Destination Escondido : Zoo-Lover's Favorite Dozen

With two world-class zoos in their own back yard, Southern Californians could be excused for thinking they've seen it all.

To be sure, the San Diego Zoo's 4,000 animals of 820 species represent a greater diversity than any other facility in the United States--and the zoo's plant collection is so superb it's been accredited as a botanical garden and museum as well. The Los Angeles Zoo, meanwhile, includes one of the country's most innovative children's zoos.

But while researching a new book, I toured more than 55 zoos across the country--many with my three young children in tow. And I'm convinced each one offers vacationing families something unique--from theme park-like attractions such as monorails and sky rides to realistic recreations of a North American prairie or a Louisiana bayou.

Here are a dozen favorites:

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Apple Valley, Minn.: A monorail and significant indoor exhibits make the lakeside Minnesota Zoo (telephone 612-432-9000) equally appealing all year round. Located 20 miles south of the Twin Cities, the zoo features an extensive collection of animals from the colder regions of the Northern Hemisphere: timber wolves, Mongolian wild horses, musk oxen, caribou and moose, among others. The highlight of the indoor/outdoor Minnesota Trail is the beaver exhibit, in which visitors can watch the animals gnaw through aspen saplings, repair a dam or cavort underwater.

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Asheboro, N.C.: America's largest zoo, the 1,400-acre North Carolina Zoological Park (tel. 800-488-0444 or 910-879-7000), specializes in African animals. Bring binoculars to fully appreciate the African Plains, an exhibit that is larger than many zoos. Inside the African Pavilion, the winding jungle path passes a variety of reptiles, monkeys, cats and other small mammals. I spent a fascinating hour in the Forest Aviary searching for Lady Ross' touracos, Palawan peacock pheasants and the many other colorful birds pictured in the visitor guide. The zoo will nearly double in size this fall when the new North American section opens.

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Baltimore, Md.: With its new children's zoo (in my opinion, the nation's best), the Baltimore Zoo (tel. 410-396-7102) has moved out of the shadow of Washington's nearby, better-known National Zoo. Kids love this place, where activities include climbing into oriole nests, otter-watching from an underwater acrylic tunnel, splashing on king-sized lily pads and playing on a woolly-mammoth skeleton jungle gym.

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Brookfield, Ill.: Located in a western Chicago suburb, the Brookfield Zoo (tel. 708-485-0263) is the Midwest's best. Most of its amazing exhibits are inside large, climate-controlled buildings. The centerpiece is Tropic World, larger than a football field, where a treetop-level path overlooks three jungle valleys--home of gorillas, orangutans and many creatures of the Asian, South American, and African rain forests. My children especially enjoyed the "Be a Bird" activities in the Aquatic Bird House. The new Habitat Africa! combines natural animal exhibits with interactive activities for kids.

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Cincinnati, Ohio: White Bengal tigers, okapis, Komodo dragons and a stunning king cheetah are some of the many rare animals at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden (tel. 513-281-4700). Insect World, the best exhibit of its kind, includes exotic butterflies and inch-long bullet ants in a fun, museum-like setting. My daughter discovered that she weighs as much as 8 million insects. Also popular is the Cat House, home to more than 20 different rare cats.

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Ft. Worth, Tex.: The Fort Worth Zoo (tel. 817-871-7050)is probably the best of Texas' six major zoos. The Texas exhibit's re-created pioneer town includes a stone ranch house, one-room schoolhouse, operating blacksmith shop and dusty corrals full of tame farm animals--along with plenty of longhorn cattle, bison and prairie dogs. The World of Primates, a massive indoor rain forest, is the only place in the U.S. where all four great-ape species can be compared.

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New Orleans, La.: Less than 20 years ago, the Audubon Park and Zoological Gardens (tel. 504-861-2537) was derided as an "animal ghetto." Since then, extensive renovations have made it perhaps the finest zoo between San Diego and New York. The bayou creatures of the award-winning Louisiana Swamp exhibit include red foxes, black bears, cougars and my favorite, the blue-eyed white alligators. At the Cypress Knee Cafe, visitors can lunch Cajun-style on gumbo or jambalaya while overlooking the gator-filled swamp. Children enjoy the funny sea lion show, the educational Reptile Encounter building and Pathways to the Past (a hands-on dinosaur museum).

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New York City: The Bronx Zoo (tel. 718-367-1010) occupies 265 acres in New York's northernmost borough--making it the largest urban zoo in America. Asia is a major focus here, with the incredible JungleWorld building (home to the Indonesian scrub forest, mangrove forest of Borneo and Southeast Asian rain forest), the Wild Asia monorail tour and the adorable red pandas and snow leopards of the Himalayan Highlands Habitat (my daughters' favorites). My kids also enjoyed the outstanding children's zoo and the high-flying sky ride with a distant view of Manhattan's skyscrapers.

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Omaha, Neb.: Nowhere else is the goal of immersing human visitors into the animals' environment more successful than in the Lied Jungle at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo (tel. 402-733-8401). In fact, the only way zoo-goers can tell this immense, 1 1/2-acre indoor rain forest isn't real is by spotting the translucent fiberglass roof 80 feet above the jungle floor. My family loved climbing to Danger Point (at the crest of a 50-foot waterfall) and exploring the jungle floor with its underwater views of hippos, tapirs, otters and crocodiles. The zoo also has the world's second-largest walk-through aviary and the Cat Complex, the nation's largest cat building with more than 50 big cats.

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Portland, Ore.: Known as the "City of Roses," Portland is also famous as the "City of Elephants"--thanks to the Metro Washington Park Zoo (tel. 503-226-1561), with its fascinating Elephant Museum. (More Asian elephants are born here than in any other North American zoo.) Other adventures include a complete African tour (both savanna and rain forest), a trek through the Alaska tundra and the wooded Cascade Exhibit, where beavers, otters and other Oregonian wildlife are displayed. Don't miss the best train ride in any U.S. zoo; it winds along a heavily wooded, four-mile course and ends near the famous International Rose Test Gardens.

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San Antonio, Tex.: The centerpiece of the excellent children's zoo at the San Antonio Zoo (tel. 210-734-7184) is the Tropical Tour Boat Ride, which takes families past several animal-inhabited islands on small versions of the colorful water taxis that ply the city's Riverwalk. Especially impressive is the zoo's bird collection; among the 230-plus species are quetzals, birds of paradise and whooping cranes.

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Wichita, Kan.: The Sedgwick County Zoo (tel. 316-942-2212) gets my vote as the most underrated zoo in America. Its new North American Prairie exhibit includes a walk-through prairie dog town and buffalo, deer and antelope roaming "at home on the range." The Children's Farms display colorful buildings and animals that represent African, Asian and American farms.

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