Travel

Roger Williams Park Zoo still wows

A harbor seal swims past visitors to the Roger Williams Park Zoo.

Jon Mael for The Boston Globe

A harbor seal swims past visitors to the Roger Williams Park Zoo.

PROVIDENCE — To understand why visiting the zoo is among America’s most enduring forms of family fun, all you have to do is listen.

“Do you see that pouch? That’s how you know it’s a marsupial,” a child explains to his mom while looking at wallabies together. Elsewhere, a father is jubilant when his daughter finally spots a green aracari — a cousin of the toucan. Animals are a common denominator among generations. Baby boomers, millennials, and everyone in between can look up in wonder at a giraffe or fawn over an adorable tree kangaroo.

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As far as New England zoos are concerned, Providence’s Roger Williams Park Zoo is preeminent. Situated on 40 acres just off of Interstate 95, the zoo welcomed 675,000 visitors last year, making it Rhode Island’s top outdoor paid attraction. As a zoo with something for everyone, Roger Williams has grown significantly in recent years, and makes the most of its limited space.

“It’s sort of a point of pride for Rhode Islanders,” says Jeremy Goodman, the zoo’s executive director. “Zoos are the last forms of clean, quality, family entertainment — not just for moms and kids, but grandparents, friends, etc — and they’re set up for social interaction, where people can actually talk to one another, as opposed to movies and concerts.”

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Goodman’s point is proven often, like this past Patriots’ Day, when great weather and school vacation week brought more than 10,000 visitors into the park. On a good weekend day, between 5,000 and 6,000 guests will visit.

The zoo’s top draw, of course, is its animals, and it currently has more than 100 species. The menagerie is loosely organized by region. Fabric of Africa boasts the zoo’s two most popular species — elephants and giraffes. North America is home to seals, bald eagles, critically endangered red wolves, and bison. Marco Polo’s Adventure Trail houses snow leopards and red pandas.

The elephants are part of the Fabric of Africa section.

Jon Mael for The Boston Globe

The elephants are part of the Fabric of Africa section.

Tropical America offers anteaters, anacondas, and bats, while World of Adaptations — previously dubbed Australasia — has the Outback Trail where guests can get close to wallabies and emus, and encounter very odd Australian side-necked turtles and the binturong, a sort of cross between a cat and a bear. Among the most noticeable elements of the zoo is how they possess multiple specimens for each species, which improves the quality of life for the animals and allows for breeding programs.

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“The public expects us to keep the highest standards for our animal care, and we expect the same for ourselves,” Goodman says.

According to Goodman, the public also expects the zoo to continue evolving and offer new animals and attractions. The zoo added four new cheetahs last year, now on display in Fabric of Africa. A new aviary called Birds From Down Under, featuring 500 birds, including striking superb parrots, just opened this year (for an additional charge).

In addition to those new exhibits, the zoo has tried to make itself more family-friendly. A free-play area called Hasbro’s Our Big Backyard opened in 2012, was improved in 2013, and is currently undergoing further improvements. The space caters to Roger Williams’s youngest guests. Water features, building activities, and an expansive treehouse can all be found there.

Open since 2014, the Alex and Ani Farmyard gives families a chance to experience an authentic day in the life of a local farmer. There are opportunities to try out farm jobs like milking a replica cow or collecting replica eggs, in addition to feeding and interacting with goats, alpacas, chicken, and sheep. A stage even offers live music during the busy season.

Of course, the zoo, open since 1872, isn’t geared strictly toward young people. Goodman said Providence is considering allowing the zoo to sell beer. There are major renovation plans in the works, including a new rainforest building, slated to open in 2018.

Despite the improvements, the animals remain the top draw. It’s a grand collection in America’s smallest state.

“You only stay number one by getting people to come back year after year,” Goodman says. “Our mission is to educate people and help conserve wildlife, and it’s a great environment to learn things in an informal way.”

ROGER WILLIAMS PARK ZOO 1000 Elmwood Ave., Providence. Open 10-5 through September, and 10-4 the rest of the year. Adults $14.95, children 2-12 $9.95, adults 62 and older, $12.95, toddlers 1 and younger and zoo members, free. 401-785-3510, www.rwpzoo.org

Jon Mael can be reached at jmael2014@gmail.com.
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