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Two lions at the Smithsonian National Zoo.

Sleep With the Fishes (and Lions) at These Zoo and Aquarium Sleepovers

Note from Wendy: When my sons got the chance to spend the night at New York’s American Museum of Natural History my youngest, Doug, was so impressed that he wrote a blog post detailing the reasons why everyone should sign up for a museum sleepover. So when I saw that our friends at Yahoo! Travel had rounded up zoos that offer similar slumber-party programs, I immediately wanted to share the info. See their article below. For help planning memorable family vacations, take a look at my WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts. For more specific recommendations, email me at questions@wendyperrin.com and I can connect you with the right travel specialist for your family.

This article originally ran on Yahoo! Travel


By Jordi Lippe of Yahoo! Travel

Going to the zoo and aquarium can be a magical experience. You get to see animals you’ve only ever read about in real life—monkeys, penguins, sharks, whales, etc.—up close. But have you ever wondered what happens at these parks after all the tourists leave and the lights go out? Now kids of all ages can find out. Some of your favorite attractions offer overnight stays, so you can literally sleep with the fishes—and other wild animals. Here are 10 zoos and aquariums where you can actually spend the night.

Resident Camp at SeaWorld, various U.S. locations

SeaWorld in Orlando

SeaWorld in Orlando. (Photo: SeaWorld/Facebook)

What do dolphins look like when they sleep? That’s a question you can have answered by attending one of SeaWorld’s Summer Resident Camps, where students grades four through college can spend a few nights sleeping next to beluga whales, manatees, and dolphins. When the sun comes up, participants also get to do cool stuff like follow zoological professionals as they handle penguins, take a swim in the dolphin stadium show pool, and prepare educational presentations to share with park guests. Bonus: This program is offered at SeaWorlds across the country.

Snore and Roar at Smithsonian’s National Zoo, Washington, D.C.

Two lions at the Smithsonian National Zoo.

Two lions at the Smithsonian National Zoo. (Photo: Smithsonian’s National Zoo/Facebook)

Typically, when spending the night in D.C., you hear city sounds like cars honking and people yelling. How about trading those in for wolves howling and sea lions barking? Just head to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo for its overnight program. You can pitch a tent on Lion/Tiger Hill before taking an exclusive animal-keeper-led tour through the exhibits and animal territories. With both family and adult-only versions available from June through September, it will be the wildest experience you’ve never had in our nation’s capital.

 Also from Yahoo! Travel: Nearly-Extinct Turtle Is Coming Back With Help From Zoo

Overnight Safari at the Bronx Zoo, Bronx, New York

Two sea lions at sunrise at the Bronx Zoo. (Photo: Joey/Flickr)

Two sea lions at sunrise at the Bronx Zoo. (Photo: Joey/Flickr)

Trade your zebra-print skirt for an actual zebra on your next night out in New York City. The Bronx Zoo hosts Family Overnight Safaris to which you can bring a tent, sleeping bags, and a picnic dinner and enjoy an evening of animal-themed activities and classic camping rituals like roasting marshmallows. Be sure to stay up late to hear the wild calls from the various species on the grounds. But no need for an alarm clock—zoo officials say the sea lions provide a natural wake-up call.

Sleepover With the Sharks at National Aquarium, Baltimore

Blacktip shark at the National Aquarium.

Blacktip shark at the National Aquarium. (Photo: JJ Jackson/Flickr)

Total darkness + sharks isn’t usually an equation you want to find yourself in the middle of. But when you participate in Sleepover With the Sharks at the National Aquarium, you get to see these beautiful creatures sans the sheer terror. Overnight guests set up sleeping bags in the underwater viewing area as the kings of fish swim overhead. Included in the program is a behind-the-scenes tour, reserved seating in the dolphin amphitheater, a 4D immersion film, dinner, and breakfast.

Big Cat-Nap Campout at Zoo Miami

A leopard at the Miami Zoo.

A leopard at the Miami Zoo. (Photo: Zoo Miami/Facebook)

Each year during the Big Cat-Nap Campout, families are invited to pitch their own tents for the night in the zoo’s “grasslands” before heading off on a behind-the-scenes tour and enjoying a campfire complete with s’mores. Participants also get breakfast and free admission to the park the next day and, of course, a T-shirt to commemorate the totally awesome experience.

 Also from Yahoo! Travel: You Have to See It to Believe It — Lion Shocks Tourists by Opening Car Door on Safari

Adult Overnights at the Philadelphia Zoo

A red panda at the Philadelphia Zoo.

