area where you can feed the birds that you don’t even know exist if you don’t consult the map.” Bolton Carley, Bolton Carley’s BS-O-Rama
“Review the map in advance and agree on what are the ‘must-see’ exhibits.” Kim Schenkelberg, It’s Really 10 Months
“Great places to cool off on the hot summer days are the aquarium, gorilla exhibit, Expedition Madagascar, Wild Kingdom Pavilion, Kingdoms of the Night, the IMAX Theater, and the new splash park!” Julie S., Family Fun in Omaha
“Get to the zoo early and head to the back exhibits. Everyone goes to the desert, jungle, and aquarium right away, and they get crowded quickly.” Jen Schneider, Liv Laugh Love
“If you have littles – consider riding the train, tram and skyfari- it is pricey but it helps give their little legs a rest if you are trying to do the entire zoo in one day.” Kim Schenkelberg, It’s Really 10 Months
“I buy train tickets early in the day, even if we aren’t going to ride it for awhile, as the lines at the ticket booth get long and slooow by afternoon. My kids have had the splash pad to themselves at 9 AM.” Jill H. shared on the Oh My! Omaha Facebook page
“We go to the right (towards the giraffes) as we start and then are able to use the elevator to get back to the top. Saves some whining from the kiddos when it comes to hiking up the hill.” Christine W. shared on the Oh My! Omaha Facebook page
My tip: The zoo has daily animal enrichment programs where you can see them being fed or receiving interacting with a trainer. Some are cooler than others. Surprisingly, the penguin feeding was kinda dull?
Children’s Adventure Trails
The Omaha zoo opened Children’s Adventure Trails in June 2017.
“Adventure Trails has complimentary SPF 30 sunscreen in the family bathroom. I love the changing tables and sink in the lobby of restroom building so you can change littles without having to wait for family room.” Amanda F. shared on the Oh My! Omaha Facebook discussion on the new exhibit
Asian Highlands is the zoo’s newest exhibit. Phase I opened in May 2018; Phase II opened in May 2019.
My tips: Asian Highlands is more about creating the feeling that you’re exploring the Himalayas and the unique animals found there than showcasing a ton of animals. So, check your expectations at the entrance.
Be on the look out for the sloth bear. It was the most active creature in the exhibit and pretty fun to watch. You’ll also find the a red panda, two Indian rhinos, and a few other interesting species.
There is an amphitheater to watch tiger training.
The Yeti Camp has food, as well as men’s, women’s and family restrooms. While the exhibit itself doesn’t have a ton of shade yet, I found some around the Yeti Camp.
Cool off at the Foggy Forest inside Asian Highlands. The trees of water misters.
The Omaha zoo’s newest food offerings are available at Glacier Bay Landing.
My tip for the Glacier Bay Landing: This is a great dining spot in the zoo because there’s a little playground for kids. The food offerings are a bit different from other kiosks throughout the zoo. It has a few healthy and vegetarian entrees, as well as some unique desserts (particularly the cookie dough options).
“The African Grasslands has a fantastic indoor dining area that is great for the really little kids. There are new highchairs, plenty of room (not many people know about it yet), a great family restroom and eventually views of the animals. Plus, the food is great!” Christi Leupold, Leupold Confidential
“Pack picnic lunches/dinners (you’d think we had kids…but no….we just like picnics!) and always bring water bottles.” Kitty Boone, Kitty and Kevin
My tip: My all-time favorite place to eat at the zoo is the Durham TreeTops Restaurant, where lucky families might snag a table along the wall of windows overlooking the indoor rainforest.
My top outdoor pick is the Tusker Grill at the African Lodge, which also has the best food (it’s the same place as Christi mentioned, but I’ve only sat outside, can’t vouch for inside). As the construction winds down in the African Grasslands, it’s going to offer dining with a view too, but of elephants and zebras.
I wrote a post about healthy zoo at the food – you can read it here.
Saving money at the zoo
“Get a season pass, when you break it down a household pass averages out to only $10/month (that’s easy to budget for next season). Considering you can catch a movie (Imax), view hundreds of animals, feed fish, play on their playground and now visit the new splash park, that’s a bargain for a whole lot of family fun!” Nicole McDonald, Mom Saves Money
“Bring snacks or a lunch to save money.” Jen Schneider, Liv Laugh Love
“If you live in Omaha, check with your company – every place I’ve worked in Omaha over the last 14 years has offered a zoo membership discount.” Liz Perry, LPO Beauty
My tip: Members, don’t forget to show your membership card when making purchases at concessions, the gift shop, rides and admission to Stingray Beach – you can save 5%. That discount may go up to 30% off on Member Appreciation Days.
