More Than Terrific Tigers: John Ball Zoo’s Exciting Activities & Behind-the-Scenes Animal Encounters

John Ball Zoo: More Than Just Lions, Tigers, And Bears!

What do you think of when you think of John Ball Zoo? Do you think of those adorable little penguins? The powerful tigers? Or the playful chimpanzees?

Did you also know you can feed the animals, ride a camel, and pan for gems? John Ball Zoo has events and experiences for kids of all ages.

Funicular at John Ball Zoo

Sign up for the VIP Treatment at John Ball Zoo

Local mom Jenni Brinker and her kids visited John Ball Zoo for a closer look at all the extras JBZ can offer. 

This wasn’t Jenni’s first time at the zoo, but this was a special occasion. They were getting a look at some of JBZ’s more specialized offerings.

“We have been to the zoo many times. We usually go 2 or 3 times each year,” said Jenni.

“We usually just look at the animals, so my kids were super excited to get to do a few extras – like riding the camel and the funicular.”

Jenni and her kids had a jam-packed day, beginning at the aquarium, where they took part in feeding the penguins. She says it was fun, but a bit intense for 3-year-old Zlata.

John Ball Zoo Penguin Experience (1)

The next birds on the tour were the barn owls – at home in their newer habitat.

Animal Ambassador Encounter in the Barn

The Red Barn at the Petting Zoo was one of the biggest surprises for Jenni.

“Brigham asks ‘What is in the Barn?’ every time we visit the petting zoo. I always just said that it’s where the petting zoo animals go to rest and eat. Boy, was I wrong!”

“The barn is 3 stories of surprises!” she exclaimed.

Jenni and her kids were able to get up close with the animals with an ambassador animal encounter and a behind-the-scenes tour of the Red Barn. They saw all kinds of animals, including turtles, snakes, and bunnies, and even got to hold a bearded dragon!

Zlata liked the chinchilla most – even when it shed hair all over, a defense against predators. They were much softer than the hedgehogs, which Zlata decided were way too pokey!

john ball zoo animal ambassadors

Jessica, their guide through the Red Barn tour, shared facts and gave the kids plenty of opportunities to touch and hold the animals.

john ball zoo petting zoo

Next, at the Petting Coral, the kids were able to meet and pet some of the sheep and goats.

Hidden Gems

One of the highlights for Jenni’s kids, especially Brigham, was the John Ball Zoo Gem Company.

At this experience, kids can choose a gem bag, and then pan for their very own gems. JBZ even provides a card to help kids identify what each gem is.

Finally, after a quick stop at JBZ’s natural playground, Jenni and the kids headed over to the Budgie Aviary, where they were able to get “cheek to beak” with colorful little Australian budgies.

Even with all that, Jenni still believes there is more to do.

“The zoo is a great spot for all ages. It is so fun to see all the animals. And you can experience a lot more.”

“The Zipline and ropes course were a bit big for us this year, but I know in a few years it will add to our experience.

“We can’t wait to go again. There’s still so much to do. We are saving that for our next trip!”

Extra Experiences at JBZ

Getting involved at John Ball Zoo in a deeper way is easy due to their many options.

Here’s a sample of what the Zoo schedules over the year:

  • Preschool Programs: Preschool Programs are for our youngest zoo enthusiasts. These classes are designed for the child only and offer a fun, enriching learning environment where 3 and 4-year-olds can explore the animal world.
  • Kids Night Out at the Zoo is a blast. Parents enjoy a kid-free evening and kids enjoy a zoo adventure! Skip the hassle of finding a sitter and send kids over to the zoo for a fun-filled evening. Kids will experience a twilight tour of the zoo, a live animal encounter, crafts, stories, games and more. Pizza dinner is included. Participants must be 4-10 years of age. Kids may be grouped according to age for certain activities.
  • Twilight Tours let you experience the zoo in a new ‘light’. Bring your family, flashlight, and a sense of adventure for this guided tour of the zoo as the sun goes down. Learn how to use your senses at night and how animals are adapted to life in the dark. The program includes an animal encounter, hands-on activities for children ages 5 years and above, and guided tour. Twilight Tours last about 1.5 hours.

Various Close Encounters are offered throughout the year, including:

  • Brown Bear Encounter – Now is your chance to feed the bears! Start your day off by stepping into the bear habitat to disperse their morning diet and enrichment. Talk to the Zookeeper who takes care of them and get a chance to see the bears’ behind-the-scenes area.  
  • Penguin Feeding – Venture onto the penguin deck with a zookeeper to feed the penguins! Learn what we do daily to care for the fish, penguins, sharks and marine invertebrates that you see on exhibit. 
  • Red Panda Encounter – Get up close with our red pandas! During this encounter, you will have the opportunity to step inside the red panda’s indoor habitat with Wyatt or Wasabi and have them eat out of your hand. You may even be able to touch them gently on the back!* It is an experience you will never forget. Encounter includes a digital souvenir photo for you to share with your friends and family.
Red Pandas at John Ball Zoo

What is your must-see at the zoo? What animal encounter would you like to try?

1300 W. Fulton St.
Grand Rapids

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