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Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium: 6 Great Tips to Maximize Your Visit

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium: 6 Great Tips to Maximize Your Visit

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Do your kids enjoy going to zoos and aquariums? If you’re heading to Tacoma, WA, the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium might be something that would pique their interest! Find out more in this blog!

This post about the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, WA, was written by travel expert Marcie Cheung and contains affiliate links, which means if you purchase something from one of my affiliate links, I may earn a small commission that goes back into maintaining this blog.

In my effort to explore fun family vacation spots from Seattle, I decided to gather up some Moms and toddlers and head to Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, WA. I had been here on a field trip when I was in 3rd grade, and that was the last time.

I had heard good things from friends about it being small enough to see before nap time, so we met up at 10 a.m. on a Friday to see for ourselves.

It took about 45 minutes to get to our home in Renton. I followed my GPS, which took me all the way to Point Defiance Park. Along the way, I saw signs that suggested left turns to get to the zoo, which I’m assuming brings people to back lots.

Not knowing where I was going, I opted to take the official route. I followed the signage to the parking lots, picked a spot and looked around to see which direction people were heading. I didn’t see much signage about where the entrance was.

When we got to the entrance, the line moved really quickly. They asked us to donate $5 to support conservation efforts and receive a small stuffed animal. We usually donate anyway to help non-profits or parks. Choosing a stuffed animal was a lot of fun for my toddler!

After getting our tickets, we went to the entrance and scanned our own tickets before entering the gate. Being 8.5 months pregnant then, our first stop was the restrooms!

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium: 6 Great Tips to Maximize Your Visit

The staff member talking about plankton surprisingly fascinated our toddlers.

Our friends arrived a few minutes before us and were already in the Aquarium, so that was where we headed. Even though my toddler isn’t a fan of touching sea life, we went into that area just to see what was there. I really liked that the steps up to the tanks were perfect for toddlers, and I didn’t need to lift mine up to see (which has been a problem in other places.) After sufficiently looking at the starfishes and sea cucumbers, he went over to a large mural with flaps he could lift up. I wasn’t able to focus on what the mural was about because I was so focused on the flap that featured a boy with a boom box, and I wondered how old the mural was!

After we exited that area, there was a staff member set up in the corner with a projector of live plankton. She patiently showed the toddlers how to shine a flashlight on the microscope and how to look into the microscope. These skills were previously unknown to our toddlers, so it was quite exciting! The stool brought the toddlers to the right height to fully experience this.

We headed downstairs, just past the large shark jaw that freaked out my toddler. Once I told him it was “just pretend” he could make a bee-line for the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs were two of those pressed penny machines. This intrigued the toddlers more than the exhibits downstairs, so we spent some time playing with the machines before deciding to explore the Zoo area.

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium: 6 Great Tips to Maximize Your Visit: Let your kids navigate around the zoo with their map!

After a while, we let the toddlers navigate us around the Zoo.

The Zoo area was fabulous! It felt almost intimate as we could get pretty close to the animals (without being TOO close.) This was especially true for the exhibit with the Anoa and the monkey named Bobby. My son was mesmerized as we stood behind the floor-to-sky window and watched them interact. Once a group of kids flocked to the area, Bobby the Monkey started playing around and really hamming it up for the crowd! And the Anoa kept walking laps around the area and right in front of the window, making the kids erupt in “oohs” and “wows!”

After a good 15 minutes admiring Bobby and the Anoa, we headed to see the tiger. Again, it was handy that I didn’t need to lift up my 30lb toddler to get a better look as he could see perfectly fine from the tiered seating area. We opted to have a light snack while watching the tiger roam around. Then, we headed to see the elephant. There was a bench that wrapped around a tree, so we stood the boys on the bench to get a better view of the elephant, who was eating. The boys decided running around on the bench was more exciting, so we quickly moved on.

We also came across the Camel Ride area, which looked really fun! Kids have to be 3 years old and at least 36 inches tall. My toddler is 2.75, and I was tempted to say he was 3, but after carefully watching other kids on the ride, I realized that kids need to be able to hold on tightly. No need to rush! I told my son we’d do it next year.

We went roundabout to see the Arctic Fox and came across a Peacock next to the path! This was fascinating for the toddlers. When the Peacock decided to stroll down the path with us, it took a lot of coaching for the toddlers not to chase him. We followed him to the Arctic Fox, and the toddlers were more interested in seeing where the Peacock would go next. But alas, he wandered out of sight.

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium: 6 Great Tips to Maximize Your Visit: Kids love discovering new things at the zoo.

My son was very intrigued by what might be inside the shell in the Animal Avenue area of the Kids’ Zone.

The boys seemed done looking at animals, so we thought we’d check out the play area we found on the map. Of course, it was up at the top of the hill near the entrance, so we had to walk uphill the whole way. Our toddlers were physically tired from running around the Zoo, and all wanted to be carried. Being very, very pregnant, I wasn’t up for that task. It took us about 20 minutes to walk slowly to the play area.

