St. Louis Zoo's Sea Lion Sound wins Best Zoo Exhibit

African Grasslands in Omaha takes second place

A great zoo exhibit engages visitors with the animals they're observing while keeping the welfare and enrichment of its animal residents front and center.

  • Sea Lion Sound
    Saint Louis Zoo

    The 1.5-acre Sea Lion Sound at the St. Louis Zoo is about as close as you can come to swimming with sea lions without actually jumping in the water. At the heart of the exhibit, home to nine California sea lions and three harbor seal, is a 35-foot-long underwater viewing tunnel where visitors can see the marine mammals swimming around them. The exhibit's 881-seat amphitheater hosts the First Bank Sea Lion Show where the sea lions show off their amazing abilities.
    Photo courtesy of Ray Meibaum / Saint Louis Zoo

  • African Grasslands
    Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium

    The African Grasslands, a 28-acre project of Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, brings the African savanna to Nebraska, complete with tall grass, acacia-like trees, kopjes and few visual barriers. Visitors can observe giraffe roaming alongside impala, white rhino, ostrich and spur-winged geese, while a herd of elephants live with plains zebras and impala. Other residents include cheetahs, lions, sable antelope and bongos.
    Photo courtesy of Clemens Vasters / Flickr

  • Museum of Living Art
    Fort Worth Zoo

    Considered one of the world's best herpetariums, the Museum of Living Art at the Fort Worth Zoo showcases more than 100 species of reptiles and amphibians in a stunning 30,000-square-foot facility. Hand-painted murals line the walls, and the habitats for some of the world's most exotic and endangered creatures fill the gallery-like space with living, breathing works of art. Highlights include the world's largest saltwater crocodile, a 15-foot Burmese python and colorful yellow-spotted climbing toads.
    Photo courtesy of Fort Worth Zoo

  • Polk Penguin Conservation Center
    Detroit Zoo

    The 33,000-square-foot Polk Penguin Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo provides a state-of-the-art habitat for 75 birds from four species. A 25-foot-deep aquatic area shows off the penguins’ natural swimming abilities, while two acrylic tunnels let visitors observe the penguins swimming above, around and below them. Visitors get the full Antarctic experience, including a blast of polar air and sea mist upon entering.
    Photo courtesy of Detroit Zoo

  • Simmons Hippo Outpost
    Dallas Zoo

    Hippos have returned to Dallas as part of the 2.1-acre Simmons Hippo Outpost, an expansion of the already incredible Africa experience at the Dallas Zoo. This replicated African waterhole habitat includes a 120,000-gallon pool with a 24 by 8-foot underwater viewing window, bringing guests up close to the zoo’s Nile hippos. Above the water, the hippos share their home with an okapi herd; red river hogs and saddle-billed storks are in the forecast for the habitat.
    Photo courtesy of Dallas Zoo

  • Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center
    Indianapolis Zoo

    Designed to enrich the social, physical and intellectual abilities of the Indianapolis Zoo’s orangutan residents–one of the largest groups in any American Zoo, the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center offers dozens of unique viewing perspectives. Guests can come nose to nose with an orangutan or watch one swing by 80 feet above the ground. Year-old orangutan Mila is one of the habitat’s most active and endearing residents.
    Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Zoo

  • Meerkat Maze
    Philadelphia Zoo

    Part of the Philadelphia Zoo’s Zoo360 initiative to provide an enriching environment for animals while facilitating meaningful encounters with guests, Meerkat Maze invites young visitors to play the part of these furry friends by climbing and crawling through a series of tunnels, paths and lookouts mirroring those of the gregarious meerkats living in the habitat.
    Photo courtesy of iStock photo / nattanan726

  • Arctic Passage
    Henry Vilas Zoo

    Arctic Passage, the biggest renovation at the free Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, provides a habitat for the park's resident bears and seals. Animal habitats resemble the Arctic for polar bears, the Pacific coast for harbor seals and the wilds of the American west for grizzly bears. The AZA-recognized exhibit includes sustainability features like solar panels and rainwater catchment. 
    Photo courtesy of Barry Dale Gilfry / Flickr

  • Predator Ridge
    Denver Zoo

    Benson Predator Ridge at the Denver Zoo takes an innovative approach to enriching the lives of its animal residents. Lions, hyenas and African wild dogs rotate through the exhibit's multiple habitats, providing important stimulation to their minds and bodies. From a guest perspective, each trip to the zoo has the potential for a completely different animal viewing experience, making it a favorite with repeat visitors.
    Photo courtesy of Denver Zoo

  • Gibbon Trails and Langur Landing
    Zoo Knoxville

    Zoo Knoxville debuted their newest exhibit, Gibbon Trails and Langur Landing, in March 2018. Park of the Boyd Family Asian Trek, the exhibit includes a 45-foot treehouse with multi-level viewing areas where visitors can observe the animals as they run and swing through interconnected aerial mesh tunnels. Zoo Knoxville is one of only five accredited facilities to display langurs, including baby Opie born in December 2017.
    Photo courtesy of iStock photo / SanderMeertins

We asked a panel of zoo and family travel experts to nominate their favorite animal exhibits in North American (excluding aquariums), and for the past four weeks, 10Best readers have been voting daily for their favorites.

The top 10 winners in the category Best Zoo Exhibit are as follows:

  1. Sea Lion Sound - Saint Louis Zoo
  2. African Grasslands - Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium
  3. Museum of Living Art - Fort Worth Zoo
  4. Polk Penguin Conservation Center - Detroit Zoo
  5. Simmons Hippo Outpost - Dallas Zoo
  6. Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center - Indianapolis Zoo
  7. Meerkat Maze - Philadelphia Zoo
  8. Arctic Passage - Henry Vilas Zoo
  9. Predator Ridge - Denver Zoo
  10. Gibbon Trails and Langur Landing - Zoo Knoxville

A panel of experts partnered with 10Best editors to picked the initial 20 nominees, and the top 10 winners were determined by popular vote. Experts Debra Erickson (International Zoo Educators Association), Mommy Nearest Eileen Ogintz (Taking the Kids) and Alan Sironen (Zoo Consultants International) were chosen based on their knowledge and experience of America's zoos.

Congratulations to all these winning zoo exhibits!

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Debra Erickson

Debra Erickson

Mommy Nearest

Mommy Nearest

Eileen Ogintz

Eileen Ogintz

Alan Sironen

Alan Sironen