Skip to site content
group travel leader select traveler small market meetings

Animal Encounters

With formidable jaws strong enough to break the bones of any animal, the alligator munching on dinner is a memorable sight. Groups will see these prehistoric creatures in action by tossing them food for a safe thrill at Wild Adventures Theme Park’s new interactive exhibit.

Zoos and aquariums across the country offer groups similar interactive experiences, some not available to the general public. Faith-based groups can dine on a leisurely breakfast while watching zebras frolic at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Those interested in an educational experience can learn how to give a 500-pound sea turtle an exam at the National Aquarium.

Other aquariums offer optional add-on excursions, such as a boat tour with the Virginia Aquarium to hunt for some the interesting species in the wild. Whether your church sends a youth group, a senior group or a group comprising all ages, these zoos and aquariums will weave in hands-on activities that will make their wildlife-watching trip unforgettable.

Wild Adventures Theme Park

Valdosta, Georgia

Though alligators can float deceptively still in the water, they can also lunge at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour when motivated. Groups can witness these fast and strong animals while feeding them at Wild Adventures Theme Park’s Discovery Outpost in Valdosta, Georgia.

The new addition to the zoological theme park will open in March. Visitors can walk among these giant reptiles at the expansion’s Alligator Alley exhibit, home to dozens of alligators. Daily zoological talks, an alligator-themed show and a netted bridge hanging directly over the alligator habitat provide ways to examine these ancient creatures up close.

“Groups can arrange to toss the alligator food into the exhibit and watch while they eat it,” said Adam Floyd, public relations manager for Wild Adventures Theme Park. “From time to time, visitors can even have a chance to touch a smaller alligator in a controlled environment.”

Discovery Outpost will also add to the site’s amusement park rides, such as the spinning Turtle Twist ride.

Elsewhere in the park, groups can imagine themselves in the African savannah on the Safari Train. The ride runs through two open-range exhibits, where passengers can enjoy the intimacy of viewing water buffalo, antelopes, rhinoceroses and other animals with nothing between them and the wild animals.

The Safari Petting Zoo and the Birdhouse connect guests with some of the zoo’s most adorable exotic creatures. The Birdhouse’s parakeets, zebra finches and Lady Amherst pheasants fly and even land on people’s shoulders inside the 7,000-square-foot venue.

Besides enjoying the animal attractions, groups can ride eight roller coasters, soak themselves at the Splash Island water park or watch a Christian concert at the theme park.

Virginia Aquarium

Virginia Beach, Virginia

The unusually bright colors and odd shapes of aquatic life found in the Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach can make these marine animals seem otherworldly. But on the aquarium’s Ocean Collections boat ride, guests discover that these fascinating creatures live just minutes away.

The 75-minute cruise gives passengers the opportunity to observe local fish and marine invertebrates up close in the boat. Passengers might discover seahorses, stingrays, blue crabs and keyhole urchins on a typical day. After examining them and explaining facts about each species, guides release the creatures back into the ocean.

“Ocean Collection is extremely popular,” said Matthew Klepeisz, public relations manager for the Virginia Aquarium. “It’s a fun boat trip where we drag a net behind the boat and then take a look at what we’ve got in it. It gives people an opportunity to learn about the animals that are found right in our backyard. The neat thing about these trips is that the diversity of wildlife changes with the seasons.”

Guests can scour the water for dolphins or whales on seasonal boat trips with the Virginia Aquarium. Passengers might also see eagles, seabirds and sea turtles along the way.

Inside the aquarium, visitors can interact with horseshoe crabs, sea stars and whelks at the Chesapeake Bay Aquarium’s touch pool. Other hands-on displays throughout the aquarium showcase aquatic life from the Chesapeake Bay and beyond. Sand Tiger Sharks, loggerhead turtles, Komodo dragons and other fresh and seawater creatures fill the 800,000 gallons of aquarium exhibits.

Groups can attach a film at the National Geographic 3D Theater for a visually impressive experience.

Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Columbus, Ohio

With coffee in one hand and a fork in the other, groups can observe zebras, gazelles and antelopes beginning their day at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Breakfast at the Mapori Restaurant begins the zoo’s new Wasafiri Adventure for unobstructed views of the Heart of Africa exhibit.

