When the Jacksonville Zoo first opened in 1914, it had only one attraction––a red fawn. Today, nearly a century later, it’s home to more than 2,000 rare and exotic animals and 1,000 plant species, and welcomes an ever-changing lineup of visiting exhibits. Guests stroll along the boardwalk in a large, open environment called the Plains of East Africa, where cheetah, antelope, and warthogs roam in environs that simulate their native habitat. The African loop also includes Elephant Plaza, where elephants stir up tidal waves playing marco polo in a 275,000-gallon pool. Visitors can also pet and feed stingrays, stand eye-to-eye with a giraffe, and head to the award-winning Range of the Jaguar exhibit to roam a replica of an abandoned Mayan temple. During summer months, kids get wet at the Play Park and Splash Ground, where they can climb into a treehouse or peer through an underwater window to see penguins swimming overhead.
After guests explore the wildlife, rest and relaxation await within botanical gardens such as the Asian Bamboo garden, where patrons cross a traditional moon gate to see a tranquil waterfall, komodo dragons, and an interactive bamboo mist forest. The zoo also features a carousel, train rides, and several restaurants where humans can tap into their own wild instincts by hunting their natural prey—the sandwich.
Two tails ranch shelters and cares for exotic animals across 20 acres of natural expanse, bolstered by the educational and awareness efforts of its nonprofit organization, All About Elephants. For more than 25 years, owner Patricia Zerbini has kept more than 100 elephants and exotic cats in her animal haven, where she trains, breeds, and provides medical care for these majestic creatures, in addition to building a comfortable place for them to retire from stressful careers as circus performers and stock traders. During tours, wildlife enthusiasts can gaze at giant elephants as they lumber throughout free-style enclosures and gain awareness as experts educate them about the plight of elephants in the modern world. The ranch also houses a variety of other domestic and exotic animals, along with a collection of fossils, artifacts, and elephant memorabilia, such as 500,000-hour audio books detailing each animal's memories.
The Central Florida Zoo swings open creaking gates to intrepid adults for a spooky evening of dancing, dining, and revelry. Ghouls and guests over 21 years of age can swill $1 beer and $2 wine and mixed drinks while nibbling on a selection of bizarre foods. Participants don disguises to compete in the costume contest, challenge partners to a selection of carnival games, or scream soprano arias on haunted train rides. Live bands and Venue 13 DJ Paul Vaine send music echoing through the zoo, to which guests jig at a zombie ball. Guests recall their fright night with a skull mug and skeleton-hand shot glass to take home as well as with a picture from the photo booth that captures both grins and ghosts giving bunny ears.
The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1949, and currently plays at the 1,800 seat Robert E. Jacoby Symphony Hall in the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts downtown. Over the years, the orchestra has hosted renowned artists such as Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Luciano Pavarotti. It’s currently led by Music Director and Principal Conductor Fabio Mechetti, who has been in the position since 1999. He will be stepping down in May, but not until helming productions of The Marriage of Figaro and Verdi’s Requiem in the spring. The Jacksonville Symphony also partners with Duval County and three other public school systems to provide some 84,000 children the opportunity to both listen to and participate in youth-oriented symphony events. The orchestra’s charitable works, world-class facility and enduring star power have helped keep Jacksonville culture on the map for decades.
Established in early 2000 as a non-profit animal sanctuary, Northeast Florida’s oldest wildlife rescue began by saving and reintegrating large exotic cats that were originally kept as pets. Today, the sanctuary houses a slew of felines including Siberian tigers, lions, cougars, black leopards and bobcats, as well as coatimundis and arctic foxes. Most come from zoos that have shuttered, federal confiscation programs or private owners who can no longer care for the animals. Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary holds frequent events, tours, feedings and public school educational programs about these rescued animals as well. Tours of the facility are run in the afternoons and last approximately 45 minutes.
A piece of Spain separated from Europe and landed in Florida. Nestled in Saint Augustine’s historic district and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the majestic Villa Zorayda contains architectural features that mirror those found in the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain. Audio tours lead visitors through this restored Spanish villa’s halls and airy inner courtyard, pointing out hundreds of antiquities such as Arabic arches, glazed ceramics, bronze statues, and ancient charcoal burners. When not welcoming tours, the historic building and grounds also host weddings and private parties.