UPDATE 5/21/16: This post was written in 2012, and while it should still give you a great idea of the overall experience of visiting Roger Williams Park Zoo, it is possible that some of the information may be outdated. We recommend that you check their website for details before you go. Hours & rate information has been updated in the Momsense section at the bottom of this post to reflect the 2016 season.
A few weeks ago, we were visiting Boo’s Grandy in my home state of Rhode Island. The weather was fine and we wanted to get out for a few hours one morning so I thought, why not explore the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, RI? I had grown up going to this zoo, which is situated in one corner of the sprawling Roger Williams Park (not to be confused with Roger Williams National Park–a tiny strip of green space on the outskirts of downtown Providence where the only animals you will see are birds, squirrels, and perhaps a dog on a leash).
One of the oldest zoos in the entire country, the Roger Williams Park Zoo has benefited from numerous improvements in recent decades. In fact, it is often considered one of the best zoos in New England. It is also a relatively convenient day trip for many of us living in Connecticut (especially those residing near the Rhode Island border–for you folks, it might be less of a trip than trekking to our own Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport.) It takes us about an hour and a half to get from the Hartford, CT area into Providence, RI. And as you are about to see, it is so worth the trip!
But first, a little history lesson. In case you didn’t know, Roger Williams was an early proponent of the separation of church and state, and the founder of Rhode Island. In the early 17th century, he was banished from Massachusetts for his religious beliefs, and he established the colony of Providence in 1636 as a bastion of religious freedom. Providence became a refuge for all those who wished to practice their own religion without interference from the government. So we built him a park to say “thanks” 🙂
As I mentioned before, the 40-acre zoo is located in one corner of the expansive (as in 435 acres) Roger Williams Park.
As you can see, it’s situated kind of near the main gate to the park, but you actually have to loop around to get to the parking lot and zoo entrance. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get any good pictures of the road, so you’re on your own for that part. There are signs, so just keep a lookout for those.
There is plenty of convenient, FREE parking right outside the zoo entrance. This picture does not even do the parking lot justice. It is HUGE.
After you park and unload, head toward those flags in the distance. That’s where you’ll find the zoo entrance.
You pay for your tickets here, but this is also where you pay to rent a stroller if you need one (more on that in a minute). You can also snag a map (or you can print one from home here). Once on the other side of the ticket booths, head toward the white tent, which is where the ticket-takers await.
This is a great spot to regroup and get situated. There are restrooms (with a baby changing station), the stroller rental pick-up/drop-off, and a large map of the zoo.
See that big red dot at the top right corner? That’s where you are at the entrance.
First things first, hubby and I had an, um, miscommunication about the stroller, so we didn’t have one with us. This turned out to be a good thing because we got to see how the stroller rentals work, plus it was actually kind of a fun ride for Boo.
There are single and double strollers available (as well as other equipment, like wheelchairs). They were clean and sturdy, and it was just 5 bucks to rent a single for the whole day. They won’t be good for babies or very little kids though, as they are hard plastic and don’t have much head support. It you have an infant or a young toddler, you might want to bring your own wheels.
If you plan to pay with cash, you will have to put a deposit down on the stroller (I was told this is equal to double the price of the rental, so $10 for a regular stroller), which will be returned to you, minus the cost of the rental, when you bring the stroller back; if you pay with a credit card, you don’t have to leave a deposit. I guess they figure, if you make off with the stroller, they have your card number 🙂 Either way, remember to pay for your stroller at the ticket booth where you buy your admission tickets.
Okay, where to first? This zoo is home to over 100 species of animals. It’s also basically a big loop, which is super because it means you can just stroll around and pretty much hit everything. We started in Africa. No passports necessary 🙂
The exhibits are connected by wide, shady paths dotted with amenities like photo booths, snack shacks and carts, souvenir stands, and lots of nice benches.
