Today's Zoo Atlanta visit was bittersweet, since it marked the beginning of the end of panda Mei Lan's sojourn in Atlanta. Mei Lan - Atlanta's Beauty was born at Zoo Atlanta on September 6, 2006 and she has been a star attraction every since.
On Thursday, February 4, 2010, Mei Lan will travel to China aboard the FedEx Panda Express, along with Tai Shan, who was born at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. on July 9, 2005. Both pandas are returning to their parents' homeland, per agreements with their respective zoos, and will reside at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
On a brighter note, Zoo Atlanta will continue to be home to Mei Lan's parents, Lun Lun and Yang Yang, along with baby Xi Lan, born on August 30, 2008, thanks to a new 5-year loan agreement, supported in part by the zoo's Give So They Stay campaign, which raised over $400,000.
And, while the pandas are a major crowd pleaser, the zoo features so many great exhibits that it is impossible to visit all of them in one day.
Zoo Atlanta has a lion breeding program, which resulted in a trio of male cubs, Christos, Mikalos and Athanaisi, who were born in July 2008.
Other great exhibits, include:
- The Parakeet Aviary, which opened last spring;
- The Gorilla exhibits where parents and children can view Zoo Atlanta's numerous baby gorillas, including the only mother-reared twins in captivity, born to mom, Kuchi, in November of 2005; and
- The Meekats, with a dominate female in charge of each group.
These exhibits and many more offer a wonderful experience for children or all ages and all special needs. However, parents of children will sensory issues should remember to:
- Come early: The zoo opens daily at 930 a.m. and parking is limited. Plan to arrive when the gates open or a few minutes before. You will get a good parking space and have an hour or so to visit a number of exhibits, even on a warm and sunny day, before the crowds arrive.
- Buy a membership: The basic family membership is only $99 with unlimited visits for a full year. Thus, parents can make multiple visits throughout the year on their own family's schedule and not worry about the length of their visits. An hour and just a few exhibits may be all your child can handle at one time.
- Bring snacks for special needs: The zoo has a variety of food and drink kiosks, but they do not accommodate special diets such as the GFCF diet.
- Plan ahead if the zoo is featuring special events on the day of your visit: The zoo often schedules special children's activities and crafts on holidays and zoo animal birthdays, but these events can be overwhelming for a child with sensory issues. Arrive shortly before the events start and ask an attendant for assistance. The zoo is very attentive to special needs.
- Let your special needs child take the lead: Autistic children, in particular may overstim quickly if faced with too many attractions and too long an outing. Don't stress if you only see a couple of exhibits at each visit or if your child refuses to view a particular attraction. An autistic child may hyper-focus on the reptile house during one visit and only want to see the lions the next time he goes to the zoo. Parents with memberships can return on another day, either alone or with their other children, to enjoy the exhibits that they missed while visiting the zoo with their special needs child.
And, finally, don't forget to visit the gift shops before you leave. Today's great find at the Panda gift shop was a Panda webkin, complete with it's own online adoption registration and access to the many wonderful games on the Webkinz website, which can provide hours of entertainment for a sensory-seeking child. Not a bad deal for only $10, especially with the 10 percent members discount.