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Meet a Penguin: 3 Animal Encounters for Family Travelers

Sascha Zuger

The author's son with Leon the penguin.

Many tourist destinations have hopped on the animal-encounter bandwagon. Dolphin kisses, shark dives, and tug-of-war with apes (and tigers!) at zoos are a few of the often offered options. People have different thoughts on the value of these interactive experiences, but it is undeniable that the serious impact on young travelers can last a lifetime and become a highlight of your trip. Here are three of the more unusual we checked out, with pricetags under $40 for kids—a lot of bang for the buck if you have a mini-animal lover in your party.

Antarctica; Empire of the Penguin - Penguins Up-Close Tour

Penguins are striking to look at, but I always figured the massive crowd at zoo penguin enclosures was more interested in escaping a sweltering summer heat as in admiring the birds. At least that was what I thought until we met Leon, one-on-one. A King Penguin (named after the band, Kings of Leon), Leon was just incredible. Photos just don’t capture the glow of the golden collar, or the shockingly soft feel of his dense coat (with 70 feathers per square inch).

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Leon was gorgeous and so soft it was impossible not to coo and tell him how glorious he was, which didn't seem lost on the bird himself, as he preened and seemed quite reluctant to leave my son Nakoa’s side. Leon lives with a variety of other penguin species in a large, beautiful icy landscape at Seaworld Orlando. The ride we took before meeting Leon gave us insight into what a penguin’s early life entails. The aviculturist who guided our encounter told us more about how the penguins are cared for and noted that not all penguins are interested in meet-and-greets. Some don’t participate, but Leon seemed to have a particular interest in personal contact with guests. And I didn’t see any sort of bribery treats being given during our time with him (other than copious praise from his new admirers).

Castaway Cay - Stingray Adventure

As a former divemaster with several thousand dives under my weightbelt, I've always liked stingrays. I hate the bad rap these gentle creatures have gotten through unfortunate events in the headlines, so I appreciate education efforts on their behalf. I might have be biased in thinking every touchpool that features the velvety-smooth slippery rays is tops (bonus for those that offer strips of fish or shrimp to entice the rays close enough to really delight the kids), but the program at Disney Cruise Line’s private island blew the others out of the, well, water. Their massive open-ocean enclosures include a clever shallow-water ramp that allows the stingrays to swim up willingly for a feeding session, and they offer an extended educational lecture on the amazing critters. This, followed by a 30-minute opportunity to snorkel alongside and over the 60 resident rays as they do their thing in the clear turquoise Bahamian waters, is a perfect way to forever etch the experience into a young memory.

Grant’s Farm - Elephant Encounter

This rather large new pal was all ears when I brought my niece, Elyse, for her interactive encounter. She was so impressed by the experience of watching the 11,000-pound creature’s amazing trunk delicately pluck carrots from her hands, she shared tales of having lunch with an elephant with her disbelieving friends for years to come. Admission-free Grant’s Farm in St. Louis offers plenty of wildlife appreciation options; from “edu-tainment” animal shows and a tramride through a 281-acre preserve where 1,000 animals from six of the seven continents graze, to a stable full of the impressive famed Budweiser Clydesdale horses, to an area where you can feed pygmy goats by hand. (There's also free beer for the grownups. Yes, you read that correctly.)

Sascha Zuger

Elyse with the elephant.

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