The Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens — an Orlando North institution and one of the destination’s top attractions — covers 26 acres, houses more than 400 animals and runs industry-leading conservation and education programs. After experiencing a two-month closure from mid-March to mid-May, the zoo is open and thriving again.

The wildlife exhibits are interspersed with lush, colorful grounds filled with native flora and fauna and wide-open green space. That means you won’t just see and learn about all sorts of animals. You’ll experience a lovely walk, as well!

Along the way, you’ll encounter rare one-horn Indian rhinos, cougars, cheetahs, leopards, wide-eyed lemurs, so-ugly-they’re-cute warthogs, giraffes and other mammals. Among the reptiles are snakes, Gila monsters, geckos, skinks and, of course, gators (or the American Alligator, if you prefer). The zoo is also home to the American crocodile and the endangered Orinoco crocodile, native to South America. There’s also the Insect Zoo (that includes a lot of non-native species); an assemblage of exotic and colorful birds; and a flotilla of amphibians that includes frogs, salamanders and more.

In the interest of ensuring a safe and healthy environment for all guests, the zoo has instituted modified operations. The facility is open daily from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and the number of guests is limited to maintain proper social distancing. You have to purchase advance tickets online, which will be dated and timed.

The use of masks or face coverings is required for guests 13 and older and are recommended for those 12 and under. There are designated “pit stop” areas — the Splash Grounds, The Children’s Garden, concession areas and more — where mask-wearing is not required but 6-foot social distancing is encouraged. Click here for the full rundown of current protocols.

Viewing exotic animals always makes for an unforgettable day, but there’s so much more to do at the Central Florida Zoo. If you want a fun way to escape the Florida heat, cool off at the Tropical Splash Ground. You’ll get a proper soaking from faux hippos and alligators spraying water, palm trees raining, and jets that shoot up from the floor. Parents who prefer to stay dry can lounge in one of the Adirondack chairs that surround the Splash Ground.

While some of the regular events held at the facility have been put on pause, Sunset at the Zoo — an adults-only “happy hour” — carries on. On the third Thursday of each month, the zoo reopens its gates at 5:30 p.m. to people 21 and over. For a $5 admission, guests can stroll the grounds, enjoy live music and buy beer and wine. The party lasts until 9, so it’s a terrific opportunity to see the animals at sunset. Make sure and check the zoo’s website, as events are subject to change.

The Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens dates back nearly a century. Talk about humble beginnings: In 1923, the Sanford Zoo was founded when a traveling circus gifted a rhesus monkey to the Elks Club of Sanford. Animals were added, including a female monkey, a bulldog, a skunk, an opossum, a racoon and a squirrel.

On July 4, 1975, the zoo opened in its current location, made possible by a donation of a 106-acre tract from Seminole County and widespread community support. Jack Hanna, who became perhaps the most famous zookeeper ever, was the director. At the time, the zoo housed 38 animals. A whole lot of growth has happened in the ensuing 45 years and, while the coronavirus pandemic has placed some limits on the experience offered to guests, the Central Florida Zoo continues to offer a first-class family adventure.

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