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Spend a day with the animals at Zoo Miami

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With summer vacation looming on the horizon, tourists and locals alike are busy trying to think of a good place to spend a few hours of quality time together. South Floridians are fortunate, as several area attractions exist that will not only educate and inform, but won't break the bank in the process. One of the largest of these is Zoo Miami.

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Located just off of exit 16 on the Florida turnpike, the zoo offers nearly 60 exhibits featuring animals from all over the world. As the only zoo in the continental United States with tropical weather year-round, the park is able to replicate many of the same conditions that the animals live in in the wild, and operates on an almost entirely cage free system.

With moats and sprinkler systems separating you from the inhabitants rather than bars and chains, the views of the sweeping savannas and Florida rock formations create the perfect backdrop for the ultimate nature lover. The park also offers the chance to personally interact with some of their resident animals, including parrots, giraffes, and rhinos. If you haven't fed a giraffe before, or even if you have, you will be able to see their prehensile tongues in action. The rhino feeding is also quite the experience, as the animals lips almost seem to have a mind of their own! The parrots, like all creatures, decide if they are hungry or not, but it is still awesome to get up close and personal with these colorful flying dinosaurs!

Although signs of the recent economic slowdown are still present in the park, it is also apparent that Miami-Dade county has started to invest more money and personnel into the 30+ year old attraction.

Recently, Zoo Miami opened a temporary entry located west of the original entrance that will operate during the demolition of the old entry and the construction of both a new front entry and new exhibit, Florida: Mission Everglades. The temporary entry includes new ticket booths and a kiosk outside of the entry gates that sell admission and Annual Passes to Zoo Miami. Inside the gates there are modular structures for Zoo Administration, restrooms, and the Toucan Trader gift shop.

In addition to a new way of getting inside the Zoo, Zoo Miami’s online visitors will also see a comprehensively redesigned and redeveloped website that focuses on beautiful images of wildlife to draw the user in. The goals of this redesign were to massively simplify, make an emotional connection, make e-commerce easy, make it mobile and make it integrated with social media.

“I am very pleased with the restoration of our website. It has vastly improved our online image and believe that it will be a more enjoyable experience for our guests,” said Bill Moore, Zoological Society of Florida President & CEO.

With a walking path of more than three miles, renting one of the popular safari cycles is the best way to experience Zoo Miami. There are a few different sized cycles available for rent, and at a mere $11 per hour, it is a real bargain. They can be easily picked up from their a new location inside the Wings of Asia Aviary Plaza.

If you want to explore the zoo is air conditioned comfort, you may want to choose to get a day pass for the monorail. Encircling the entire park, the monorail offers a 35 minute tour of the zoo and it's exhibits from a unique vantage point above the treeline, and has four convenient stops to hop on or off at your leisure. The tickets for this ride are only $3 each, and can be a life-saver during the heat of the Florida summer.

The park also offers a guided tram tour, which lasts more than 45 minutes and allows visitors with mobility issues, or people who just need to get off their feet, a different way to see the many wild creatures that call Zoo Mimi home. Tickets for this ride are offered for $7.95 per person.

Upon entering Zoo Miami, guests have a choice of visiting the Wings of Asia Aviary or the Children’s Zoo, as opposed to their previous entrance that led visitors to the flamingo and tiger exhibits. Unfortunately, the highly popular tiger exhibit is now one of the few dead ends of the Zoo and the flamingo exhibit is closed until the new front entry opens.

Features of the new entry area will include main ticket booth offices, gift shop and café space that opens up to an outdoor market and seating, a multi-purpose facility featuring a large event space, a “cloud-like” roof structure encircling a plaza with shade and the occasional rain shower through misting features, a tall “wildlife tower” rising above the plaza with colorful animal silhouettes and a new flamingo exhibit.

Of course, every visit to the zoo is a new and exciting experience, and the exhibits change from time to time. The ever-popular Wings of Asia aviary currently features information describing how modern birds are thought to have descended from dinosaurs. If you've ever looked closely at a Cassowary, you don't need any more convincing! The Amazon exhibit also recently added a Panama section, featuring some of the largest eagles on the planet; the Harpy Eagle. Looking up at these magnificent birds will make you realize just how breathtaking nature can be, and might make small children cringe, as they are known to eat monkeys and other primates in the wild.

All the biking, walking, and monorail riding definitely works up an appetite. Thankfully, there are several dining establishments located throughout the property for your eating pleasure. Although a recent online search revealed less than stellar reviews for the food options at the zoo, the Fiesta Cafe, located near the Amazon exhibit, offered up a hearty Mexican inspired menu that has a similar feel to Moe's or Chipotle. The price is reasonable compared to other themed attractions, and the quality is higher than expected. The flavors are also quite good, and will leave you feeling full and ready to conquer the rest of the zoo.

At the completion of the new entry plaza, the Florida: Mission Everglades exhibit should be within a year of opening. In the new exhibit, visitors will gain a new understanding of trying to save the Everglades. Through one of a kind interaction and informative exhibits featuring significant Florida animals like black bears, panthers, north American river otters, alligators, and crocodiles, Zoo Miami will immerse visitors in an experience that is only outdone by a visit to the Everglades.

“We are very excited to begin construction of our new front entry and Florida: Mission Everglades as I know that it will be beautiful and well worth the wait. I ask that our guests bear with us while we undergo this transition into the bright future of our beloved Zoo,” said Eric Stephens, Zoo Miami Director.

Zoo Miami is located at 12400 SW 152 street; Miami, FL 33177. General zoo admission is: $15.95/adult, plus tax and $11.95/child (3-12) plus tax. Children under two, zoo members, and parking are all free. Zoo Miami’s hours are 9:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.; ticket booths close at 4 p.m.

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