Grand Rapids with kids: John Ball Zoo review

The following post is written by Pit Stops for Kids’ Midwest contributor, Kate Basi.

Going to the zoo is a classic family outing in every part of the world. Grand Rapids, Michigan’s John Ball Zoo  is not large, but the unique opportunities it offers guarantees it a place in kids’ memory.


The first thing to watch for upon arrival is “Nessie,” the water sculpture in the lake beside the parking lot. This is just the first of many details that make this zoo such a great destination. Much of the zoo is shaded by a canopy of mature trees, with plenty of places for tired legs to rest and beautiful touches like a lovely waterfall near the petting zoo. Michigan’s cool climate also means that the animals are more active than they often are at the height of summer.

Since this is a relatively small zoo, a few large animals are missing, like elephants and giraffes. However, there are lions, tigers, Grizzly bears, and a host of other kids’ favorites. The exhibits are of high quality, with educational materials that even our six-year-old, a new reader, found accessible. The “tunnel” under the aquarium is sure to be a hit, as is the interactive display that invites visitors to try to jump as far as a kangaroo.


Plan three to four hours to see the whole collection of animals—but the animal exhibits are only the beginning of the adventure.

John Ball Zoo has places for kids to play (and parents to rest). The Tree Top Outpost is a jungle-themed play structure near the top of the zoo, with stationary binoculars to look down the hill. The Nature Play Zone has long logs to use as balance beams and a tent where kids can pretend to camp out. There’s also a petting zoo, and of course, there are animal demonstrations. You can watch the zoo staff train bears and feed spider monkeys, just to name a couple.

As if all that wasn’t enough, John Ball Zoo has created extra “experiences” for every levels of adventuring spirit. Ride a camel or pet sting rays (and even the occasional shark). Explore the “Sky Trails” rope course, which has two climbing levels, or get a thrill from the 600-foot-long zip line.


Not all these activities are available to young kids. Some, like the zip line and ropes course, have weight and height restrictions. Others, like petting pygmy goats, are aimed specifically at little ones. Be aware that many (though not all) of the “experiences” that make this zoo such an interesting place to visit will require extra fees.


The zoo is built on a steep hill, and parents pushing strollers or wheelchairs will want to be aware that some of the paths are unpaved. Strollers, wagons, wheelchairs and mobility carts can be rented on-site. A tram connects the top and bottom of the zoo; rides cost $3 per person.


In addition to the usual gift shop fare, the gift shop stocks fair trade items, from scarves to carvings to chocolate. The zoo does allow outside food and drinks (no glass) in the park, but also offers cafes and concession stands. Be sure to try the cinnamon sugar elephant ear, available at the Whistle Stop!


John Ball Zoo is open from March through October. During the peak season, admission is $10 for adults and $8 for kids 2-12, with extra fees required for many of the “experiences.” For details see their website.


The zoo is at 1300 Fulton St., in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Our family visited John Ball Zoo as guests of Experience Grand Rapids in exchange for an impartial review.