Now that the sun has finally arrived you might be in the mood for a family road trip. My family visited the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium recently to check out the adorable clouded leopard cubs and I was reminded of all the great attractions Tacoma offers less than an hour from our home on the Eastside including the zoo, several museums, great dining options and easy access to beaches on Puget Sound.
Close up Animal Encounters and Conservation Education at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium
My family loves the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, but most of the zoo’s animals are off-limits for close up encounters. Woodland Park Zoo's staff members also primarily are engaged with taking care of the animals, not educating the visitors.
It was a totally different experience on our recent visit to the Port Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. My son got to hug a camel, we met a lizard on the zoo's lawn and got to examine a walrus tusk up close while learned how the animal uses it. Our kids voted on names for the clouded leopard cubs, watched visitors volunteer to feed fish at the aquarium and listened to a zoo guide explain how otters used their "pool toys" to learn and have fun.
The zoo is celebrated for its program of conservation and its reintroduction of the endangered red wolf. Throughout the zoo there are suggestions on how you can get involved with making a difference for endangered animals. Even the Pearl Street Sea Grille, one of the zoo's on-site dining options, emphasizes that they serve only sustainable seafood.
Tips To Make the Most of Your Zoo Visit
- Take a stroller if you have a child under age five. The zoo is spread out over several sloping acres, which means lots of stairs and walking around on sometimes steep paths. Little kids get wiped out quickly if they can’t take a stroller break. You can also rent strollers on site for $7 to $9 if you don’t want to haul your own.
- Bring sunblock and hats. I saw several kids and adults turning pink with sunburns on our recent visit. Unlike Woodland Park Zoo with its numerous big trees and shaded areas, this zoo has many open spaces without shade, so sunblock those kids and yourself before you go.
- Pack a backpack with water and snacks. The zoo has some great dining options including carts with ice cream, several cafes and machines with cold beverages and you are allowed to also bring in your own beverages and snacks, great for keeping your family’s energy up as you hike around the zoo.
- Yes, you do want to pay the $10 for the camel ride for your kid and souvenir photo.
- Bring some quarters and pennies. The zoo has a great gift shop and if you also want a fun, inexpensive set of unique “do it yourself souvinirs” look for the “crank the penny” machines throughout the park with numerous zoo themed designs, which cost just two quarters – and the penny your child transforms.
- Use discount coupons or bring your AAA card. Visiting the zoo is not cheap. Adult admission for non-Pierce County residents is $15. 25 and kids age five to twelve are $11.75, three to four year olds, $7.75. We used a coupon from our Chinook Book for a discount and we could have also received a discount of $2 off each admission by showing our AAA card. The Seattle Entertainment book also has a coupon for the zoo.
- Check out the Kids Zone, which replaced the farm style petting zoo in 2005. The area features a special play and rest area for toddlers and babies, a water play area open until October, slides and a play structure and an area where kids can help care and feed some of the zoo residents. Kids will also like taking a ride on the nearby vintage 1917 carousel for $2 a ride.
- Go early for plenty of parking and no lines to see the leopard cubs. Parking is free at the zoo but it fills up quickly on a sunny weekend. The zoo opens at 8:30 a.m. during the summer, seven days a week, and we were glad we arrived early as by the time we left, cars were parked on the side of the street leading to the zoo and drivers were dueling for our spot.
Other Family-Friendly Tacoma Attractions
Children's Museum of Tacoma
If you want to make a full day of Tacoma filled fun, take in the zoo in the morning, stop for lunch and then head over to the Children’s Museum of Tacoma. The museum is located at 936 Broadway Avenue in downtown Tacoma. Admission for adults and children is $6 each, babies under age one are free and Monday to Friday from 3 - 5 p.m. You can visit the museum for half price. The museum is small but offers a delightful mix of hands-on activities including an “urban garden” where kids can "rake dirt" and "sell produce," a fabulous art studio with hands on art activities, a indoor playground that helps kids build pre-math and science skills and a stage where kids can wear costumes and use props to put on a show.
Museum of Glass - A Clear Favorite for Teens and Tweens
If your child is too old to enjoy the Children’s Museum of Tacoma, consider a visit to the nearby Museum of Glass. The museum is a great place for kids of all ages, even tweens and teens, who can’t resist the lure of the museum’s Hot Shop where they can watch artists blowing glass. The museum is located in Tacoma’s “museum district” at 1801 Dock Street with parking available underneath the building. Admission is $36 for a family of up to four kids, or $12 for adults and $5 for kids under age 13.
Wednesdays you can get a special rate to visit both the Museum of Glass and the nearby Washington State History Museum for $22 for adults and $18 for kids age six to eighteen.
While you are visiting the museum, if your child is twelve or younger, encourage him or her to draw an idea for something they would like the Hot Shop artists to make from glass and enter it into the monthly Kids Design Glass Program. They could be invited back to watch their design be transformed into glass.
Dining in Tacoma
Tacoma has a host of family friendly dining options including several Red Robin restaurants and an Anthony’s Home Port at Port Defiance close to the zoo. Our family likes the waterfront Ram Restaurant at 3001 Ruston Way. My son loves the kids menu, especially the “Dirt Cup” dessert featuring gummy worms crawling out of the Oreo crumb "dirt."
One of the best beaches in Tacoma for kids is located close to the zoo. Owen Beach is located within the Point Defiance park and features a sandy beach, restroom, picnic areas and snack bar. You can also rent small boats and kayaks here. To get to the beach, follow the signs from the park’s Five Mile Drive or park at the marina and walk over to the beach on the boardwalk. Bring a change of clothes so if your kids get super sandy or wet playing in Puget Sound on a hot day, you can have them change in the park’s “bath house” before heading home.