While I grew up overseas away from my hometown of San Diego, CA, we visited regularly and had family memberships at some of the local attractions, including the huge Wild Animal Park (now called the San Diego Zoo Safari Park) in Escondido. It was a park I always enjoyed visiting, a sprawling 1800 acres of land featuring expansive, free-range exhibits home to wild and endangered animals from around the world.
This free-range aspect was what appealed me to ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, about an hour’s drive away from central London, a place where Little T could observe animals with more space to roam about in sizeable enclosures. I was also intrigued with the idea of driving the car around the animal park and through one of the large paddocks (Passage through Asia) past the deer and camels.
My first decision was whether or not to become a member of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). A Whipsnade Zoo ticket for one adult costs £22.70, children under 3 go free and it costs £22 (prepaid) for car entry. Becoming a member of ZSL costs £86 when you pay with direct debit (one annual payment), and offers access to both London Zoo and Whipsnade Zoo over the year, along with free parking at London Zoo and half-price car entry at Whipsnade Zoo. Since the tickets cost just about the same for the London Zoo (£22.50) and I’m sure we’d be back at either one at least three more times over the next year, it made sense to become a member and also support the ZSL’s conservation work. If you’d like to visit London Zoo or Whipsnade Zoo first before making a decision on membership, you can upgrade your visit and redeem the price of your ticket against the membership, paying the difference. (details here)
I signed up as a member, printed out a copy of the confirmation email, packed our lunches then we were off! Note: You receive a membership card in the post shortly after applying but can enter the zoo with the confirmation email and proof of ID. Keep the email and ID with you during the visit to make use of your membership benefits, such as a reduced ticket to ride the Steam Train.
So after winding our way up the M1 towards Luton and through the countryside, we made it to the rolling hills of Whipsnade where 600 acres of land provide home to nearly 3000 animals in one of Europe’s largest wildlife conservation parks.
We took a little snack break admiring the gorgeous view from one of the lookout points near the Africa enclosures, then headed off for a drive around Passage through Asia before Little T became antsy being in the car seat for so long.
(The sign was fixed shortly afterwards – hard to tell but it was extremely windy that day!)
Passage through Asia is a large paddock with no boundaries where you can slowly drive past Bactrial camels, yak, hog deer and Pere David’s deer, calmly lounging around or grazing nearby. If you decide not to enter with your car, the Steam Train also passes through regularly during the day, but this area is not accessible by foot.
Seeing the camels were the highlight of the visit for me. I grew up in Saudi Arabia, where we’d regularly pass herds of dromedary (one-humped) camels on our way through the desert, usually to a remote beach. Although a different species of camel – this one being a two-humped Bactrian camel found in Central Asia – looking out the window to see these camels huffing past reminded me of those moments!
Meanwhile, the rest of the herd were grazing nearby in the open spaces, accompanied by yaks. Little T was exclaiming “wow” and “ooh” getting a good look at these animals not far from his window!
Another highlight of our visit was being at the right place at the right time to see the elephants march past holding onto each other’s tails! Little T and I were wandering around the area and they just came around the corner on the way to their enclosure. I only managed to take a couple of photos just in time, while holding the little one back from rushing straight over to these amazing animals that were purely magestic to watch!
We explored some of the sights of the Africa zone, where rhinos meandered around large green spaces. Throughout the zoo, you can spot many free-roaming small animals bounding about the enclosures and along the walkways, mainly wallabees (like the one hopping by below) and maras.
And here we pass by onyx looking up from their meal to check us out…
And zebra who moments before were frolicking about, chasing after one other.
And like I mentioned before, here are a couple of the many Patagonian maras that roam freely around the grounds.
And we were thrilled to see some absolutely adorable baby maras, carefully guarded by their mother and father (who was off to the side). I zoomed in for this photo; we kept our distance and admired from afar to avoid making the parents anxious.
Whipsnade Zoo also runs a steam engine ride around the Asia exhibits. The area to board the train is a short walk from Hullabazoo and near the tiger exhibit. It’s a fun trip for the little train-lovers especially with great views of the elephants, rhinos and camels. Tickets cost £4.50 per adult £3.50 for members) and £1.50 per child (£1.00 for members).
Before taking the train, and then later on in the afternoon before heading home, we spent time at the Hullabazoo Adventure Play, which features a large climbing frame for older children and an area with a smaller version and swings for young ones.
We had lunch and snacks during the day at these picnic tables, enjoying moments of sunshine.
In addition to an indoor play area, you can find a large, interactive farm at Hullabazoo, where little ones can meet and greet farmyard animals including miniature donkeys, pigs and piglets, sheep and lambs and pygmy goats. We didn’t have a chance to visit this time but certainly will during our next visit.
We had a fun adventure at our first visit to Whipsnade Zoo and there was a good mix of taking our own little safari tour by car, spotting animals from the steam train and exploring part of the park by foot. There are plenty of places to take a break and/or enjoy a picnic scattered throughout the park, from lookout points over the stunning hills, to the area near the playground and even a spot in the middle of the Passage through Asia. I’d highly recommend bringing along a picnic lunch and enjoying the outdoors as much as possible during your visit. If you drive in with your car, there are many small parking areas along the main route so you can get out of the car and walk around for a closer look at the exhibits.
Overall, it was a great experience, especially for Little T to get a good look at many animals moving freely about in large spaces. After lunchtime, Little T conked out in the car for a long nap, actually much longer than I expected, so there were a few animal exhibits we’ll be checking out next time, namely the penguins, giraffes, lions, cheetahs and the Butterfly House.
ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, Dunstable, Bedfordshire, LU6 2LF
Opening Hours: 1000 – 1800 (last entry 1700), until 6 September 2015. (view up-to-date opening times here). Open every day of the year except Christmas Day.
Tickets: Adult tickets are £22.50, children 3+ are £16.35 and children under 3 years go free. Group discounts and online family offers are available on their website. ZSL membership includes unlimited annual visits and half price car entry to Whipsnade Zoo.
Parking and car admission: External parking is free. Car entry is £22 for non-members and £11 for ZSL members.
Good to Know:
- Bring a jacket just in case of windy or cool weather, even if the sun’s out.
- ZSL offer 20% off the annual membership price if you pay by direct debit.
- You can upgrade your visit to London Zoo or Whipsnade Zoo and redeem the price of your ticket against the membership, paying the difference. (details here)
- Bring your confirmation email and a photo ID if you visit the zoo before receiving your membership card in the post, and hold on to both during your visit to receive membership discounts on purchases such as reduced price steam train tickets.
- A souvenir guide is available for about £5 and is a fun resource to hold onto for your visits. In addition to a map and a guide to the zoo’s amenities, there are photos and interesting facts about the animals and the ZSL’s conservation efforts.