Kids adore animals —they’re fun, exciting, and sometimes completely weird. Which is exactly why planning a vacation with wildlife as a main attraction is always a win. There’s nothing quite like seeing the world’s great creatures in their natural habitats (or nearly so). Plus, it’s almost impossible not to learn something new along the way. We’ve got everything you need to know to plan a wild trip!
Download tons of animal fact sheets for your little nature fans: worldanimalfoundation.net.
Meet the beasts
Animal sightings are never guaranteed in the wild, but you can increase your chances with these steps.
Research the best viewing seasons
Animals move around a lot and are often only in certain places at certain times of the year. Find out which critters hang out near your vacation destination, and research their migration and mating habits. Check out kidsplanet.org for guidance.
Consider the ages of your children
Older kids are generally better at being patient and quiet while waiting for harder-to-spot animals like birds or whales, while younger kids might do better with visiting a ranch or farm that offers specific activities for kids. (Pony rides, anyone?)
Pick a time: dusk or dawn
Or both! Many animals are most active early in the morning—while others tend to get rowdy at dusk. Mid-day isn’t a great choice because most animals tend to rest then.
Day (& night!) trips to try
Explore nearby natural habitats with these kid-friendly activities:
Visit a local pond or bayou on a humid, warm evening to hear the distinct calls of indigenous frogs and toads. Listen to the “symphony of the night.”
Become the animals at the zoo. Make the visit extra special and teach younger ones the skills they’ll need for observing animals by having them watch with “owl” eyes, listen with “deer” ears, walk quietly like a “fox,” and sniff with a “wolf” nose.
Try your own version of seining — using a special type of large net to catch fish. Bring a smaller net to the lake to catch creatures close to shore and a local field guide for identifying them and learning more. Don’t forget to toss them back once you’re done!
Real World Resources
- Want to find the “wildest” animal spots in America? Visit nwf.org/wildplaces.
- Try a stint as a real-life farmhand with the help of farmstayus.com.
- Find out how to see (and help) endangered species at wwf.org.
Get 'em psyched
Start your animal journey with these books, DVDs, and games
DK First Animal Encyclopedia
Full of bite-sized facts, with stunning photos of hundreds of species. DK, $17. Ages 6 and up.
Frogs and Toads of North America
Learn how to identify nearly 100 species in this renowned collection of images and calls. HMH, $21. Ages 10 and up.
Who Lives in the Sea?
Watch award-winner “Ocean Annie” Crawley entertain and educate kids about the world beneath the waves.Anniecrawley.com, $20. Ages 3 and up.
In this online game from national Geographic, kids discover real-world animal facts. Animaljam.com, free. Ages 5 and up.
Scholastic Parents dream trip
Cost Rica, Central America
Nestled in between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, this tropical country offers some of the most amazing wildlife viewing in the world. Thanks to its tropical climate, progressive nature-preservation policies, and child- (and tourist-) friendly culture, Costa Rica has become the “Orlando” of eco-travel. The peaceful country is situated between Nicaragua and Panama, with beaches on the east and west sides surrounding interior mountains, volcanoes, and tropical rainforests.
What you'll do
Have as much adventure as you’re up for: Search for jungle sloths, crocodiles, howler monkeys, tree frogs, and giant lizards in Tortuguero National Park. Hike, zipline, or ride horseback through rainforests. Visit Mother Nature’s version of a water park and enjoy the natural pools and waterslides fed by the hot springs of an active volcano. Learn about the nesting habits of green sea turtles; get a birds-eye view while crossing the suspension bridges built high above the tropical forest canopy; or get wet visiting waterfalls, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, or snorkeling. A moderately paced, kid-friendly tour is a good option for many families. If you’ve got a very small child, however, there are many family beach resorts to consider, too.
Where to stay
Most tours stop at eco-lodges in the rainforest as well as local villages and resorts by the mighty Arenal Volcano.
When to go
Week-long tours run from June through August and in December, February, and April when school is out. Winter months offer the best all-around weather.
You’re most likely to see dozens of sea turtles lay their eggs on the beaches of Tortuguero during the summer. Keep an eye out for four different species of monkeys: howler, squirrel, spider, and white-faced.
How to book
The convenience of booking directly through a tour company such as Collette Family Vacations (gocollette.com/ family) will make your life easier, or check out options on the tourist board’s site: visitcostarica.com.
More to explore
See all types of worldly creatures at these four family destinations:
Disney World’s Animal Kingdom
Lions, cheetahs, wildebeests, ostriches, baboons, and warthogs roam freely through this wildlife sanctuary. The Maharajah Jungle Trek and Kilimanjaro Safari attractions are like experiencing life in a Southeast Asian jungle or African savanna. Disneyworld.disney.go.com
San Diego Zoo safari park
Located 35 miles east of the famous zoo, this wide-open park is home to an array of wild and endangered animals. check out the cheetah run, ride the African Tram, or soar high above via balloon safari for spectacular views. Sdzsafaripark.org
If you’re in Cape Cod, drive to the very tip of the peninsula and book a whale watching excursion for a chance to see one of the most majestic marine mammals in the ocean. Boats leave from the P-Town pier regularly. Whalewatch.com
The Shedd Aquarium
The Midwest city houses over 30,000 resident fish inside one of the largest indoor aquariums in the world. This is the place to watch penguins at play, come eye-to-eye with a beluga whale, or pet a Stingray. you can even walk through a re-creation of the Amazon rainforest without getting wet! Sheddaquarium.org