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Day Trip: Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

Oliver and Evelyn size up a Sumatran tiger at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

Photo: Jennifer Mortensen

On weekdays when I want a special outing with my two- and four-year-olds, I head to the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma. We have a family membership (it comes with perks and discounts) and always find something new to explore when we visit both within the zoo and beyond its gates in beautiful Point Defiance Park.

The zoo itself is perfect for little explorers: My preschoolers easily walk the trails around the exhibits before needing much of a break. I usually leave the stroller in the car, and when little legs get tired, we have a snack on one of the lawns or benches that pepper the pathways.

We go to learn about animals, of course, but my kids would be content to spend an entire afternoon at the zoo’s Kids’ Zone, where there’s a big playground and side-by-side slides for sibling races. Kids can swing, jump and climb just like the lemurs and meerkats in the nearby habitats.

Kids' Zone Playground
Kids' Zone Playground

Just down the path from Kids’ Zone is a petting zoo where you can feed goats. Other kids’ activities around the zoo include camel rides, budgie buddies, the carousel, and an outdoor theater for zookeeper talks.

When you need a sun break, dive into the new Pacific Seas Aquarium. It’s a beautiful, artsy space filled with all manner of marine life. Kids can lock eyes with giant spider crabs, hammerhead sharks and green sea turtles. Wander down the stroller- and wheelchair-friendly ramps to greet the Giant Pacific Octopus and observe hundreds of jellyfish hypnotically pulsing.

Pacific Seas Aquarium
"I shall call him Squishy!"

There are also two touch tanks filled with brave sea stars, anemones and mollusks. For more hands-on fun, kids can cook at a pretend seafood kitchen or sketch stingrays at the coloring tables.

Tidal Touch Zone
Tidal Touch Zone


Getting there: Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium (5400 N. Pearl Street) is located within Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park, about an hour drive from downtown Seattle. Parking is free, but the lot fills quickly on the weekends. Try to get there within a couple hours of opening (9:30 a.m.) to beat the crowds. You could also ride Amtrak from King Street Station to Tacoma Station. Then take the #11 bus to the Point Defiacne Park entrance. You’ll have a bit of a walk to the zoo, but you’ll save $3 on zoo admission (present your Orca card at the front gate).

Hours and Admission: Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium opens at 9:30 a.m., and closes between 4 and 6 p.m., depending on the season (check the website for the schedule).  Tickets: $21 adults, $17 kids ages 5 to 12, $13 tots ages 3 to 4, and free for kids age 2 and younger. Save a few bucks per ticket by purchasing online.

Food: Food carts are scattered throughout the park, but they never seem to be reliably open. There's also a somewhat pricey cafeteria onsite. On the way to the zoo, I like to stop at Coffeezaun Espresso – a  cute drive-through coffee stand on Pearl Street (in the parking lot of the forthcoming Central Co-Op Grocery). They serve fun-flavored beverages and French pastries: My kids beg for a “unicorn hot chocolate,” which comes with whipped cream on top of the lid and a lollypop. On your way home, stop at the Antique Sandwich Company (also on Pearl Street), where you can enjoy a slice of quiche and browse handmade crafts while the kids play on a stage filled with stuffies and toy cars. If you’re out ‘till dinnertime, go to Farrelli’s at Point Ruston for pizza (kids eat free on Mondays).

More Fun Nearby: Venture out on the nearby paths at Point Defiance Park to see animals in the wild. You could look for whales and sea lions while combing Owen Beach, or listen for woodpeckers on a somewhat stroller-friendly, dirt path around the Rhododendron Garden. There are turtles and water fowl at the Point Defiance Duck Pond. Across the street, there’s the fully-fenced Northwest Native Plant Garden, where you can take an easy, short hike alongside a small waterfall and around a beautiful meadow.

A few miles East of the zoo lies Point Ruston, a family-friendly pocket of fun that includes a playground with one of the best Sound views, a splash pad in the summertime, ride-on toys for rent, an ice cream shop, a fish-n-chips stand and more.

The Point Defiance Ferry Terminal is also adjacent to the Point Defiance Park entrance. Hop aboard the ferry to explore nearby Vashon Island. You could drive up the island and then take the north-end ferry back to West Seattle.

Jennifer Mortensen is an outdoor-loving mom of two preschoolers. The Point Defiance Zoo Walrus Ladies – Joan, Basilla and Kulu – are her besties. She’s also the calendar editor for Seattle’s Child. 


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