Bronx Zoo vs Central Park Zoo

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New York City and wild animals don’t really go together.

New Yorkers are used to seeing our urban compatriots like rats, squirrels, and pigeons. But word of a coyote spotted in Central Park or an eagle above the Hudson River can be major news. So if you were hoping to spot wildlife on your travels, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Happily, for New Yorkers and visitors, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the four zoos they manage in New York City provide a wonderful place to experience rare and exotic animals from all over the world. Their two flagship zoos are the Central Park Zoo and the Bronx Zoo. When deciding whether to visit the Bronx Zoo vs Central Park Zoo, it’s important to know that these are two very different zoos with very different purposes. We’ll help you determine which is best for you.

The Central Park Zoo

The Central Park Zoo is the oldest in the city. It was not actually part of the original plan for Central Park — as proposed by its designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. But, unfortunately for them, almost as soon as construction had begun in 1859, someone gave the park administrators a gift of a bear cub. A young messenger boy named Philip Holmes — who worked for Central Park at the time — was appointed as the bear’s caretaker. Thus the seeds were sown for the Central Park Zoo.

During the next few years New Yorkers continued to gift the park exotic birds, lizards, and other wildlife. The unofficial Central Park menagerie kept growing, and by 1861 city leaders had commissioned a zoo for the park, but no one could agree where to put it. By 1863 there were animals being exhibited right along the grand mall of the park — surely a horror to Vaux and Olmstead, who dreamed of the park as a quiet and natural setting and not as an entertainment venue. But the animals were already there, so the Central Park Zoo was officially founded in 1864 and it was built around the old arsenal building on 5th Avenue. It remains there to this day.

The most important thing to realize about the Central Park Zoo is its small size. This is not a full-scale zoo, but rather a small sample of the animals cared for by the Wildlife Conservation Society. The zoo is only six acres in size and doesn’t feature any of the major exotic animals one typically associated with a zoo visit. There are no lions, tigers, giraffes, or gorillas. The zoo is focused around a small sea lion exhibit, and there are surrounding exhibits featuring grizzly bears, red pandas, and snow leopards — the only large animals on display at the Central Park Zoo.

So, if you and your kids are visiting to see the animals from the film Madagascar you may want to think twice. There is a children’s petting zoo, and with the sea lion and bear exhibits, young kids will likely be satisfied with this zoo, but older kids will probably be disappointed by its limited scope. If you and your family want to have a full day with as many animals as possible, it’s better to head north to The Bronx.

The Bronx Zoo

The Bronx Zoo is NYC’s flagship zoo. It’s located about nine miles outside of Midtown and takes at least 45 minutes to reach, but the trip is worth it. At 265 acres and with more than 600 different animal species, this is one of the largest zoos in the world. In fact, be prepared for lots of walking as the zoo’s enormous acreage—2.5 times larger than the San Diego Zoo—means lots of space between exhibits. But that also means lots of room and more comfortable living spaces for the animals.

Most visitors arriving by subway will actually enter through the Asia Gate at the southern end of the zoo, not the main gate. The subway station is about 5-10 minutes away from the Asia Gate. Take the 2 or 5 train to E. 180th Street and you can walk past the lovely Bronx River falls before entering the zoo.

Once inside, the huge zoo will take some time to see and you may not have time to see every animal, but there are some highlights you should make sure to visit. Almost every high-profile animal is housed here, with the exception of giant pandas (though there are discussions that may change that in the future). Right by the Asia Gate is Jungleworld and Wild Asia Monorail. The monorail, only available during the warm season, is a 25-minute ride that takes you over the Bronx River and through large enclosures of animals like Asian Rhinos and Elephants. These animals are only accessible via the monorail so if you want to see elephants, this is your only shot.

If you go west from Asia Gate you’ll pass lions, zebras, giraffes, and hyenas before reaching the Congo Gorilla Forest. This is the highlight of the zoo. The Bronx Zoo’s gorilla family now has more than 22 members, and the youngest were born just last year. Visitors can walk through glass rooms while the gorillas live and play all around you. It’s the best place to see Gorillas in North America. Continue walking and you’ll reach the formal heart of the zoo: Astor Court and the Zoo Center buildings. Just like the Central Park Zoo, the sea lions are the central exhibit. (Ever since the Madagascar films were released, though, the new Madagascar Exhibit has become a big hit.) As you keep walking back toward Asia Gate, you’ll pass the tigers, bears, and snow leopards before returning to the gate.

So, Bronx Zoo vs Central Park Zoo, which should you visit?

The short answer is the Bronx Zoo. It’s hundreds of times bigger than the Central Park Zoo and offers a much more fulfilling interaction with animals. Plus it only costs a few dollars more for tickets–$23 vs $18 at Central Park Zoo).

That said, keep in mind that many of the best exhibits at the Bronx Zoo cost extra. Riding the Asia Monorail and visiting the Gorilla Forest will each cost $5 extra, for instance. (These extra fees apply even on Wednesdays, when the Bronx Zoo offers free admission.)

Visiting the Bronx Zoo does take most of the day, so if you’re visiting NYC with young kids and need something to distract them for a couple hours while in Manhattan, the Central Park Zoo is a good option. But if you’re really interested in a great zoo day, it’s the Bronx Zoo all the way.

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