The Cincinnati Zoo recently started offering the “Twiga Overnight” – a chance to spend the night with giraffes and get special behind-the-scenes educational opportunities. Read on to find out why we can’t recommend it enough!
Here in Cincinnati, we have one of the most reputable and renowned zoos in the country. The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden has been one of my favorite places to visit since before I had children; I worked in a hospital across the street and would often spend hours wandering around there before or after a shift, when my husband was on call or working long hours in medical school. Many of our friends have Zoo memberships, because it’s actually one of the most affordable membership options in the city, especially for families.
What a lot of people don’t necessarily take advantage of, though, is the educational programming. Other homeschoolers we know are very aware of all they have to offer, but I’m not sure the zoo does a great job of making it known to the general public. (I’ve told them this, kindly, a number of times….) When my kids were little, we loved to take advantage of the Stroller Safari classes, and they’ve all been to Zoo Camp the past few years. We look forward to the educational catalog every season!
A year or two ago, I noticed that there were family overnights available. My youngest wasn’t quite old enough, but I have extremely fond memories of overnights at the zoo with classes and girl scout troops – and some less fond memories, like eating meal worms(!) – so I was intrigued. As it turns out, my son turned 5 (the minimum age for most of the family overnights at the time of this writing) just as a super cool opportunity would be added.
We all love giraffes, so the opportunity to take part in a giraffe-themed sleepover seemed like the perfect fit. We were even more excited this summer, when we dropped the kids off on the first day of zoo camp and learned they would be meeting in the “new outdoor classrooms by the giraffes”. Because when we got to the “new outdoor giraffe classrooms”, we saw these:
The giraffe viewing area is across the enclosure, so the site where the overnight is held is totally secluded, in addition to being in a very cool location. We were so excited to realize we’d be spending the night there later this year!
Thanks to heavy rains leftover from a busy hurricane season, our original date got rescheduled… but it would be a total blessing in disguise! We ended up with the perfect weather, and because another group moved off of our date at the last minute, our group that could be “up to thirty” was…. the five of us. With two zoo guides. We actually felt bad, but they said they loved the arrangement as much or more than we did. So for the next 16 hours or so, the seven of us enjoyed one of the first Twiga Overnights offered.
WHAT TO EXPECT AT THE TWIGA FAMILY OVERNIGHT AT THE CINCINNATI ZOO
The overnight starts at 6pm on select Fridays and Saturdays. Because the zoo closes an hour before the overnight begins, campers arrive to the Education Center entrance to check in.
Upon our arrival, a staff member directed us to our assigned tent. As you’ve probably noticed, this isn’t “tent camping” like you may be used to. Instead, it’s held in heavy-duty tents with camping bunks and a plethora of outlets. It’s no 5-star hotel, but we felt like it was more than adequate for a one night stay!
The staffers give us about half an hour or so (but would allow whatever you need, I imagine…) to unload our gear and get settled in; we then headed around the corner to the fire pit.
This particular overnight is themed not only around giraffes, but also about animal communities. After we all introduced ourselves and shared our favorite animal, we talked about what makes a community, and a bit about what we can expect all night – including a few basic rules.
An educational Zoo Walk includes looks at behind-the-scenes and “after hours” areas!
A short time later, we began our zoo walk (in an empty zoo, aside from overnight staff!), which included some behind-the-scenes locations. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take any “backstage” photos – but I can assure you it was a lot of fun, and educational!
We toured some of the zoo’s animal kitchens and learned interesting facts about zookeeper jobs – including the fact that each week, our local garbage collection company, picks up a dumpster of elephant poop. As if they didn’t have to deal with enough (literal) garbage. Fun, right?!
Along the way, the staff brought out a few animals for us to meet. We especially loved hanging out (for quite some time!) with these two flamingos, Hula and Tango. (All of the zoos flamingos are named after dances, which I find adorable.)
We also got to visit Hippo Cove, where unfortunately, Fiona had just gone to get ready for bed. It was neat to hang out and watch Bibi though, because she is apparently super active in the evenings! Elise even got a great video on her iPod, where Bibi “talked” to her!
Campers end the night back at the Education Center for private animal meet and greets and a special snack.
Toward the end of our night, we made our way back to the Education Center. Before going out to the campsite, we made one last stop in a nearby classroom – where we had a private meet and greet with three special animals.
When we finally made it out to our campsite, the kids were exhausted. We got back at about 9:30pm, but keep in mind that with a larger group it may a bit different. We took a super special walk into the Giraffe Ridge exhibit… which we will never look at quite the same way again!
It was super late for my kiddos, but before bed there was time for just one more special treat around the fire!
The kids (and adults) crashed pretty quickly, and slept moderately well for how cold the night ended up. The tents sleep up to ten, so families or groups may be with others, but will not be split up. (In the “Sleep with the Manatee” overnights, as a comparison, the entire group sleeps in the same room – so this isn’t much different.) There are indoor bathrooms just a short walk away, so while there are no showers, there is plenty of privacy to change, brush teeth, wash up, etc.
In the morning, you can bet my crew was up before sunrise. It was a little too foggy to actually see much of a sunrise, but the atmosphere was still a pretty special one. The giraffes weren’t out just yet, so we walked over to the fire and had a surprise visit from Homer the barred owl before breakfast!
After the humans get their (catered) breakfast, it’s time to help the giraffes with theirs…
The overnight includes the evening’s s’mores and a continental-type breakfast, which was really nice on a chilly morning. We had various pastries, bagels, donuts, fruit, oatmeal, coffee, and hot chocolate. Of course my kids could barely eat, as they kept running back and forth to make sure we didn’t miss the giraffes waking up!
When they “fiiiiiiiinally” made it out, we were all pretty excited. The zoo hadn’t yet opened, so while there were feed boxes and some enrichment boxes that the giraffes could explore, there was no competition with anyone else feeding them. The staff brought us plenty of springs, and we each had several turns saying hello to Tessa and Kimba, who kept returning over to us for more.
The overnight program ends at 9am, which is an hour before the zoo is open to the public. (To my kids’ disappointment, this did not mean we “had the zoo to ourselves” as anticipated, since members can enter an hour early anyway, most days.) Regardless of whether you have a membership or other admission, you are welcome to stay at the zoo the rest of the day. They made it clear that, depending on the education schedule, you may be asked to move your vehicle to the main parking lot; we stayed until about lunchtime, and did not have to do so.
Is the Twiga Overnight worth the cost?
As Cincinnati Zoo members, we paid $75 per person at the time we camped. That seemed pricey at first, until I compared the total to a night at a hotel – especially one like Great Wolf Lodge or similar, which includes entertainment and activities. In that case, I think it was well worth doing at least once. I know we will be trying out the other family overnights (which actually run a little lower in price), but I’m not sure anything will ever top the intimate experience we got to have.
How to book the Cincinnati Zoo’s Family Overnights, including the Twiga Overnight
If you have questions about any of the zoo’s educational programs – or to book any classes or overnights – you can check this section of the website for details and contact information. You will receive a receipt upon booking, along with a packing checklist, and FAQ document, entrance instructions, and other pertinent information.
In case of severe weather, the zoo will decide cancellations based on weather reports. As we experienced, if the overnight needs rescheduled, they are extremely accommodating to find something that works for you.
Guests must be at least 5 years old for family overnights, and groups must have at least one adult for every 10 children attending any zoo program.
If you have any other questions I’d love to answer about our experiences or help you find the answer. Thinking back on all of the animals we got to see and the unique spaces we got to enjoy, I’d highly recommend this for any animal-loving family!