A couple years ago, my whole family met at Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, SC for a mini-reunion (read about it here). My parents and brothers met Nathan’s then girlfriend/now wife. She’s a brave young lady — meeting our menagerie at the zoo.
At the time, the zoo was undergoing a major expansion. The “entrance” was a narrow fenced off path that dropped us in the carousel area. First impression — construction zone understood. Cute zoo.
Despite construction, we thoroughly enjoyed our visit.
When I got the chance to see the finished project last month, I jumped at it! And I took a couple friends** with me — at least I think they’re still friends (I had a bit of a geeky response to the whole zoo experience.)
Riverbanks Zoo, new and improved
Anyway, our adventure began at the new entrance — which is spectacular! The area is wide and uncluttered with great signage. There’s plenty of room to cross from one place to another, get a snack or meet up with friends.
Next up was the new sea lion exhibit. On my first trip this area was under construction. The sea lions were “on vacation” at other zoos so we didn’t get to see them at all.
Back to the sea lions… Like the central courtyard, it offers lots of space to watch the sea lions do their thing. Trainers go through daily exercises with the animals as they explain the purpose to the audience. The shows are free, included with zoo admission. Stadium style seating under a shade canopy makes it comfortable to watch.
Those not interested in the show — or who can’t get enough of sea lions — can also watch them swim and play from a number of different levels above and below the water level. To beat the heat, watch them from inside the air conditioned building attached to the exhibit. Allow yourself a few minutes to read the displays about pollution and conservation throughout the place.
There are other wonderful improvements at the zoo as well, though not quite as noticeable as these two… but at the botanical garden? Well — that was a big surprise too!
Botanical Garden update
Let’s be honest, botanical gardens don’t exactly shine in January. Most plants are dormant, no lush greenery or bright flowers. In June, they’re simply stunning… like this!
So, when we got to the botanical garden (also included with zoo admission), I really got embarrassingly geeky! Seriously! I kept saying things like “Oh my gosh.” And “Really? This is incredible.” And “I can’t believe it’s the same place.” Over and over again.
My friends must love me because they laughed a bit, but didn’t hide from embarrassment.
Back to the botanical garden…
When I was there two years ago, it was basically a structured garden with various zones — you know, like a botanical garden is known to be.
But Riverbanks Zoo saw an opportunity to make theirs different.
As you enter the garden from the visitor center, you’ll see a long brick wall to the right and the left — very traditional and botanical garden-like. Look beyond the left wall to get your first glimpse of Waterfall Junction.
This brand new 3-acre play area is amazing! Kids can cross from the main garden into Waterfall Junction through rabbit holes. How fun is that? The area features a wide grassy meadow with super-sized games like Jenga and checkers. Guests will also find space just to sit, giant tree houses with hidden surprises, a 25-foot tall waterfall, water play pad and much more.
Waterfall Junction takes nothing from the peace and serenity of the formal garden on the other side of the wall, and it adds so much to the park experience. Besides my personal excitement, I talked with many park guests who all agree it’s the best addition to the zoo ever! (Hmmmm…. water park or sea lions. I’m torn.)
The staff agrees this waterpark added tons to the Riverbanks experience. They said that entrance to the Zoo through the botanical garden has increased 25% just this summer. Annual pass sales (such as the family pass that starts as only $89/year) have increased by 30% in 2016. These passes are a great value for locals — especially when you factor in reciprocal admission to zoos across the nation.
Plan your visit to Riverbanks Zoo
Directions: Riverbanks Zoo is located just of I-126 and Greystone Boulevard near downtown Columbia.
Hours: Zoo hours vary seasonally. Through October, 2016, the zoo is open 9am-5pm weekdays and 9am-6pm on Saturday and Sunday.
Parking: Parking is free. Handicapped parking is plentiful.
- Plan a full day (or 1.5 days) to enjoy all that Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens has to offer: the zoo, the gardens, the waterpark, other rides (carousel, climbing wall) and the zip line (some require additional fee).
- Arrive early to beat the summer heat.
- Get to the sea lion show a few minutes before it starts, but if the seating area is full, watch from above.
- Consider a zoo membership if you plan to visit twice (or more) or if you plan to visit other zoos within the year. You’ll really appreciate the savings!