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Houston Zoo… Beat the Crowds, Stay Cool & Save Money

It’s back-to-school time, and for us, that means it’s also back-to-the-Houston-Zoo time.

Every morning my preschooler wakes up talking about the zoo… and we go several times a week. So how do we keep the Houston Zoo fresh, beat the crowds, stay cool and not spend a ton of money?  I wrote down our tips a few years ago… and below is the updated post!


Beat the Crowds:

We like early mornings, late afternoons, school days and bad weather.

On school days, We like to be the first to arrive at 9:00am and head straight to the back of the zoo.  Some buildings do not open until 9:30 or 10:00am, but this gives us time to play at the Children’s Zoo or African Forest before the field trips catch up with us.

Once the field trips make their way to the back of the zoo, we head to the Bug HouseSwap Shop or Splashpad.

If we can’t make it there in the morning, we shoot for 2:00pm or later.  School buses seem to head out about this time, leaving more space for us to explore.  And if we have enough energy, we pick up the big kids can head over for the last hour of the day.

The last entry is an hour before the zoo closes, which is 6:00pm in the winter and 7:00pm in the summer.  Most families are heading out at 5:00pm… but with a zoo membership, you can head in without having to “get your money’s worth”.

We also look forward to bad weather… not lightning and thunder… but a little rain.  It keeps crowds away… but there is a lot to explore inside at the zoo!

Know that weekends and holidays are very busy.  For these, the first hour and last hour seem to be the best.  Also, the zoo has a free day the first Tuesday afternoon of each month (except summer).  This will be busy (but free).



Still, the Houston Zoo is a big place and can handle big crowds… but the parking lot cannot.  Arrive early or late in the day… or during peak hours, try to take METRORail, walk or bike.  You can also try your luck and circle the lot and then try to park by the Centennial Gardens or at metered street parking by the Health Museum.

Parking at Hermann Park and the Houston Zoo is free… but if you go by the museums, you’ll have to pay.  (But paying the meter might save your sanity.)


The Extras:

I know you know the zoo has animals… so let me talk about the extras and what we love to do.  Some things cost extra, but lots of things are free.

Free Extras…

Swap Shop: We love the Swap Shop.  Bring in something from nature, tell the staff about it, earn points and swap them for rocks, shark teeth, shells and more.  Read all about it HERE.


Splashpad:  Open April to November, the Splashpad is the coolest part of the zoo.  The field trips don’t stop here, and most people are looking at the animals, so this splashpad is a great place to be.  Bring your suits (and swim diapers if you need them) and change in the attached changing rooms.


Snake at Houston Zoo Swap Shop
Keeper Talks: Learn more about the animals, see demonstrations and ask questions.  There are LOTS of talks each day and the schedule can be found HERE and is also posted by the maps at the zoo.


Otter Ropes at Houston Zoo
Playgrounds:  In the Children’s Zoo, you can find a traditional playground, a rope playground and a “super secret” rope playground.  You can also find a boat, tunnels and a petting zoo.


Nature Play Area:  Near the entrance of the zoo, there is a new Nature Play Area that is amazing!  Kids can dig in the dirt, splash in the water and build will all the things found in nature.  Read all about it HERE.


Huts, Drums & Shower: In the African Forest, find the huts, “fire”, drums, masks and shower!


Piranhas: Inside Natural Encounters, crawl through a tank full of piranhas!


Footprints at Houston Zoo
Foot Prints:  If you have plans to redo your driveway, please add a bunch of footprints… elephants, rhinos, chimps… charge admission and invite us over. The footprints, all through the African Forest, are our favorite thing.


Buttons: Just as exciting (I’m serious) as the footprints are the buttons. In the Children’s Zoo there are lots of signs, with buttons, that we have to push each day. They just make animal noises… but it’s the small things that make us happy.


Koolookambas: Look around the African Forest and you’ll see lots of faces looking at you.  There are over 30 Koolookambas… We’ve never found them all, but we like to look!


Adopted Animals: Okay… adopting an animal at the zoo requires a donation and is not free.  But, my kids often use their birthday money to adopt an animal… and then we get to go see them on our trips to the zoo.  The pink flamingo with a long neck and long legs is ours… or maybe it’s the one next to that one… or… My kids are certain they know which one is ours.


Extra Extras…

Feed the Giraffes:  We have a Zoo Membership and visit often, and we don’t often pay for extras… but Feeding the Giraffes is pretty awesome.  Twice a day you can pay $7, for 3 pieces of lettuce… which seems like a lot for a little… until you get face to face with a giant.


Wildlife Carousel:  The Carousel is $2 for members and $3 for non-members.  The good thing is that parents that are just supervising don’t need a ticket.  My kids love carousels… but I don’t.  Not having to buy a ticket to supervise my kid as we go around and around and around and around makes it easier to stomach.


Mister at Houston Zoo

Keep Cool:

I’m not sure my native Texan kids notice how hot Houston is… but I do.  We stay cool by drinking lots of water (which you can bring in to the zoo, with your picnic), going inside the buildings, finding the misters (all over the zoo), playing in the “shower” in the African Forest and playing at the Splashpad.

And the most effective method for staying cool… is visiting for just a couple hours at a time.



Coolers and picnics can be brought inside the Houston Zoo… which is what we usually do.  The water fountains also have a spot to refill your water bottles.  If we are going to eat at a zoo restaurant, Twiga Cafe is our favorite.  On the patio you get to eat right next to the giraffes!


What else?

Once we’re at Hermann Park, there is a lot to do.  We could visit every day for a month and still have a great time.

Visit the zoo, run on the trails, ride the train, pedal the boats, feed the ducks, splash in the water, play at the playground, eat a picnic… or even jump on METRORail and ride!


Do you have tips for visiting the zoo?  Tell us what they are!

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