We arrived at Animal Avenue and were disappointed at the lack of interactiveness with the items there. It was a large space, making the activities there seem small. It took us about 15 minutes to realize it wasn’t the main play area. Once we walked around to the other side (Magical Movement), we saw an area much more suited for our toddlers. The favorite item was the slide because at the top of the slide was an amazing view of construction vehicles. They also enjoyed going down the slides over and over again.

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium: 6 Great Tips to Maximize Your Visit: The carousel was also a great hit!

Riding the Carousel was the best way to end our day at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium!

At this point, we’d been at Point Defiance for about 2 hours, and it was lunchtime. So, we headed to their Cafe to grab some food. I really liked the selection of items. I was shocked that my total was almost $18 for a sandwich, fries, soda, and Goldfish crackers. Kids’ meal prices were better, and I might just do that in the future if we don’t bring lunch.

My biggest complaint about the Cafe is that they put a shelf of toddler snack items right at toddler height near the cashier. This caused a huge meltdown when I told my toddler he couldn’t have a bag of gummy bears for lunch.

He ended up running off with the bag clenched in his little fists. This forced me out of line, and I had to chase him. I ripped the gummy bears out of his hands, and explained why that wouldn’t be a suitable lunch option.

Thankfully, I was with awesome friends who shared their food with him while I headed back to return the gummy bears to the shelf. Of course, by that time, there were about 20 people in line in front of me.

Had I been alone with my toddler, we would have just left at that point. Waiting in line and then waiting for my food took about 25 minutes. This was a steep price to pay with a toddler on the verge of needing a nap.

But I’m always a fan of ending adventures on a high note, so we made it a priority to hit up the Carousel before heading home. It was such a fabulous experience! For one thing, it only costs $1.50 to ride.

If you plan on just standing next to your toddler, you don’t have to pay for yourself. The Carousel has many colorful animals and benches, so kids of all ages can enjoy it. My toddler rode the Zebra, and he was quite excited! He had such a good time that we decided to do it one more time before heading home.

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium: 6 Great Tips to Maximize Your Visit: My son loved the Animal Avenue.

Hanging out in a nest in Animal Avenue.

6 Tips for Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, WA

  1. Read the rules before arriving. I found it hilarious that one of the rules is that you must be clothed the whole time! But I suppose in the summertime, it would be easy to strip your kiddo down to just a diaper. Frisbees and balls are also against the rules. While it makes perfect sense if you think about it, it wouldn’t be uncommon for us to have a ball with us. So, I’m glad I knew to leave it in the car.
  2. Consider a stroller or carrier. Point Defiance is built on a hill. From the entrance, everything is downhill, either by paths or stairs. That means, by the time you get to the bottom exhibits, your toddler may be exhausted and want you to carry them all the way back up.
  3. Grab a map. Even though there is signage around Point Defiance, we got a bit turned around trying to find the penguins. They are also building a new Aquarium, so some exhibit space is under construction. Referring to the map to figure out which paths to take was nice.
  4. Tread the Cafe carefully. They display toddler treats right at toddler level near the cashier. If you are not planning on purchasing them, you might want to make sure your toddler is strapped into a carrier or stroller, or you may be chasing your shoplifting toddler all over the cafeteria while losing your precious spot in line. Yes, I speak from experience.
  5. Ride the Carousel. It costs $1.50 and lasts about 2 minutes. If you plan on standing next to your toddler, you just pay for your toddler’s ride. Unlike Woodland Park Zoo and its funky credit card token machine, Point Defiance has an actual person taking actual cash for a speedy experience. We rode twice and could easily have ridden several more times because my toddler and I were having such a fun time!
  6. Look into a membership. If you plan on visiting three times a year, getting a membership is worth it. It’s a fun half-day adventure, especially in the Spring/Summer/Fall. Plus, they offer a ZooLights event during the holidays that looks spectacular!

Other Things to Explore in Point Defiance Park

Metro Parks Tacoma has done a splendid job of creating and maintaining Point Defiance Park, considering that this is the largest urban park in Tacoma. Going to Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium alone is already an enriching experience. How much more if you go around the entire park?

Point Defiance Park offers views and many hiking trails that would make you want to savor the scenery for a moment. The Dune Peninsula and Spine Trail are two must-go places in the park as you get to enjoy the lush, old-growth forest.

Owen Beach offers a view of Puget Sound. If you arrive during sea lion migrating season, you may spot a few of them.

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium Wrap-up

The Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium was one great experience for me and my kids. It’s easily one of the best places for an adventurous PNW day trip.

Taking our kids to the museum is a fun experience and memory for them and an excellent avenue for them to learn. Imagine being in a playground full of learning. That’s what this place is about!

So, if you happen to visit Tacoma, I recommend you take a few hours to visit here. I’m sure you won’t regret it.


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Aimee Gibson

Friday 18th of November 2016

Being a former employee of the zoo, I would have to say that your review is accurate and your tips are spot on. Nice job!

Marcie in Mommyland

Friday 18th of November 2016

Thanks Aimee! It's such a fun place and I love that it's totally doable in a morning before lunch. I've also heard their holiday light display is amazing!

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