The Wasafiri Adventure package also includes an exclusive giraffe feeding, a private animal encounter and reserved seats for the Cheetah Run. The Cheetah Run features cheetahs and other wild cats demonstrating their speed and agility in a controlled setting. Guests that had previously only seen the cats sleeping at the zoo will witness the capabilities of these animals at the keeper-run show.

The Wildlife Encounter Tour goes behind these scenes at either the Animal Health Center, Manatee Coast or Discovery Reef for glimpses into the challenging work behind maintaining the 400-acre zoo. At the Animal Health Center, visitors learn how the zoo’s veterinary staff handles animals with various illnesses, such as a tiger with a toothache or a snake with a cold.

“You can come in the morning and have interactions with keepers and animals all day,” said Thom Blair, director of sales for the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. “There are a lot of experiences you can do on your own. There are keeper talks and exhibits that allow guests close access to the animals.”

One such exhibit includes the Lorikeet Garden, where visitors can feed a cup of nectar to rainbow lorikeets. Groups can also view the wildlife on a train circling the North America exhibits, a tram through the Polar Frontier and a boat ride around the Islands of Southeast Asia exhibit.

The zoo houses more than 7,000 animals, with exhibits divided into the regions of the world. The Zoombezi Bay water park and the Jungle Jack’s Landing amusement park offer theme park additions to the zoo’s nature experience.

National Aquarium


Most people feel the texture of a jellyfish only when they encounter its sting while swimming in the ocean. But at the National Aquarium’s Living Seashore exhibit, guests can touch a jellyfish at one of the aquarium’s touch pools without the risk of being stung. Groups can also touch an Atlantic stingray, a horseshoe crab and a clearnose skate as they float by.

“We want to teach people how to better care for the animals at the beach,” said Nora Campbell, director of sales for the National Aquarium. “The touch tables teach you how to play at the beach without harming the animals. It is our newest exhibit.”

The aquarium consists of five floors of exhibits that mimic tropical rain forests, the Australian outback and an Atlantic coral reef, among others. With more than 2 million gallons of water, the aquarium is the largest tourism attraction in Maryland.

“We have over 20,000 animals and award-winning habitats,” said Campbell. “You can go around the world in two to three hours. And we don’t just have fish, but tamarin monkeys and reptiles as well.”

The aquarium’s 4D Immersion Theater re-creates the sensations of wind and scent to supplement the visual experience. Other exclusive tours relate fascinating stories about taking care of the aquarium’s many creatures. The Insider’s Tour, Reef Behind-the-Scenes Tour and Dolphin Discovery Behind-the-Scenes lead groups to staff-only areas with chances to see some animals up close. The Icky, Creepy, Slimy, Cool Tour introduces visitors to some of the aquarium’s most bizarre species and how staff members care for these less cuddly creatures.

Youth groups looking for memorable overnight accommodations can arrange a Sleepover Immersion Program to say both good night and good morning to all the aquarium’s aquatic animals. Participants bring only a sleeping bag and a pillow to spend one-on-one time with dolphins, sharks and other exotic creatures after an included dinner.

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium

Omaha, Nebraska

Play with African pygmy goats, hold parakeets in the palm of your hand and watch the feeding of 300 free-flying bats at Omaha, Nebraska’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. Originally established as the Riverview Park Zoo in 1894, the zoo was named “world’s best zoo” by TripAdvisor in 2014.

Among its claims to fame are the largest cat complex in North America, the world’s largest nocturnal exhibit and the largest glazed geodesic dome in the world. The zoo’s re-created rain forest, aquarium and large indoor desert also delight visitors.

Groups can feel like they’ve stepped into a wild bird habitat at the free-flight, four-acre Simmons Aviary. Flamingos, spoonbills and egrets live throughout the exhibit. For a more intimate experience, in the new Budgie Encounter, parakeets fly overhead, land on visitors’ heads and eat from participating visitors’ hands.

The zoo also includes other interactive exhibits, such as a petting zoo, a giraffe-feeding experience, a touch pool and a bird show that demonstrates bird flights from hawks, macaws and guinea fowl. Groups also enjoy sitting back and watching the ostriches, cheetahs, lions and other wildlife go by while they ride on the Skyfari, an aerial tram that runs over the African exhibits. The Omaha Zoo Railroad runs on a 2.5-mile track for a more thorough viewing of the entire zoo.

Optional Backstage Experiences shake up the zoo tour with chances to see shark feedings, the swamp exhibits with their lights on and the feeding of 300 bats.