The Detroit Zoo isn’t actually located in the city of Detroit – it’s just a few miles up iconic Woodward Avenue in the suburb of Royal Oak. Michigan’s most popular zoo is consistently ranked amongst the top in the United States and allows visitors to view tons of animals from all around the world. With a great mixture of brand new experiences and more traditional open air viewing, you’re guaranteed to fall in love with at least one of the animals.
Detroit Zoo animals
Visiting the Detroit Zoo is all about the animals, so let’s start with some of my favorite exhibits. You can spend as much or as little time as you like with the different animals during your visit. I’d recommend checking out the digital zoo map when you arrive so you can make sure you see all of your favorites along the way.
Arctic Ring of Life
The Detroit zoo’s state-of-the-art headline attractions is the Arctic Ring of Life located in the back of the park. This massive polar habitat is home to some of the most photogenic zoo residents and its premiere up-close animal viewing. This area is home to the zoo’s polar bears and some sea otters who were recently brought to the habitat.
The Detroit Zoo is home to a few different polar bears and you can see them roaming the tundra or swimming in a pool along the walkway. On one of my visits, I spent a good 15 minutes watching one of them swimming laps and splashing in the pool. Visit first thing in the morning or during cooler seasons for the best chance of spotting them.
If you’re lucky and one of the polar bears has chosen to take a swim, the underwater tunnel is the highlight of the Arctic Circle habitat. On my latest visit, we were treated to one of the bears swimming for several minutes before settling down on top of the tunnel to have a snack.
Polk Penguin Conservation Center
Another one of the Detroit Zoo’s top attractions is the new penguinarium. This massive exhibit that debuted in 2016 takes you underwater again – this time close to those adorable little flightless birds. The penguins can be viewed at surface level and you may even see some hopping past you separated by mere inches of glass. Continue down the ramps underground and watch the penguins swimming around you. From that perspective, they almost look as though they’re soaring through the air as they zip through the water.
Australian Outback Adventure
The only habitat at the Detroit Zoo that allows you to actually enter an animal enclosure is the kangaroo and wallaby area. In this section, you can enter the habitat through a double gated entrance and walk along the pathway in an open grassy area surrounded by several of Australia’s beloved kangaroos and wallabies.
Other favorite animals at the Detroit Zoo
The grizzly bears are another of my favorite animals here. The zoo is home into three brothers who were orphaned when their mother was illegally shot in Alaska several years ago. They now occupy a large area just behind the Arctic Ring of Life. They’re known for their active play and their active play with each other in between naps.
The otters are one of the first exhibits most visitors encounter and they’re a constant delight. In my experience, they’re one of the most consistently active animals at the zoo and they also happen to be thoroughly adorable. You can see them swimming or napping from an outdoor viewing point or come inside the building for an up-close view along the glass where they swim and dive.
The Detroit Zoo red panda habitat recently underwent major changes and gives you a closer than ever view of these adorable critters. With a bridge running through the middle of the enclosure, you’ll get a chance to see them from a unique vantage point.
Three tigers make their homes at the Detroit Zoo and occupy a large grassy expanse. Two females and a male tiger roam through the trees and if you happen to catch one walking in the area, you can really see how their stripes help camouflage them. Down on one you’ll find glass walls that allow you to get really close the tigers. The last time I visited, two of them were pacing back and forth and back and forth right along the glass. You could really appreciate their size and power. We even got to hear them roar at one point.
Japanese macaques (a primate from Japan) may not be the most famous zoo animals out there but over the last few years a couple of babies have been born at the zoo and they are an absolute delight to watch running around and climbing on trees and rocks in their enclosure. The mama sure has her hands full.
The zoo also houses several lions and in 2020 the first lion cub in over 40 years was born at the Detroit Zoo. They also reside in a large enclosure with glass observation windows that allow you to get close to the animals.
At the very front of the zoo, guests can walk through a large butterfly enclosure and bird aviary. It’s lovely to visit in the colder months because you get a chance to step into a toasty area with a tropical feel that takes you far away from the usually dreary and cold Michigan weather.
Special events at the Detroit Zoo
Throughout the year, the Detroit Zoo hosts several recurring events as well as occasional unique ones.
Each year around Easter, the zoo hosts its Bunnyville event. This one takes place during normal zoo hours, so no extra ticket is needed. Kids can participate in a golden egg hunt throughout the zoo, get their faces painted, and meet the Easter Bunny for photos. Some live entertainment is also included.
