Traveling to China to see giant pandas isn’t a trip you undertake lightly. Nor is exploring the Galapagos for 100-year-old tortoises or the Arctic for polar bears. But you can enjoy all these experiences in a single day at the San Diego Zoo.
Approximately 175 million people—half of America’s population—visit a zoo or aquarium each year, according to the AZA, a nonprofit accreditation organization. And more than 3.2 million choose the San Diego Zoo, making it the most popular in America. The appeal, according to Steve Feldman, spokesperson for the AZA, is natural: “People are hardwired to connect with other species and animals.”
In recent years, zoos have turned their attention to creating immersive exhibits that closely resemble the environments of wildlife-rich locales like the Serengeti or Madagascar—which ends up being a boon for both animals and their human guests. “Every zoo is trying to create habitats that replicate the wild,” affirms Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and host of Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild.
At Minnesota Zoo’s Russia’s Grizzly Coast, for instance, visitors walk through a sea cave and past billowing steam vents, bubbling mud pots, and an erupting geyser before heading into a lava tube and coming face-to-face with giant brown bears.
The Denver Zoo, which comes in at No. 9, just opened the Toyota Elephant Passage this summer. Gibbons swing from vines overhead as guests look out for one-horned rhinos, Malayan tapirs, Asian small-clawed otters, and of course, stately Asian elephants in outdoor areas that look like they were transported from Thailand.
While such exhibits draw crowds, zoos also offer hundreds of special events that keep people coming back. “Brew at the Zoo” nights held across the U.S.—including Atlanta, D.C., Denver, and Phoenix—pair craft beer tasting with conservation fundraising. Around Halloween, a number of parks, including Columbus, Ohio, host “Boo at the Zoo” days, which feature haunted rides and opportunities to watch animals get their turn at smashing pumpkins.
Then there’s the money factor. Admission prices to most zoos are less than movie tickets, and sometimes free—notably at the No. 6–ranked National Zoo, home of famous giant pandas Tian Tian and Mei Xiang. If you purchase a membership to an AZA-accredited zoo, you can receive free or discounted admission at others (aza.org/reciprocity).
Ready to plan your visit? See which adorable zoo animals and cool attractions have drawn millions of people to the 20 most popular zoos in America.
The Methodology: We sourced our data from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which tracks annual attendance rates at accredited zoos in America (all major zoos are accredited). Attendance figures were reported by individual zoos. We used the numbers from 2010, the latest year for which comprehensive data were available. We did not include theme parks because they do not publicly report attendance rates and they have world-class thrill rides that are big draws in attracting visitors. (Had we chosen to include them, Disney’s Animal Kingdom would have been No. 1 and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay would have been No. 2, with respectively 9,686,000 and 4,200,000 annual guests.) Since our focus was on traditional zoos, we chose not to include aquariums, a category of their own. However, we did not exclude zoos that had an aquarium on their premises as part of the entire zoo.