A red panda at the Philadelphia Zoo. (Photo: National Geographic Image Collection/Alamy)

While there are overnight programs for children and teens throughout the year, the Philadelphia Zoo sometimes lets adults in on the fun, too. Go behind the scenes at the attractions, have up-close encounters with live animals, tour the park after dark, and have a light dinner. And what’s a night out without some cocktails? Enjoy a happy hour surrounded by exotic species.

Harbor Discoveries Camps at the New England Aquarium, Boston

Flame jellies at the New England Aquarium.

Flame jellies at the New England Aquarium. (Photo: New England Aquarium/Facebook)

This Boston aquarium is already pretty cool, what with animals like penguins and jellyfish. So why not take it up a notch and slumber alongside some of these sea creatures? Families sleep in the west wing and get a tour of the main aquarium, admission to an IMAX movie, and breakfast, all while learning about life in the ocean.

 Also from Yahoo! Travel: With its Aquarium and Miniature Forest, Vancouver Is Canada’s Coolest Airport

Zzzoofari Slumber at the Nashville Zoo

Two barn owls at the Nashville Zoo.

Two barn owls at the Nashville Zoo. (Photo: Art Directors & TRIP/Alamy)

It’s as if you’re going on a camping trip, only this one has giraffes, red pandas, and kangaroos. During a night under the stars at the Nashville Zoo, families are treated to a tour of the zoo, play games and do crafts, have a marshmallow roast, and enjoy hayrides before falling asleep to the sounds of apes and exotic birdcalls. Plus, there’s breakfast the next morning.

Seashore Sleepovers at Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey Bay, California

Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium

Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium

Enjoy an evening with live music, a wine tasting, and … stingrays. Guests participating in one of the aquarium’s Summer Nights Seashore Sleepovers get to explore the property after the doors close to the public at 8 p.m. There’s also a bedtime snack and a late-night nature movie before you go to bed in front of your favorite exhibit. Wake up with the fishes and enjoy a continental breakfast in the café.

Zookeeping 101 at Busch Gardens Tampa

Busch Gardens Tampa

Busch Gardens Tampa

If exotic land animals are your thing, you’ll love the Zookeeping 101 overnight summer program at Busch Gardens Tampa. Created for high school and college kids, campers assist zookeepers with their daily routines, including preparing diets, training animals, and providing veterinary care for a variety of animals from giraffes to hippos to lemurs. Of course, they also get to try out all the fun rides after the crowds leave. Camper lodging is in dormitories inside the park.

How to Transform a Disney Trip from Average to Extraordinary

Just thinking about a vacation at Disney World conjures all kinds of images: Mickey Mouse, princesses, rides, parades, smiles, magic…big crowds, long lines, overtired parents, overstimulated children. Of course, you can have all of the good with none of the bad, but it requires some planning—and a lot of know-how. After a recent trip to Orlando, we’ve got you covered with our own tricks, as well as advice from our Trusted Travel Expert for Disney vacations, Michelle Allen, who can help ensure an all-smiles, no-stress trip with all the best activities and experiences (and oh yeah, she costs nothing to you; Disney pays her fees). Here are five foolproof ways to transform a Disney World trip from average to extraordinary.


Four Seasons Orlando

After a day at the park, the sleek and sophisticated design of the Four Seasons is a welcome respite from its over-the-top surroundings.

1. Stay at the new Four Seasons

Disney World has a lot of really great hotels at a wide variety of price points, but the newest addition to the lineup really stands apart. The Four Seasons Orlando just had its grand opening this fall, and provides all the luxury and service you’d expect from a Four Seasons property—attentive staff, beautiful rooms, a full-service spa, customized beds—plus all of the official Disney services, thanks to its location inside park boundaries (e.g., free buses to parks and attractions, an on-site desk for tickets and reservations, discounts for Disney-property guests). “It’s still on campus, so you’re not giving up the location that you would have had to in the past to stay somewhere different—it’s really right there within,” Michelle says. “And while Disney does deluxe, this is really luxury.”

