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Philadelphia Zoo vs. Elmwood Park Zoo

A head-to-head comparison for your family's best zoo outing.

The weather is warming and the kids are getting rowdy…time for a trip to the zoo.  But which one? The two main zoos in our area – Philadelphia Zoo, located at 3400 West Girard Avenue in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, and Elmwood Park Zoo, located at 1661 Harding Boulevard in Norristown – offer different experiences, perks, and challenges. Here’s how they line up in a head-to-head comparison on eight of the most frequently asked questions in our Facebook groups.

Getting There

For some city dwellers, the Philadelphia Zoo could win in this category, but for suburban families and most city families, getting to the Philadelphia Zoo can be a challenge. Parking is pricey, and some lots are far from the entrance. Also, the zoo is not accessible by subway – only trolley and bus. However, members park one car free.


Elmwood Park Zoo’s parking lot is right in front of the zoo entrance, and parking is free for all visitors. If you rely on public transit, though, Elmwood doesn’t do much better than Philadelphia– the zoo is one mile from the Norristown high speed rail station, and otherwise serviced by buses.

For Very Young Children

Almost unanimously, our members recommend Elmwood Park Zoo for toddlers and very young children. The zoo is small, so you can easily cover the whole thing before nap time. The exhibits are small, too, so younger children can see the animals more easily. There is basically just one circular path around the zoo, and the playground in the middle of the zoo is a little kid favorite.


If your child is obsessed with a particular animal, though, chances are better that it will be on view at Philadelphia Zoo. Little kid favorites like lions, bears, and penguins are only at the Philadelphia Zoo.

Overall Cost for a Day

For a family of four with kids over two years old, to visit the Philadelphia Zoo and park one car costs about $106, not including food or extra attractions. At the Elmwood Park Zoo, this visit would cost about $62. When comparing, do consider your visit goals though: for the Philadelphia Zoo’s higher price, you get a much larger zoo with more animals to see and area to explore, and thus more likely a longer outing.


As with anything, there are ways to save a few bucks: many local libraries have passes for Elmwood Park Zoo through the Museum Passport program, AAA members can purchase discounted tickets, Acme often sells discounted tickets and coupon codes for admission, and memberships are available at various times throughout the year (often in May and November.)

Inclement Weather

Philadelphia Zoo is the clear winner for inclement– or even questionable–weather days. With many indoor exhibit areas, there is plenty to explore when it’s too hot, cold, or rainy to spend the day outside. And on a day when there is a chance of rain, you can feel confident that there will be shelter close by if the skies do open. Many of our members say that the Philadelphia Zoo is not only doable in bad weather, but that bad weather days – with their lighter crowds – are their favorite days to visit the Philadelphia Zoo.


The Philadelphia Zoo has a much larger animal population, with more than 90 species in residence, including a dozen endangered species. Over the zoo’s 42 acres, there are 14 animal exhibits and a children’s zoo. Also, the Philadelphia Zoo has large animals: lions, tigers, bears, gorillas, hippos, rhinos and more.


The Elmwood Park Zoo, being small, is home to fewer animals (about 75 species on view), and very few large animals. It does offer some things not available at Philadelphia, though: you can see and learn about some unusual animals at Elmwood Park, including elk and bison, and visit farm animals in the barn.


Extra attractions at zoos can be a bane or a boon for parents. They can be highlights of the day and may extend the years that older kids are interested in visiting a zoo, but they can also inspire lots of begging from kids and quickly increase the price of your day.


At the Elmwood Park Zoo, members get one dollar off the price of attractions, and a significant discount for Treetop Adventures, the zip lining course. Treetop Adventures is extremely appealing for older kids, and can make Elmwood Park Zoo a great choice for families as their kids age.


At the Philadelphia Zoo, Family Deluxe and Contributor members get one free ride attraction ticket (excluding the ZooBalloon) per visit for each family member and guest, and many of our members say this perk is well worth the higher cost for these membership levels.


Our Facebook groups are a great place to get tips on visiting any local attraction with your family, and the zoos are no exception. For both zoos, members recommend going either when they open, or late in the day. Not only do these times avoid peak crowds, but also animals are more active in the morning and the evening. Many members love popping into the zoo for a quick visit in the late afternoon and evening, in particular.


Juggling older kids who want to do zip-lining and younger ones at Elmwood Park can be a trick. Consider partnering up with another family with kids of similar ages, so you can split up and take the little ones to see animals while the older ones zip line.


At the Philadelphia Zoo, many seasoned visitors suggest making a beeline for the back of the zoo when you arrive, and working forwards to avoid crowds, or at least heading left instead of right at the main entrance.


Main Line Parent and Philadelphia Family Supporting Members now get discounts on memberships at both the Philadelphia Zoo (15% off an annual membership for Family, Family Plus, Family Deluxe, and Contributor level memberships) and the Elmwood Park Zoo (20% off membership)!


Perks to consider include reciprocal admissions (50% off for the other zoo for each), the cost of admission versus the cost of the membership, and other discounts included such as attractions and food. Ultimately, you should select the zoo you visit most for membership, and most memberships pay for themselves in less than 3 visits.


So, which zoo wins? It depends on so many things and there is a different winner for each family! If you can’t handle this competition, consider the Cape May Zoo or the Brandywine Zoo, too. Both are recommended as fun, less expensive (Cape May is free!) and less-visited zoos worth the trip.


Photograph by Rachel Kramer.

Contributing Writer