Several zoos offer an overnight experience. Parents and kids get to:
Melbourne Zoo gets some 10,000 visitors a day, and all of them have gone home when my daughter and I pull into the parking lot at 6pm. The gates are still shut, and knowing the assortment of wild animals that reside within, it feels like we’re in the opening credits of a Hollywood movie, the kind where things go awry and lions escape their cages and start picking off overnight tourists one-by-one. To be fair, young kids will be less concerned with the animals and more freaked out about the dark, since they rarely spend much time in it, much less roaming around an empty zoo to a soundtrack of grunts, hisses and squeaks of animals. The service gates open, and our group of just over a dozen Roar n Snorers are greeted by Jacky and Katheryn, our two friendly hosts for the evening. They’re fun and enthusiastic and superb female role models for Raquel. We drive our vehicles into the service area – backstage at the zoo – and are shown to our safari style canvas tents on raised wooden platforms. Shaded by palm trees and within earshot of various animal calls, our tents – named after former and current zoo elephants – are surprisingly roomy, with sleeping bags, pillows and air mattresses. We’re advised to keep the tents zipped unless we want to cuddle a possum, which I have to remind my daughter, is not something we actually want. Having dropped off our bags, we’re led on a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo, learning about the animal diets (did you know the animals are fed veggies provided by grocery stores?) and the old heritage-listed buildings that now function as storage facilities. All this entrances the older kids in the group, but my kid just wants to see the animals. Fortunately, the red panda is up and about and eager to say hello to us as we use the public bathrooms a short walk from our tents. With fruit bats flying overhead, we’re free to wander about as our hosts prepare BBQ’d burgers and chicken, served with salads and corn in a former elephant enclosure.
I wonder if the smell of grilled meat drives the carnivores crazy. Satiated, any sign of my daughter getting tired quickly dissipates as we grab our headlamps and head out for a nocturnal walk in the zoo. Animals are always more lively at night, especially in summer. We hurl apples and pears to the elephants, greet the hyperactive Bolivian, squirrel monkeys, and learn that it’s best to keep your distance from the one-eyed tapir. We pet a tortoise and a python. Along the way, our hosts tell us great stories about the animals and reveal the inner workings of the zoo. Melbourne Zoo uses a category system where animals are rated between 1 and 5 to determine how dangerous they are. A tiger is a 1, but so is a peccary. At the lion enclosure, a juvenile male is particularly active and jumps up suddenly against the thick glass viewing area. As the smallest and therefore most vulnerable member of our group, my daughter clings to my neck for the remainder of the walk. It’s dark, it’s late, it’s a little spooky, and it’s time to go to bed.
Milk and cookies are the reward back at our camp. Parents with kids who run on a tight schedule might struggle with the late bedtime, but since my daughter rarely sleeps anyway, we’re up at 11pm as she thrashes about in the sleeping bag we’re inevitably sharing. Older kids are having a much easier go of it, and personally I enjoy hearing the sounds of the animals at night, presuming they’re not the sounds of the young couple enjoying a romantic weekend adventure in their adjacent tent. We wake up, pack up, enjoy breakfast, and take a pre-opening excursion to hand feed the giraffe, and watch the zookeeper feed the penguins. Our ticket includes admission to the zoo the following day, and so we retrace our steps in the early morning sun, before the zoo opens for business.