When you want to have a lot of fun for not a lot of money, Como Park Zoo and Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in Saint Paul, Minnesota are a great bet. You’ll find a variety of animals, fair rides, carnival food, breathtaking gardens and pretty picnic spots, all within walking distance.
And did I mention that it costs next to nothing?
There’s a suggested donation of $3 per adult and $2 per child. But if you’re really in a tough financial spot, signs remind you that you’re always welcome to enter whether or not you choose to donate. Parking is free as well.
You can really get a lot of bang for your buck if you start early. Como Park Zoo opens every day of the year at 10 a.m., so grab a quick breakfast and head out. I’m a huge fan of hotels with continental breakfasts because they’re really convenient when you’re traveling with a toddler. (And also because E and I like to split a waffle in the morning. I always eat way more than normal when we’re going to be running around all day.)
We stayed at the Residence Inn by Marriott in Roseville, which is just minutes away from Saint Paul. This hotel also offered a pool — an absolute sanity saver for family travel and fun for me, since I love to swim. There’s also an outdoor grill and patio area and a full kitchen in the suite so you can make your own meals to save money or just stay in case of rain. (It’s always good to have a back-up plan.)
We made it to Como Park Zoo just in time for the giraffe feeding at 10:45 a.m. My readers had been telling me this was one of their favorite parts of the zoo, so I was curious. You pay $5 for a couple pieces of lettuce, wait in a line (only about 2 minutes when we were there) and offer said lettuce to a hungry giraffe.
Because the focus is on giving the animals the amount of food they actually need and not on the indulging the visitor’s experience of feeding them, it was all over really fast. (I had exactly enough time to take this photo of E and my husband Derrick, no more and no less.) But that didn’t matter at all. E loved it. He talked about it all weekend. And that giraffe was pretty adorable.
There are lots of other animals to visit and programs and activities to take in, including keeper talks, a sea lion show and educational programs with the polar bears and gorillas. We didn’t go to any of them (we kind of just like to wander) but they looked well-attended.
The animal habitats are on multiple levels and most incorporate the outdoors, so it doesn’t feel claustrophobic. We visited on a Saturday and it was very busy, but it never felt overly crowded or anxiety inducing.
Strollers are allowed and if you forget your own, you can rent one at at Garden Safari Gifts for $5 for a single and $8 for a double. Since many of the other visitors are parents and grandparents as well, everybody handles the stroller traffic flow nicely.
The really smart parents (and a few romantic couples) brought their own picnics. (Why didn’t I think of this?!) If you elect not to pack a lunch, there’s food available on the premises. Numerous kiosks offer carnival type treats, snacks and drinks. The main food stands offer a surprisingly good variety of options (I ordered a mixed green salad with cranberries and diced turkey) at the usual amusement park type prices.
Next time, I’ll pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it at Como Park, located just across Midway Parkway. This 450 acre public park boasts a lake, a golf course and some really pretty shaded picnic pavilions that were full of canoodling couples and entire extended families out enjoying a sunny summer day.
We walked through the park on our way to the zoo and the trails (some of which follow an old street car line) were unexpectedly beautiful. I had a sudden, uncontrollable urge to go hiking, and probably would have just walking if Derrick and I were alone. But of course E had spotted the rides at Como Town Amusement Park and was already running in that direction.
Como Town is a cute little amusement park with some big rides for adults and older kids and a number of rides and attractions for the toddler and young elementary school set. You’ll have to pay for the rides, but there are a few structures to climb and playhouses to play in for free on your way to the zoo and conservatory.
The conservatory is a lovely, peaceful respite from all the squealing children and the hustle and bustle of the zoo itself. There’s a fern garden, a water garden and an immersive rain forest garden where South and Central American snakes, fish and other animals can be viewed in their natural habitat. The tropical birds roam free in this space and the warm, humid air must be a relief on a cold winter day.
But the Sunken Garden is the conservatory’s real showpiece. And it’s a stunner.
The gorgeous glass space is flooded with light and the lush greenery and soothing water features add to the experience. The flower gardens change with the season (azaleas and poinsettias in winter, cheerful tulips during the spring, lush roses and geraniums all summer and chrysanthemums in the fall), so it’s likely that the flowers you see will be different any time you visit.
When friends told me that I’d want to check out Como Park Zoo and Conservatory more than once, I was skeptical. But now that I’ve been there, I totally get what they’re talking about.
This is a place that’s been a family tradition for locals and travelers for generations. With tons of attractions, a fun atmosphere and a price that can’t be beat, it’s easy to see why.
What about you?
What do you love about Como Park Zoo and Conservatory and Como Town?
What animal, plant or attraction do you always look for when you’re exploring a new zoo or conservatory?
What other affordable attractions should I see the next time I’m in Saint Paul or Roseville?
Como Park Zoo and Conservatory
1225 Estabrook Drive
Saint Paul, MN
Winter hours (October – March): 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Summer hours (April – September): 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
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