By Amanda Mesa | Published on November 1, 2022
Florida is best known for its year-round sunshine and blue skies, beautiful white sand beaches, and vibrant cities brimming with culture, nightlife, and theme parks — but did you know that it's also one of the most popular places in the country for one-of-a-kind animal encounters? You don't have to venture into the wild to experience them, either. The best petting zoos in Florida invite guests to get up close with a diverse array of critters, from horses, sheep and miniature donkeys to lemurs, giraffes, wallabies and llamas at some of the state's more exotic petting zoos. For animal lovers traveling on vacation, one of the best things to do before going on a cruise would be having an in person encounter while visiting some of the popular Florida wildlife experiences near your departure port.
If you're cruising from Tampa, you'll be conveniently situated to explore one of the best petting zoos in Florida — ZooTampa at Lowry Park. It offers all kinds of incredible, educational experiences, and it's hands-down one of my favorite go-to spots for exotic animal petting zoo encounters. During my last visit, I got to feed lettuce to a giraffe and pet stingrays (spoiler alert — their backs feel a little like sandpaper, but they're extremely gentle). This petting zooin Tampa also offers llama and pony rides, and is home to an aviary where you can watch colorful budgerigars flit among the trees and feed nectar to pretty lorikeets. Kids will love Wallaroo Station, Lowry Park's children's zoo. It features a fun roller coaster and a mini water park that offers little ones refreshing relief from hot summer days. If you visit on a weekend, you can also feed the zoo's white rhinoceros.
ZooTampa at Lowry Park is located at 1101 West Sligh Avenue in Tampa. It's open seven days a week from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., with extended weekend hours in May. Parking is free for all guests. Tickets cost about $45 for adults and $35 for children ages 3 to 11.
In addition to seaside fun in the sun and amusement parks, Florida is also well known for its; farms, lakes, swamps, mangroves, and of course the gators that live in them. The aptly named "Gatorland" is by far the ultimate spot to mingle with this iconic reptilian mascot in the Orlando area. Chock-full of wild rides and attractions, it's one of the best options for thrill-seekers and adventure-chasers. Guests can brave the Screamin' Gator Zip Line, voted the "Best Zip Line in the USA" by AOL Travel (and one of two located at the park), or set out on an exhilarating off-road adventure that offers glimpses of alligators interwoven with fun facts, hilarious jokes and zany characters along the way. Daredevils can sign up for the park's Trainer-for-a-Day program, which lets you get up close with some dangerous yet fascinating critters. You'll get to hold a baby alligator, enjoy hands-on fun with snakes and other reptiles and meet some of the park's biggest crocs and gators on a backstage tour. If you're looking for a tamer petting zoo in Orlando, head to Allie's Barnyard, where you can feed friendly llamas, sheep, deer and other gentle animals.
Gatorland is located at 14501 South Orange Blossom Trail in Orlando. It's open every day from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. Parking is free for all guests, and tickets cost about $33 for adults, $23 for children ages 3 to 11 and $32 for seniors aged 60 and older.
Cruising out of Fort Lauderdale? Head to nearby Happi Farm for a family-friendly experience at one of the best petting zoos in the Fort Lauderdale region. Happi Farm is a non-profit organization that focuses on Animal-Assisted Learning and Equine Therapy to educate and help young people develop physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially through animal interaction.
Happi Farm is located at 10251 Orange Dr Davie, FL 33328. It's open every day (except Tuesdays) from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is only $10 per person.
