Thursday, April 14, 2011

Memphis fun!

Last weekend, our little tribe packed up and headed to Memphis for some family fun! We took off Thursday night and checked in at a Residence Inn in Southaven. (We always stay in suite-style accommodations, and we didn't really feel a need to be in Memphis proper in the evenings.)

Friday morning found us headed for the Memphis Zoo! I'd never been there before. First of all, the neighborhood surrounding the zoo is gorgeous. Large, historic homes sit back from the street, nestled among mature lawns and plantings. (I wonder how much some of those houses cost. Shivers.)

We arrived just as the zoo was opening at 9 a.m. Parking was $5, but because we are members at the Jackson Zoo, we got in for half-price ($20 for all three of us)! Yay! Because we anticipated a long day there, we rented one of the cute covered strollers they offer (8$). Then, off we headed to explore.

The entrance to the zoo is very impressive. A large, Egyptian-style structure serves as your ticketing area, and in front of it are large, two-dimensional animal statues. (Clay loved them, insisting on having his picture taken in front of the hippo.) Once inside, you're greeted by all the public facilities (restrooms, stroller rental, information office, shop, etc.), plus some beautiful fountains and statuary, before entering the actual exhibit space.

First, we toured the "Cat Country" exhibit, where we saw leopards, cheetahs, and other gorgeous animals. We noticed that the lions didn't appear to be out this early, which was a disappointing discovery we remedied later in the day. Then, we peeked into the Tropical Bird House. We LOVED this. Though in many parts of the house, a glass or cage separates you from the birds, two large open-air viewing rooms put you up close and personal with gorgeous specimens. They were flying all around us. A great experience.

We were disappointed to find the penguin exhibit empty, though we did enjoy watching a nearby pelican exhibit for a while. We spent a little time in their jewel-box of an aquarium before getting to know the Komodo Dragons. There were three of them, all in different enclosures, and Clay was completely fascinated by them, going right up to the Plexiglas for a chat, then stepping back a bit when one got a little *too* active. (Incidentally, did you know that a Komodo Dragon can eat a small deer in about 20 minutes? No joke. Clay clearly understood the food chain.)

After stopping by the hippo exhibit for an ice cream, we checked out the China exhibit. It started with a short educational film, then you entered this part of the zoo to observe Asian monkeys, otters, birds, and the star attraction - giant pandas. There were two of them, and they were so cute! Much more social than I thought they'd be. One was in the day room, clearly posing for pictures and enjoying being adored by throngs of fans.

Afterwards, we made our way through the African Veldt exhibits, getting up-close looks at elephants, ostrich, zebras, and rhinos. At the giraffe exhibit, we arrived just in time for a keeper chat, so we got to see the giraffes reach their looooong tongues out to fetch the pieces of banana he offered them. Fun!

Then, it was off to the Northwest Passage exhibit, which was probably my absolute favorite part of the zoo. Decorated with totem poles and interactive play spaces (a canoe you can climb in, little nooks and crannies you can explore and use for photos ops, etc.), this exhibit features polar bears, bald eagles, sea lions and other favorites. There's even an air-conditioned space (though it wasn't hot that day, I can imagine how valuable this would be as the months creep into summer) where you can view the polar bears from one side and the sea lions from another in perfect, climate-controlled comfort. Smart.

Directly adjacent to the Northwest Passage exhibit was the Teton Trek, another snazzy combination of enclosures featuring grizzly bears, wolves, and elk. This exhibit also features a gorgeous lodge (perfect for special events) and a fun water feature that the kids can cool off in on hot days. We were getting hungry by this time, so we stopped at a couple of food carts nearby and bought hot dogs, popcorn, and drinks to enjoy in the picnic area next to this exhibit. While there was nothing particularly bad about this fare, if I had it to do again, I might try to time my day so I could lunch at either the Cat House Cafe (sandwiches, salads, pizza, etc.) or one of the other sit-down restaurants in the zoo.

A quick loop around took us to primate canyon, where we saw monkeys, chimpanzees and orangutans. We also enjoyed the flamingos in this part of the park. The Denizens of the Deep South exhibit was closed due to renovation. (These exhibits are clearly in an older part of the zoo.) We ended our day back at the GREAT playground adjacent to the Cat House Cafe. Clay loved playing here, and the equipment was completely age-appropriate for him. A loud roar from the nearby Cat Country exhibit sent us running to see the lions, which were out and on the prowl, before leaving.

To tour the entire zoo took us from about 9 a.m. until about 2 p.m., so it's a full day to be sure. But it's a GREAT facility, and we all really enjoyed it. So many of the animals they feature are not available at our local zoo.

As well, much like my experience of the Museum of Natural History Museum in New York, I think one can observe at the Memphis Zoo the evolution of what the American public thinks a zoo should be. Older parts of the facility showcase animals in smaller enclosures, viewable from one side. The newer, flashier exhibits (China, Northwest Passage, Teton Trek) brand each experience with corresponding architecture/decor, enclosures viewable from multiple vantage points, complimentary indoor spaces, larger habitats, and more interactive features. Just walking through the Memphis Zoo, you can see how the expectations of the consumer have risen over the past couple of decades, and it's obvious that the zoo's strategic plan (They are building a Chickasaw Bluffs exhibit next.) is responding to customer demand. Very impressive.

After such a long day, we headed back to the hotel for a nap, a dip in the pool, and a light dinner in Southaven.

More to come . . .

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