At The Gentle Zoo, youngsters feed pigs, pat ducklings, and interact with the other fuzzy residents. Elsewhere on the zoo’s 10 acres, guests can leap about on the bounce house, blast corn from the corn cannon, navigate the maze, or enjoy a leisurely ride on the tractor train. Such attractions enthrall kids at onsite birthday parties, while the mobile petting zoo’s 12–15 staff-supervised animals offer nuzzles and create memories in children's minds. The creatures also hit the road for the animal-encounters program, which combines hands-on animal contact with educational 45-minute presentations. The Gentle Zoo donates its proceeds from the program to its Creature Connection, Inc. nonprofit, which rehabilitates rescue animals before they participate in outreach programs for foster children and at-risk youth.
Endangered Asian arowana flash lustrous orange and green scales; a Victorian crowned pigeon shakes its cerulean tufts and spreads its turquoise wings; 16-inch fairy penguins waddle across a forest floor. And that’s all before you hit the admissions booth. The Dallas World Aquarium’s Borneo exhibit greets guests to the zoo and aquarium with a preview of the colorful, exotic wildlife that await them inside. But the animals aren’t just there for visitors’ entertainment—the aquarium plays a large role in conservation efforts not just in the U.S., but around the world, and yhe majority of its residents are endangered or threatened in the wild. Once inside, guests explore each critter’s natural habitat as they delve into exhibits that emulate different global regions, much like the control centers run by evil TV weathermen. The eight-story Mundo Maya’s 400,000-gallon Cenote river teems with sharks, rays, and sea turtles indigenous to the Yucatan Peninsula. In the Orinico exhibit, crocodiles and red-bellied piranhas form a menacing welcoming committee in the water, but residents of the sloth forest remain unconcerned, moseying lazily from branch to branch.
Outside in a mock South Africa habitat aptly named tomato frogs, squat and orange like their namesake, hop around a flourishing botanical garden, alongside Madagascan big-headed turtles and black-footed penguins. And in the aquarium, a 20,000 gallon walk-through tunnel lets guests get up close and personal with hundreds of Indo-Pacific fishes and sea critters, including the blue-dot stingray—named for the blue specks scattered across its yellow coat.
At noon every day, a new flock of butterflies is released into the butterfly house at Texas Discovery Gardens, opening their colorful wings for the first time among the lush vegetation. Counted among their number are elegant species such as the monarch and the blue morpho, while an outdoor nursery attracts native butterflies with nectar-rich plants and attractive butterfly buffets. This is just one of the ten themed areas on the 7.5-acre estate, which brims with vibrant collections of plants collected from around the world and is maintained using sustainable, organic methods. The newly renovated Tribute Garden invites visitors to relax in the shade next to a bubbling fountain, and the Master Gardeners' Garden demonstrates landscaping practices that are both attractive and environmentally friendly.
The organization also offers education and outreach programs for children to teach them about life cycles and natural landscapes, as well as increase their understanding and appreciation for nature. Visitors can also attend festivals including the Butterflies and Bugs Family Festival on August 3, as well as special programing such as Sunrise Pilates and guided nature walks.
Bob and Coni Keyes began the adventure that is Green Meadows Petting Farm in Wisconsin in 1964, when it was simply Green Meadows Farm. As a "pick-your-own" raspberry and vegetable farm, there was nothing there yet to pet, especially since raspberries notoriously withhold affection. When they discovered that most farms of their ilk prohibited youngsters, they brought in animal friends to make their farm a family affair. All it took was the raves of one nursery school group, and suddenly the new Green Meadows Petting Farm was bringing in up to 1,200 visitors a day. Through the decades, Green Meadows has expanded its array of animals and family entertainment, which includes horse-drawn hayrides, sleigh rides, mobile pony parties, and more pumpkins than in a headless horseman's closet. They've also expanded to locations to Maryland and Texas, allowing kids in two times zones the chance to get closer to nature's critters.
Blase Family Farm creates a setting for seasonal memory-making with a bounty of fall activities. Around the 13-acre farm, hayrides meander through the woods, under leaves tinged with warm hues. Bulbous pumpkins rest at the base of tall trees, waiting for youngsters to claim them. When not searching for the best pumpkin—like the doctor who performed the Headless Horseman’s brain transplant—visitors can socialize with farm animals, such as goats and sheep, and earn their eternal love by feeding them. A farm train also chugs around the grounds, giving its passengers a more comprehensive view of the scenery. In the spring and summer, the farm offers pick-your-own blueberries, perfect for making into jam.
Country Critters Farm isn't really a farm in the traditional sense: it's a petting zoo that's home to ponies, cows, goats, chickens, and a menagerie of other amiable creatures. Open on Saturday and Sunday?and weekdays by reservation?the farm is filled with nine rustic, kid-friendly activities that range from pony rides and hayrides to a playground and bounce houses. Though they welcome school field trips and onsite birthday parties, the staff can also load up their Big Red Barn?a mobile petting-zoo trailer?and bring their cuddly residents to birthday parties and other events.