Our Family Guide: The Honolulu Zoo

Kids rarely tire of the Honolulu Zoo, where visits never are the same.


Editor’s Note: This story was published earlier. Under new COVID guidelines, the Keiki Zoo, water fountains and playground are closed for now. We’ll let you know when that changes. You can see our updated list of new guidelines at many family centers here. 


Giraffes and zebras often appear for visitors at the African Savanna at the Honolulu Zoo. Photo: Christi Young


Where: Honolulu Zoo

Who: Two 6-year-old girls; a 10-month-old baby girl; two Moms and two Dads.

When: Saturday morning, 9 a.m. to noon


Paws down, the Honolulu Zoo is one of the most affordable, convenient, entertaining venues for Oahu families. Parking is simple. The zoo is compact and easy to navigate. And annual passes with unlimited entrance start at $40.


I’ve lost track of the number of times my family has been to the zoo. Three dozen, maybe? Our visits never are the same.


Sumatran Tiger. Photo: Cathy Cruz-George


Sometimes, the tigers sit in their exhibit for hours with their backs to visitors, so you miss good photo opps. The next time you return, two of the tigers might be up and roaring at each other. Sometimes, the baboons like to sit up close and let it all hang out. On other days, they’re anti-social and refuse to come near.


Animals. Very unpredictable. Like kids.


Certain aspects of the zoo remain constant, however: The bathrooms inside the Keiki Zoo are cleaner than the others. The Galapagos tortoises rarely move. The photogenic giraffes and zebras always are camera-ready. And, if he’s on shift, the bespectacled employee at the Dippin’ Dots counter near the zoo entrance likes to yell, “Aloha! Welcome to Honolulu Zoo!” to passersby.


Recently, my 6-year-old daughter had a play date with her friend, so we met the family at the zoo on a Saturday morning in June. As we sweaty parents chased the kids around the zoo, some tips came to mind.


Our 7 Tips


1. Get your bearings. Honolulu Zoo’s layout is like a pizza slice. The pointy tip is the main entrance; the pizza crust is the African Savanna. The middle of the pizza comprises the primates, birds, keiki zoo, snack shop and playground. Confused? Click on this map of Honolulu Zoo to see what I mean.


2. Visit the keiki areas. Make time for the Keiki Zoo, with its tunnel aquarium, roaming chickens and petting zoo goats. Hand-washing sinks and soap are to the right of the goat enclosure. Soap, sinks and paper towels are in a walk-through room near the Keiki Zoo exit. We like those sinks better. The playground—located outside the Keiki Zoo—is busiest from about 10:30 a.m. to noon, even on weekdays when preschool and elementary school field trip groups stop for lunch. For peace and quiet, visit the playground from 9 to 10 a.m., and in the early afternoon when toddlers head home to nap.


3. Strategize your route. Some kids head straight to the playground and lose interest in the animals, and because of that, I know parents who save the playground for the last stop. If your kid refuses to leave playgrounds, start your visit by walking counterclockwise, past the flamingos and ducks, after you enter the main gates. If you want to visit the playground first, start your visit by walking clockwise, and head toward the bird exhibits. On your way there, don’t forget to visit Harriett the three-toed sloth and her baby right outside the gift shop.


The climbing apparatus is one of three newer play areas near the Keiki Zoo and snack stand. Photo: Christi Young


4. Pause for snacks and rest. The zoo has plenty of areas for an impromptu picnic or snack stop. At around 11 a.m., the 6-year-old girls and baby sister took a break on benches in front of the giraffes and zebras. For a cool, shade-covered snack spot, sit on the benches beneath the banyan trees near the hippo statue. If you want a table with chairs, claim one by the snack bar and tiger exhibit. But don’t feed the roaming peacocks. You’ll regret it. If you’re spreading out a picnic blanket, try the grassy lawn between the playground and giraffe sculpture. But watch out for ants. They’re pesky.


5. Arrive early for shaded parking. You can usually find a spot under the trees if you get there before 9:15 a.m.


6. Drop some dollars at the snack and gift shops: The food quality at the zoo snack shop is decent, with prices ranging from $3 to $13. Zoo members receive 10 percent off. I often see local families ordering rainbow-colored shave ice, Spam musubis, fresh-fruit cups, pizzas and crispy chicken tenders. The gift shop right outside the main entrance is a huge hit with children and grownups. We always find a nice selection of stuffed animals, safari and jungle-themed play sets, animal-print jewelry, binoculars, fossil kits, snacks and other souvenirs.


7. Expect some closures and renovations: The Reptile House has been closed for renovations since 2014 and is scheduled to open before 2017. And the hippo exhibit was closed on the day we visited. However, the meerkats seemed to enjoy their new enclosure. Our girls ran back and forth, over and over, between the meerkat’s viewing window and main exhibit. And so did the meerkats. Back and forth at least a dozen times, furry animals and the kids. Even the 10-month-old baby was amused!


Overall Pros: ENTERTAINING! A petting zoo, playground and animal exhibits create hours of fun.


Overall Cons: TIRING! A lot of walking, pushing strollers and chasing after children under the hot sun.


Honolulu Zoo

  • 151 Kapahulu Ave.
  • honoluluzoo.org
  • (808) 971-7171
  • Hours: Daily, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Keiki Zoo closes at 4 p.m.
  • Prices$8 for military and locals ages 13 and up; $4 for children 3 to 12 years. Annual membership ranges from $40, for two adults or one adult and one child, to $1,000, depending on level. Many families will be covered by the Chimpanzee level, $55 for two adults and up to four children under 18.
  • Parking: $1 per hour. Parking machines accept cash, credit and debit cards. Enter your cell phone number to get a text alert when time is about to run out. You can even add time through the alert.