If your cruise departs from or returns to Miami, Florida, you have every reason to visit Zoological Wildlife Foundation Miami for an exotic petting zoo experience in Miami. Its 5 acres are home to both a regular zoo and hands-on encounters that offer a more unique and intimate experience than many competitors. The company states that its mission is to raise awareness about threatened and endangered species through up-close animal encounters and educational demonstrations. During your visit, you can choose to interact with all kinds of interesting animals through various tailored tours. Residents include marmosets, Capuchin monkeys, two-toed sloths, kinkajou, lemurs, tigers, jaguars and more. Choose from a well-rounded range of tours and experiences, including a primate encounter, an owl encounter, a general wildlife experience, and a VIP meet-and-greet with animals that also includes a catered lunch. If you want to make a lasting impact during your visit, you can also adopt an animal through a donation that will be used to support on-site endeavors, such as building and enhancing enclosures for the facility's furred, feathered and scaled residents.
ZWF Miami is located at 16225 Southwest 172 Ave in Miami. It's open Monday through Sunday by reservation only with tours conducted between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Prices vary by tour.
In sunny Melbourne, Florida, you'll find another top option for animal experiences — Brevard Zoo. Accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, this guest-favorite nonprofit facility encompasses 75 sprawling acres and more than 900 animals from close to 200 species. The zoo's population of critters hails from around the world, including parts of Africa, Asia, South America and Australia. Brevard Zoo is also home to some local animals from right here in Florida, like bobcats, black bears and sandhill cranes. The zoo's Paws On play section is a guest favorite — it boasts a fun-filled water park, an interactive children's playground, a beach cove, a 20,000-gallon aquarium filled with all kinds of fish and, of course, a petting zoo. Stop by to hang with armadillos, pygmy goats, alpacas and special guests that rotate every day. Other notable hands-on experiences at Brevard Zoo include feeding lorikeets in the Lands of Change free-flight aviary, petting giraffes in the Expedition Africa giraffe platform, and brushing majestic rhinos in an unforgettable zookeeper-led experience.
Brevard Zoo is located at 8225 North Wickham Road in Melbourne. It's open daily from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. for non-members (members enjoy early access starting at 9 a.m.). Tickets purchased online cost about $28 for adults, $16 for children ages 3 to 11, and $23 for seniors aged 65 and older. Children under the age of 3 can visit for free.
Spending a few days in the Keys is one of the best things to do before or after your cruise from Florida for several reasons. I love the laid-back atmosphere, plentiful open-air bars and restaurants, and incredible snorkeling opportunities that exist in Florida's southernmost string of islands. But the Florida Keys are also home to several facilities that allow guests to interact and even swim with dolphins. One of my favorites is the Dolphin Research Center. This nonprofit research facility offers several different programs that bring you up close to these playful, gentle creatures. The Dolphin Encounter is the best, in my opinion. Priced at $210 per person, it includes all-day admission, a theater presentation, and a 20- to 25-minute in-water experience where you can swim with a dolphin and even enjoy a thrilling dorsal pull. The program is open to guests aged 5 years and older. The Dolphin Research Center also offers programs that teach you the basics of training dolphins, allow you to pet and play with them, and even create a work of art with these intelligent aquatic mammals.
The Dolphin Research Center is located at 58901 Overseas Highway on Grassy Key. It's open every day from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Pricing for dolphin encounters varies by program, but general admission per person is $28 for adults, $23 for children ages 4–12, $25 with a veteran ID and free for children under the age of 3.
As you begin to plan your pre- or post-cruise tour of petting zoos and wildlife facilities in Florida, it's worth keeping in mind that this is a big state. Many of the top exotic petting zoos are spread out from north to south between Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, and Tampa. Lucky for you, these cities are home to Florida's major ports of call. If your budget and travel schedule allow for it, consider renting a car and adding at least four or five days before or after your cruise in order to really hit all the best petting zoos in Florida.
Fortunately, the state has several large airports, which makes planning a pre- or post-cruise petting zoo adventure easier. If you're sailing to and from Miami, for example, you can fly into or from Orlando International Airport and squeeze in all the cool exotic petting zoos that stretch from south to central Florida — or vice versa.
Ready to start planning your wildlife-filled adventure? The first step is booking the perfect cruise getaway to serve as the centerpiece of your vacation.