Every year leading up to Halloween, the Zoo Boo event takes over evenings at the Detroit Zoo. After normal opening hours, kids and adults alike are encouraged to dress up in costumes and go trick-or-treating along the main walkway at the zoo staff and volunteers hand out candy at this separately ticketed event. Along the path, you’ll find special lighting, seemingly endless jack-o-lanterns, mascots other activities like pumpkin smashing. While most animal exhibits are off limits, you can keep an eye out for camels and otters and visit the reptile house. It’s also the perfect time to look for the nocturnal beavers since they’re usually sleeping during the day. A special ticket is required for this event.
Wild Lights is one of my favorite holiday events. Every winter leading up to Christmas, the zoo transforms into a sparkling wonderland. It’s absolutely magnificent. During select evenings, more than five million Christmas lights line the trees along the main walkway with light up animals and light shows choreographed to songs to spice things up. You can also enjoy things like carolers, visits with Santa, hot cocoa, and Christmas movies in the education building. As with the previously mentioned Zoo Boo, most of the animal exhibits are closed, but you can visit the reptile house and look for camels, otters, and beavers at the beginning. Wear warm winter gear because Michigan is quite chilly in December and you’ll be outdoors most of the time. A special ticket is required for this event.
This 21 and up only event occurs in the evening and features booths serving up craft brews along the walkways winding between the animal habitats. Admission tickets include a set number of drink samples that can be used at any booth. Designated driver tickets are also available for a smaller fee. This offers a rare chance to see many of the animals after dark when some of them tend to be most active.
Wild Summer Nights
On select days during the summer, the zoo stays open late and evening visitors can enjoy concerts by local bands. Located in the main picnic area and featuring different types of music each week, these concerts are fun and family friendly. This activity is included in your regular admission so no extra ticket is needed.
Kids activities at the Detroit Zoo
One of the most famous things to do here is take a ride on the Detroit Zoo train, also known as the Tauber Family Railroad. This mini train runs from the very front of the zoo all the way to the back. Passengers can buy a round trip ticket or just one way. It’s a great way to save yourself some walking if you have tired legs.
The carousel is located in the central area of the zoo not far from the famous Rackham Fountain. It features 33 animals to ride, from regular old merry-go-round horses to popular zoo animals. There is also a wheelchair-accessible carriage.
If your kids still have energy left after walking around the zoo, the Rissman Playventure playground area can burn some of it off. This large play structure surrounded by picnic tables is usually swarmed with kids (age 5-12 only) running, jumping, swinging, and sliding.
For an indoor activity, catch a 4-D movie in the Ford Education Center. The theater seats 126 people and shows educational movies with fun effects. You can also opt for a smaller simulator ride that moves and shakes along with a video. Note: This has not reopened post-covid as of April 2022 and future plans are unknown.
Tips for visiting the Detroit Zoo
- The Detroit Zoo is quite large and you will do a lot of walking so wear good shoes when you visit.
- Strollers and wagons are allowed and they’re great options if you’re bringing kids.
- Wheelchairs, ECVs, strollers, and wagons are available for rent.
- Visitors are allowed to bring their own food into the zoo so packing a picnic lunch is a great way to save a few bucks.
- Visiting first thing in the morning often allows you to see animals at their most active.
- Spring is the best season to visit to see lots of animal activity.
- Check the day’s schedule when you arrive to find out feeding times for some of the animals.
- Pop into the Detroit Zoo gift shop on your way out for animal themed souvenirs as well as items made by local crafters.
- Peacocks roam freely, so keep an eye out for them as you explore the pathways.
How to get to the Zoo
The Detroit Zoo is located in Royal Oak at the intersection of Woodward Avenue and I-696. If you’re coming from Detroit, you can head right up Woodward. From the Lansing area or beyond, take I-96 to 696 and follow signs for the zoo. From the southwest (Ann Arbor, Jackson, or beyond) take I-94 to I-275 to I-696 and follow the signs. If you’re coming from the north, take I-75 south to I-696 west and follow signs. Once you’re in the area, keep an eye out for the famous water tower.
Detroit Zoo parking
You’ll be able to park in one of two surface lots or in the small parking garage on site. I tend to prefer the parking garage because it keeps my car cooler in the shade, which is nice on hot days. Detroit Zoo parking can be prepaid in advance if you order tickets online or at the gate.
Ready to visit the zoo?
Head to the Detroit Zoo’s official site to purchase tickets in advance. Currently, reservations are required for individual tickets as capacity is limited. Weekends fill up quickly so plan ahead as far as possible. Detroit Zoo admission varies by date, so check the website to see the cost at the time you wish to visit.