While we’re on the subject of amenities, there are also a couple of indoor/outdoor eating options that serve a full lunch menu. This is the one we came to first: The Serengeti Market Cafe. It’s a seasonal snack bar featuring items like wraps, burgers, salads, New England clam chowder, and also a kids’ menu. Just across the way there is also a sweet shop with Dunkin Donuts coffee (hello! we must be in Rhode Island).
Unfortunately, it was a little early for lunch, so we didn’t do a taste test. Instead, we went searching for the elephants.
If the elephants are not outside, you may be able to find them in the pavilion where the zoo staff take care of them and also allow visitors to observe rituals like bath time. There’s not a whole lot of space in there, so if you can leave your stroller outside, I recommend it. If you can’t, there is a landing just to your left as you enter where you can roll the stroller in. To get up close and personal with the elephants, however, you have to go down some stairs.
Near the elephants’ outdoor diggs, you can find the giraffes. There are a couple areas for viewing. With the giraffes off in the distance, Boo was more interested in this little waterfall.
So we hightailed it around the corner to the other side of the pasture where our speed was rewarded with this amazing encounter.
Next, it was on to the harbor seals.
And the penguins.
When I was a child, the zoo used to have a petting zoo as well. It looks like that has been replaced by this Farmyard exhibit.
There are all kinds of barn animals like pigs, chickens, cows, and even a donkey (which we heard bay; I have never heard a donkey before–they are LOUD!). But it’s not really a traditional petting zoo as most of the animals are fenced a bit too far away to reach, and you aren’t allowed to feed them. Boo still had a great time in here though. It’s a secure little area where you can let your wee ones wander pretty freely so long as you keep an eye on them. There is also a hand-washing station here in case you do manage to have some close encounters.
Nearby we spotted another restroom and changing area (family bathrooms–score!).
Somewhere along the way, two nice ladies gave us a funny foam animal hat for Boo that they weren’t using anymore. Boo wouldn’t touch it, but Grandy sure got a kick out of it.
By the way, that’s my “little” brother in that picture. Isn’t he cute? 🙂
Boo was starting to get antsy, so we tried to speed through a few more exhibits. We knew we weren’t going to make it to everything before we had to skeedadle. The Tropical America exhibit features flamingos, anteaters, plus tons of other cute critters in the only kind of “rain forest” you’ll find in this part of the world. We also found a snack cart (hello soft pretzel!) and some nice benches over here.
The rainforest exhibit is indoors, and you can’t bring a stroller. There is a stroller parking area outside though. Inside, there are lots of little monkeys, birds, turtles, etc. It can be hard to spot them, especially the monkeys high in the foliage. It’s also a little wet in there, since the interior mimics a tropical environment (it’s a simulated rain forest). I didn’t get any great pictures of the animals, but if you visit the exhibit page on the zoo’s website and click on “Tropical America,” you’ll see some pics of what to look for inside.
We also passed this outdoor/covered picnic area. We saw plenty of folks with coolers, so it looks like you can bring your own lunch too.
It was pretty hot for a fall day, so we tracked down a Del’s cart for some of my home state’s famous treat: frozen lemonade. We also found a smoothie cart nearby. It was a tough choice.
But Del’s prevailed. Boo couldn’t get enough. Although, he wouldn’t touch my watermelon-flavored one. I guess he’s like his daddy: a lemon purist.
Over here we also found another food venue: The Wilderness Cafe, which is open year-round, and features indoor and outdoor seating.
The main gift shop is here too. There’s also a restroom located in the gift shop.
Then it was time for our last stop of the day: the camels (part of Marco Polo’s Adventure Trek; see more of this exhibit here).
For some reason, this seemed like a good place to take a family picture.
We headed back to the entrance, passing a few more animals and a mobile exhibit on zoo veterinarians on the way.
Back at the entrance, we returned the stroller and headed for our car. I then insisted on taking a quick driving tour of the rest of the park, so I could show you some of the other things here you can enjoy on your visit.