My second tip: If you have a membership to a different zoo, you may be able to have discounted admission to the Omaha zoo. Members of participating zoos belonging to the Association of Zoos & Aquariums receive 50% off of general admission at the Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.
Call first, though, since zoos in close geographic proximity to each other are notrequired to offer free or discounted admission to each other’s members. Learn more about reciprocal membership benefits.
Special event tips
My tip: The zoo has several special events throughout the year, some are included with admission and some are extra. My family’s favorite is Holiday Happening on Saturdays at Christmas time when scuba divers wear holiday costumes as the clean in the shark tunnel tank.
That event is included with admission and you can expect a crowd.
My second tip: The zoo started a new tradition in 2019: Ghouls & Glow, an evening event held on Thursdays through Sundays during the Halloween season. I recommend bringing glow necklaces to easily spot members of your group since it can get very dark when walking around the zoo.
I also recommend avoiding the Foam Zone until the end of the evening; otherwise you’ll be walking around with wet kids for a few hours.
Nursing babies at the zoo
My tip: There are two areas suitable for nursing your baby with a little privacy. You’ll find both near the North entrance. Children’s Adventure Trails has an indoor family center with family restrooms, nursing rooms, and changing tables. It’s very comfortable!
The new Glacier Bay Landing food area has an outdoor nursing area. It’s fairly private with a fence around it and shaded by umbrellas. There are wooden rocking chairs for a little bit of comfort.
More smart Omaha zoo tips
“Take 10th Street in to get to the North Entrance instead of waiting in line at the interstate exit for 20 minutes (or longer).” Shared by Megan S. on Twitter. This is my go-to strategy, too.
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The best time to visit Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium is in the winter.
Do you really enjoy trudging through the zoo on a 96-degree day in the summer, melting as you carry one of your kids (usually the one with who sweats the most), battling a crowd of people to catch a momentary glimpse of an animal before moving on to the next exhibit to catch an even briefer peek at an animal?
No, but you have to do it because your kids love the zoo no matter the season.
Why visit the zoo in the winter?
I love the Omaha zoo in the winter because fewer people want to visit it right now. So, right off the bat: Better parking and no crowds blocking the view.
Those who bundle up are rewarded with a great zoo experience. It’s peaceful in the off-season and the animals are more active.
The best part? The zoo has a lot of indoor exhibits near each other and near the entrance!
Ready to plan a winter visit? Here are five things to see and do if you visit Omaha’s zoo in the winter.
Head for the rainforest
An obvious stop is the Lied Rainforest, the largest indoor rainforest in North America. Pretend you’re somewhere else on a jungle adventure with the kids, especially when you walk through the lower level.
When you’re there in the winter, you notice things, too – like the free-flying bats. Moving on.
Tip: There’s a coat rack near the entrance to the restaurant that’s connected to the rain forest. Ditch your heavy coats there before entering the jungle.
While you’re at the Desert Dome, you’d better visit the lower level and see all the creatures of the night. It’s extra fun (and mysterious) to explore this exhibit when it feels like your family is the only one down there.
Part of the exhibit feels like (and looks like) you’re walking through caves. Another area is modeled after a bayou.
Don’t skip the aquarium
Sing with me now, “Under the sea/ Under the sea/ Darling it’s better/ Down where it’s wetter/ Take it from me.”
Anyway, now that that song is in your head, let’s talk about why I love, love, love the aquarium in the winter. It’s surreal to walk through there without a horde of people.
You hear the New Age-y music piped overhead mixed with sounds of the ocean. And your kids don’t have to fight with 20 others to play on the interactive water projection mat or wait their turn to sit in the bubble by the penguins.
Brave the trek to Madagascar
It’s a bit more of a trek than the other indoor exhibits mentioned above, but the Madagascar building is full of exotic animals to check out. Since it’s a further walk than the others, you can bet fewer people will be there.
More things to do indoors at Omaha’s zoo
There are a lot of exhibits open in the winter that I didn’t mention and they’re well worth checking out if you want to make the most of your visit.
A few you can tack on to your visit:
-If you’re sticking close to the main entrance, you can check out the Mutual of Omaha Pavilion
-The butterfly pavilion is an option and it’s near the aquarium. In the past, it didn’t have as many butterflies fluttering about in the winter as it typically does other times of the year.
– There’s also the gorilla building. It’s a bit of a trek, but if you’re headed to the Madagascar building, you could make a stop there. Personally, it was always a little too cold for my liking.
The zoo also has an IMAX movie theater. If you have a zoo membership, it’s FREE to see a movie there!