Day Trip Discoveries: Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Fort Nisqually feature special summer exhibits for kids

Point Defiance Zoo walrus underwater viewing station. (Photo courtesy Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium)

This summer take your kids or grandkids to Point Defiance Park in Tacoma, where both the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and Fort Nisqually Living History Museum have special exhibits and experiences designed to spark children’s imagination.

American eagle at Point Defiance Zoo. (Photo courtesy Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium)

Kids can do an Eye-to-Eye Shark Dive, ride a camel, explore the new Budgie Buddies exhibit, meet the 3,450-pound walrus Dozer, and thrill to the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater Show at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. These are just the currently highlighted attractions among many exhibits at the only combined zoo and aquarium in the Northwest.

Nearby, kids can learn about the of daily lives of boys and girls in the 1850s at the Fort Nisqually Living History Museum. They’ll appreciate today’s world in contrast to the childhood chores, limited education and isolated existence in a Hudson Bay Company fur trading post — long before Washington was a state.

So plan an excursion to 760-acre Point Defiance Park, among the 20 largest urban parks in the nation. The Zoo & Aquarium is a real kid-magnet, showcasing an amazing array of creatures in close-up yet natural viewing environments.

Cloud leopard. (Photo courtesy Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium)

Visit by Labor Day if kids want to ride a camel. The zoo is the only one in the Northwest to offer camel rides ($8 per person in addition to admission).

Explore the South Pacific Aquarium to see five species of sharks, stingrays and brilliantly colored tropical fish. Kids can touch stingrays and two small shark species to see what their skin feels like in Stingray Cove. Brave kids age eight and up — and adults — can do the exhilarating, Eye-to-Eye Shark Dive with experts in a sturdy underwater cage to view more than a dozen big sharks up-close. They breathe surface-supplied air, wear provided dry suits over regular clothes, and learn about shark biology ($75 cost in addition to admission, 20 percent savings on select weekday dives).

On Friday, Sept. 7, the new Pacific Seas Aquarium will open, replacing the closed North Pacific Aquarium. It will feature Baja Bay, a 280,000-gallon aquarium with hammerhead sharks, eagle rays, sea turtles and schools of tropical fish.

Next, explore cold-water Rocky Shores, transformed recently by a $2-million makeover. It’s home to Pacific walruses — three females and Dozer, the hunky male sporting 17-inch tusks. Kids also see sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, common murres and tufted and horned puffins.

At the Asian Forest Sanctuary, view rare Sumatran tigers, clouded leopards, Malayan tapirs, white-cheeked gibbons, Asian elephants and an Indonesian anoa. The Sumatran tigers represent a success in the Species Survival Plan for their breed, since fewer than 400 tigers exist in the wild in their native Sumatra.

Polar bear swim. (Photo courtesy Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium)

Other exhibits include Arctic Tundra with polar bears and massive muskoxen, Penguin Point, home to Magellanic penguins, Red Wolf Woods, a recovery program to save this endangered species, and Kids’ Zone, designed to let children learn through touch, exploration and movement.

You can watch some zoo animals “in action” during the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater Show. See a king vulture make a high-flying entrance, a southern tamandua (anteater) use his long tongue, and a red-legged seriema demonstrate her hunting abilities on a toy frog. Shows are scheduled at 12 noon on weekdays; 12 noon and 3:30 P.M. on weekends.

You’re guaranteed to see animals during their feeding times in both the zoo and aquarium areas. Check the website for the daily schedule, which also lists informative talks on particular animals. The Zoo & Aquarium is open daily 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; see the website for admission prices.

Then visit the nearby Fort Nisqually Living History Museum, a restored Hudson Bay Company fur trading post circa 1855. Re-enactors bring this history to life with skills demonstrations and hands-on activities for kids of all ages.

Children playing with hoops at Fort Nisqually. (Photo courtesy Metro Parks Tacoma)

The current special exhibit is A Child’s-Eye View of Fort Nisqually, running until Sept. 16. Kids explore the fort’s trading and agricultural operations from a child’s perspective and learn about the chores, education and daily life for boys and girls on a remote outpost in the 1850s.

You can also view exhibits in the Great Room that provide insights into the daily lives of Fort Nisqually’s residents and the workings of the Hudson’s Bay Company. All exhibits include hands-on activities for visitors of all ages. The Heritage Gardens and kitchen garden illustrate how the fort’s inhabitants grew as much of their own food as possible, from fruits and vegetables to culinary and medicinal herbs.

Fort Nisqually re-enactor working at the forge. (Photo courtesy Metro Parks Tacoma)

Fort Nisqually features special events such as the popular Crafts of the Past (free with admission). You can watch practitioners of 19th-century artistic traditions demonstrate their crafts on the first Saturday of each month through Sept. 1. Learn about crafts ranging from Native American basketry to tatting, hat-making, blacksmithing and scrimshaw.

Fort Nisqually re-enactors doing chores. (Photo courtesy Metro Parks Tacoma)

Fort Nisqually also features major annual events such as Brigade Encampment Aug. 11-12 and Harvest Home on Sept. 8. Check the website for all events, admission and hours of operation, which vary by season.


Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

(253) 404-3800

Point Defiance Park        

5400 N. Pearl St., Tacoma, WA. 98407

Fort Nisqually Living History Museum    

(253) 404-3970

– By Julie Gangler

Julie - headshot 2013Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.


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