There’s the famous Roger Williams Park Carousel:
Right across the parking lot from the carousel is a new Boundless Playground (well, new to me anyway; that was not here when I was little). The playground is FREE and open to the public.
There are lots of pond areas where you can feed the ducks (BYOB: bring your own bread). Over here, you can also find the swan paddle boats, which you can rent to take a little tour of the park via the water (these I remember):
There are lots of other things to explore on the grounds too. And you’ll find many great places for a picnic or just hanging out.
Speaking of hanging out, why stop with a visit to the zoo? Providence has several other attractions for families like the Children’s Museum, plenty of parks and playgrounds, a super shopping mall in downtown, and the famous Italian eateries on Federal Hill. And not too far away there’s scenic Newport, RI and lots of beaches (hey, they don’t call it the Ocean State for nothing) to explore in the summer months, plus the renowned Waterfire in downtown Providence during the spring, summer, and early fall. It could make a fun weekend getaway–even without the kids. Shhh. We won’t tell 🙂
The Roger Williams Park Zoo
1000 Elmwood Avenue, Providence, RI 02907
Phone: (401) 785-3510
Get directions here (to Roger Williams Park main gate):
From October – March: 10 am – 4 pm (last admission at 3:30 pm)
From April – September: 10 am- 5 pm (last admission at 4:30 pm)
Please note the following exceptions:
– The Zoo closes at 2 pm on the last Saturday of June every year (last admission at noon) to prepare for Zoobilee! Feast with the Beasts, our major fundraiser.
– The Zoo is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
The Contact Yard in the Alex and Ani Farmyard: Contact Yard hours vary depending on weather and time of the year. Please see the “Today at the Zoo” section of the homepage for details. Visitors can also feed the goats and sheep just outside of the Farmyard along the fence. Please check back periodically for any updates.
Restaurants and gift shops are open daily from 10am to 4pm, October – March; 10am to 5pm, April – September.
The Serengeti Market Cafe is closed for the season on September 29 (opens April 1st)
The RiverCamp Sweet Shop is closed for the season on November 3 (opens April 1st)
The Wilderness Cafe is open year round.
Children (ages 2 through 12): $9.95
Seniors (ages 62+): $12.95
Toddlers ages 1 and under and Zoo members are admitted free.
Parking for the Zoo is FREE.
Please check their website for the most up-to-date information on hours and rates.
Click here for more information about boating tours, including paddle boat rates.
Tips & Things to Bring:
- Visa, Mastercard, and Discover are accepted throughout the zoo gift shops and concession stands (American Express also accepted at the ticket booth only).
- Bring cash for the vendor carts.
- The zoo is very stroller-accessible; bring your own or rent one for just $5. Rental strollers are not appropriate for babies, however. Your child must be able to sit up on his or her own to use one.
- If you have a small baby, consider bringing a wearable infant carrier instead of a stroller so you can be more mobile and get up closer to the exhibits.
- This is a pretty big zoo (40 acres), so even if you have a little one who likes to walk, you might want to bring the stroller just in case he or she gets tired.
- The only place I saw that was unable to accommodate a stroller was the indoor portion of the Tropical America exhibit. We were able to take our stroller everywhere else.
- Some of the exhibits have shaded viewing areas and others are in full sun, so you may want to bring a sun hat/sunblock for the kiddos depending on the time of year.
- Lots of options for food including concession stands, lots of snack and beverage carts, and plenty of indoor seating and outdoor picnic areas. You can also bring your own lunch/snack. The Wilderness Cafe is open year-round; The Serengeti Market Cafe is seasonal. Find out more about these eateries, including a full menu, here.
- All the restrooms I saw had changing stations in them.
- Explore the rest of Roger Williams Park too: don’t miss the carousel, Boundless Playground, and the swan paddle boats. Click here for more info about these and other attractions.
- Be sure to check out all the Zoo’s events!
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