The hotel’s best perk might just be the visual and mental break it provides from its over-the-top surroundings. After a day of crowds and craziness (or instead of one), the hotel’s nearly-mouse-free design, sleek adults-only pool, cocktail-carrying pool staff, and full-service spa are a welcome respite. Not that families are forgotten here—this is Disney World after all, and the hotel is a very kid-friendly home base with a complimentary kids club, two water slides, a lazy river, a zero-entry family pool, a rock-climbing wall, sand volleyball courts, and a splash zone water playground. There’s even a character breakfast.*


Disney World Orlando

The mosaics in Epcot’s Morocco showcase were crafted by master artisans. And since only Allah can achieve perfection, they left a crack or a flaw in every work. Photo by Billie Cohen.

2. Splurge on a VIP Tour

We’re not saying this isn’t expensive, we’re just saying it’s a pretty failsafe way to make your time in Disney World more extraordinary. Hire a VIP guide and you’ll be picked up at your hotel and ushered into the parks of your choice through special back-lot entrances. Once inside, your guide will map out the most efficient way to hit every ride, parade, and snack spot on your wish list, FastPassing you to the front of lines and character meet-and-greets, scoring VIP seating at parades and fireworks, and dropping all kinds of Disney secrets and trivia along the way. Wondering who’s on those portraits in the Haunted House? Why there’s an intentional flaw in EPCOT’s Moroccan fountain? I was repeatedly impressed by how much my guide knew, and her narrative made my day more than just a series of rides. Apart from the fun of all that Disney geekdom, it’s the personalized attention that really makes a VIP Tour attractive: The stress of crowds, lines, far-far-away bathrooms, parking—they are all removed from the equation. At a price, of course: rates range from $1,890 to $3,000 for a six-hour-minimum tour, depending on the season and whether you’re staying at a Disney resort, and that fee does not include park admission. On the bright side, that fee is the same whether you’re one person or ten, so if you’re traveling as a family or two, the cost can be shared…or mitigated another way, as Michelle has seen from her own experience: “There are some people who may stay at a moderate resort and put that money toward a guide instead,” she says.


Disney World Orlando

Pick up a MagicBand and you can leave pretty much everything in your hotel room—even your room key. Photo courtesy Walt Disney World.

3. Embrace technology

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, you can reserve three FastPass rides before you step foot outside the hotel (or even before you leave home). “It used to be that you had to get to the park before opening,” Michelle recalls. “The rope would drop, you’d get a FastPass, hop on a ride, then run to the other end of the park to get another FastPass. But now you can reserve guaranteed board at Space Mountain between 10:30 and 11, so guess who gets to have a leisurely breakfast? You do.” Guests staying at a Disney resort can also use MagicBand bracelets, which are registered online and then used for various functions, including park admissions, FastPass reservations, Disney PhotoPass accounts, paying for food and merchandise, and even unlocking your hotel room door.

Tying it all together is the My Disney Experience app. From your phone, you’ll be able to check ride wait times, change up your FastPasses, make dining reservations, and find character greeting locations. Plus it has GPS, so you’ll be able to see where you are in relation to that Dole Whip you’ve been craving.


Disney World Orlando

Silhouettes and abstract images of the renowned mouse are hidden throughout the parks and resorts of Disney World. This one is embedded in a giraffe carving at Animal Kingdom Lodge. Can you see it? Photo courtesy Walt Disney World.

4. Go surfing… or backstage

Some of the parks feature special activities that really do make you feel special. Typhoon Lagoon offers surf lessons before the park opens to the masses. At Hollywood Studios, you can dine with a Disney Imagineer. And at Magic Kingdom, the Keys to the Kingdom tour lifts the curtain on the whole Disney show, bringing you to backstage areas, leading you through the secret underground tunnels used by staff to get around without being seen, and pointing out a ton of hidden Mickeys disguised all over the park.

5. Use our Trusted Travel Expert
Yes, yes, we’re tooting our own horn here, but we have no qualms about it. Booking a trip with Michelle Allen won’t cost you a thing, but booking without her most certainly will. You’ll end up paying in time, stress, and yeah, probably dollars because she can not only make sure you get access to great activities, she can also find you deals (and let you know when something simply isn’t worth the price). There’s just so much to navigate, reserve, and organize when it comes to planning a Disney vacation. Why do it alone? Read more about Michelle’s background and her tips for Disney World.<


*Disclosure: Four Seasons Orlando provided me with a three-night stay free of charge, and Disney provided me with a VIP Tour so that I could test it for our readers. In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, there was no request for or expectation of coverage on Four Seasons’ or Disney’s part, nor was anything promised on ours. You can read the signed agreement between WendyPerrin.com and the organizers of my trip here.