6 Small Midwest Zoos Great for a Short Visit

Large zoos are a fun all-day adventure. But there are times that you don’t have all day. Or perhaps you have little ones in tow who can’t yet handle a full day outing. You hate to pay the full price for a major zoo, deal with the hassle of a large parking lot, and leave after a few hours. Here are six Midwest zoos that are great for short visits.

Columbian Park Zoo
Lafayette, Indiana

This small, six-acre free Columbian Park Zoo is great for a couple of hours with little ones. In fact, we adults enjoyed the Wallaby Walkabout for a close encounter with wallabies. And, although it was a tight squeeze, I couldn’t resist crawling into a tunnel and popping up in the midst of the prairie dog town. Leave it to Skip to scratch the head of a goat in the petting zoo. After that, the goat wouldn’t leave Skip alone—he wanted more! The Butterfly Garden Party is open Memorial Day and Labor Day, as are a few pre-school age rides just outside the zoo. The Columbian Park Express Train, for all ages, travels through Columbian Park, weather permitting. Future expansion plans include an Africa area, walk-through aviary, carousel, and more.

Open mid-April through mid-October
Admission Free
Parking Free

Columbian Park Zoo - Small Midwest Zoos

Dickerson Park Zoo
Springfield, Missouri

Approximately 500 animals represent 160 different species at Dickerson Park Zoo. The zoo was built in the 1930s as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. It almost closed in the 1970s. Instead, a Friends of the Zoo organization was formed. The Friends organization adopted a 25-year master revitalization plan. Today, like most modern zoos, exhibits are themed around geographical areas: South America, Australia, Tropical Asia, and Africa. For a local touch, a fifth area, Missouri Habitats, showcases wildlife indigenous to Missouri, including black bear, bobcat, and mountain lion. A small train (extra fee) gives you a break from walking. In addition, a water play area lets kids cool off on a hot Ozarks day.

Open year round, except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and New Year’s Day
Admission $12 ages 13-59; $8 ages 3-12; $8 Seniors 60+; Free age 2 and younger
Parking Free

Dickerson Park Zoo

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Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo
Fort Wayne, Indiana

The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo was designed with kids in mind, but we adults love it, too. With many of the same features as a large zoo, but on a smaller scale, it’s easy to spend several hours here. Approximately 1,000 animals cover the gamut from penguins to leopards, peacocks to orangutans. Lush landscape, full of greenery and fountains, add to the zoo’s appeal. Four rides (extra fee) add variety and fun. The newest ride, a narrated Crocodile Creek Adventure, takes you down an Australian river in a log boat. Parents Magazine consistently rates the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo among the top zoos for kids.

Open late April through early October
Admission $14 adults 19-61; $10 ages 2-18; $12 seniors 62+; Free age 1 and under
Parking Free

Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

Peoria Zoo
Peoria, Illinois

Like the Dickerson Park Zoo, the Peoria Zoo adopted a master revitalization plan to bring the zoo up to date. In the Africa exhibit, large animals include white rhinoceros, African lion, and giraffe. Walk among wallabies in Australia Walk-About, open Memorial Day to Labor Day. Purchase a seed stick and feed the parakeets in the aviary. Kids get a kick out of petting the animals in the Contact Barn.

Open year-round, except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day
Admission $9.50 ages 13-64; $6.50 ages 2-12; $8.50 Seniors 65+; Free age 1 and younger
Parking Free

Peoria Zoo - Small Midwest Zoos

Potawatomi Zoo
South Bend, Indiana

The oldest zoo in Indiana has grown considerably from its 1902 beginning, and it’s about to get even better. In July 2015, about the same time we visited, the Potawatomi Zoo unveiled its new master plan for revitalization. The plan includes closer interaction with the animals, additional attractions, and more interactive experiences. That said, there is currently plenty to see. The Potawatomi Zoo is home to over 400 animals on 23 acres, including big cats, zebras, and chimpanzees.

Open April through November
Admission $10 ages 15-61; $8 ages 3-14; $8 senior 62+; Free age 2 and under
Parking Free

Potawatomi Zoo - Small Midwest Zoos

Washington Park Zoo
Michigan City, Indiana

Michigan City’s Washington Park Zoo is location on the Lake Michigan shore. The 90+ species in this 15-acre zoo include Bengal tigers and grizzly bears. The Australian Adventure features a walk-through aviary. Lure colorful parakeets with a feed stick, and they’ll perch on your hand. Climb to the top of a 70-foot lookout tower for a view of the beach and Lake Michigan below. Plan a couple of hours in the zoo. Afterward, spend some time at the beach, across the parking lot.

