WITH ESCALATING air fares and the price of gasoline directly affecting summer vacation plans, here's an attractive alternative thousands of Ohio families have discovered.
No more than a relatively short two-hour drive for most area residents, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is an inviting summer destination.
Home to an amazing 9,400 animals representing nearly 680 species, the Columbus Zoo today is recognized among the premier facilities of its kind in the U.S., hosting some two million visitors annually.
USA Travel Guide has named the Columbus Zoo the No. 1 Zoo in America.
Thanks in large part go to "Jungle" Jack Hanna, a driving force in the zoo's ever-expanding landscape which now spans 582 acres, 100 of which have been developed as exhibits and public spaces.
Hanna, perhaps the world's most noted animal expert, was named director of the Columbus Zoo in 1978 and served in that capacity until 1992. Today, he serves as the facility's director emeritus.
Over that period, Hanna was responsible for a dramatic upgrade in the zoo's transformation.
"The idea was to increase attendance by offering both educational and entertaining events all designed as family-friendly opportunities," Hanna reported during a recent visit to Belmont County.
Hanna soon became an in-demand guest, making dozens of yearly appearances on national TV programs, including "The Tonight Show," "Good Morning America," "David Letterman," "Larry King Live" and several more.
Columbus Zoo exhibits consist of several geographic regions including Asia Quest, North America, Polar Frontier, The Shores, Australia and the Islands, and the African Forest.
According to officials, 40 species housed at the Columbus Zoo are considered endangered and 33 are threatened animal species.
In 2008, an adjoining water theme park began operations. Zoombezi Bay Water Park requires a separate admission but also includes admission to the Columbus Zoo.
Another popular feature of the zoo is the Polar Frontier, in its third season of operation. Themed after a long-abandoned mining town, Polar Frontier transforms visitors into the Arctic Circle, connecting you to animals which reside in some of the coldest climates in the world.
Completed and open to the general public in May 2009, the $20 million state-of-the-art interactive exhibit is home to two polar bears, two African Brown Bears and four Arctic foxes.
The habitat includes a 167,000 gallon still pool, allowing visitors an up-close-and-personal view of the bears at eye level.
Additionally, Polar Playground permits kids an opportunity to play while their parents relax of catch a snack at the nearby Polar Grill.
Polar Frontier experts present daily talks designed to inform visitors of the animals' habits and food intake.
Later this month (June 16), Zoofari returns to the Columbus Zoo for a 42nd consecutive year. Zoofari is an adults-only fund-raiser held between the hours of 7:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. The evening includes live entertainment, food and drink. Additional info is available by visiting the zoo's website: www.columbuszoo.org. Proceeds for Zoofari benefit the Zoo's conservation and education programs.
Summer hours of operation are as follows: June-August (9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily); September and October (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily).
General admission to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is $14.99 (adults); $9.99 (children, ages 2-9); seniors ($10.99, over-60). Parking is $7 per car.
Admission to Zoombezi Bay Water Park is $24.99 (ages 2-9); $32.99 (ages 10-59); and $24.99 (ages 60 and over). The water park admission is also good for admission to the Columbus Zoo.
Zoombezi Bay summer hours are: 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. (through June 7); 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. (June 8-Aug. 18).
Zoombezi Bay features 17 water slides, including the Python Plunge and Big Boa Falls. There is also a 544,500-gallon wave pool; and Crocktail Creek, an adults-only lazy river experience.
The Columbus Zoo's website offers driving directions and a map of the adjoining attractions, including a 18-hole Safari Golf Course.
Advance zoo tickets may also be purchased online at: www.columbuszoo.org.
Gibson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.