Open April 1 to October 31
Admission $7 ages 12-61; $6 ages 3-11; $6 seniors 62+; Free age 2 and under
Parking $7 per day for cars; $14 per day for trailers and motorhomes

Washington Park Zoo - Small Midwest Zoos

What small Midwest zoos do you enjoy?

Let us know about your favorite small Midwest zoos in the comments below, and tell us a little about them.

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Small Midwest Zoos


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12 thoughts on “6 Small Midwest Zoos Great for a Short Visit

  • May 18, 2017 at 7:42 pm

    Good for you, Connie, for expressing your inner kiddo by crawling through that tunnel.
    Though were I to do the same here in the southwest, I’d more likely find myself surrounded by coyotes than prairie dogs! As you say, visits to smaller zoos are fun and affordable. And the size is right, so no one in the group, young or not-so-young, goes home worn out at the end of the day.

    • May 18, 2017 at 8:41 pm

      LOL, Melodie. No one was around when I crawled into the tunnel. I may have thought twice about it otherwise.

  • May 19, 2017 at 8:38 am

    Our family loves going to zoos so I love your list. We always make a trip to the Des Moines Zoo every year and this summer we’re excited to go to the Omaha Zoo!

    • May 19, 2017 at 10:54 am

      You will love the Henry Doorly Zoo, Val. It’s my favorite of all the zoos I’ve visited. Here’s an article I wrote about it: https://midwestwanderer.com/henry-doorly-zoo-omaha/ I haven’t visited Des Moines yet. When I do, I’ll be sure to include the zoo on my itinerary.

  • May 20, 2017 at 4:02 pm

    I have not been to any one of these zoos. Thanks for introducing all of these to me. I’ve been to a lot of zoos, but yet have many to visit!

    • May 20, 2017 at 9:15 pm

      We try to visit the local zoo whenever we’re in a new place. You would really enjoy the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. It’s smaller than a major zoo, with easy parking, but has a lot of the amenities of major zoos.

  • May 21, 2017 at 12:56 pm

    I’m not ‘far’ from Peoria, I might have to stop by! I like the sound of the seed stick experience!

    • May 21, 2017 at 6:11 pm

      Unfortunately, we visited the Peoria Zoo in November, so that exhibit wasn’t open, but we did the same thing at Washington Park in Michigan City, Indiana, and it is a cool experience.l

  • May 24, 2017 at 8:33 am

    I’m always reluctant to visit zoos. Some are not as good as others about treating the animals humanely, and that’s a big issue for me. How would you describe the animals’ treatment at these zoos? From your photos, it looks as if some of the animals at Washington Park Zoo are in cages.

    • May 25, 2017 at 7:35 pm

      Hi Francesca. Thank you for your comment. Since I am not a zoology expert, I reached out to Washington Park Zoo director Jamie Huss regarding your concern. Here is her reply: “The Washington Park Zoo is a smaller Zoo, but over the last 3 years we have built large, naturalistic enclosures that provide stimulation for the animals in our care.

      The Washington Park Zoo is also more than just a Zoo, we have a focus on being a rescue for exotic animals in need of a safe home. Some of the zoo’s residents have been misplaced pets that proved to be too wild or were confiscated as illegally owned, some have suffered injuries that would make life in the wild impossible and others were removed by the DNR, but all the residents are given the best environments that our staff can provide for their health and mental enrichment needs.”

  • July 25, 2018 at 7:58 pm

    Hi, I’d like to add Cosley Zoo in Wheaton, IL to this list. It’s on the extra small but fun side, meaning it’s perfect for very small children and you can probably see it all in an hour or two. They have a petting zoo as well as medium sized exhibits. No really big animals here, they have deer, raccoons, wolves, and birds plus others. But the landscaping is pretty and the small town atmosphere is very welcoming. They are planning an expansion. We go once every summer, and we have a snack or ice cream bars at the concession stand and browse the small gift shop. Nice to bring a picnic lunch and eat at their picnic tables. Love this tiny zoo!

    • July 27, 2018 at 1:54 pm

      Thanks for adding the Cosley Zoo, Traci. We hadn’t heard of it before, but the next time we’re in the Wheaton area, we’ll swing over there and check it out.


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