At times my life at home with a husband and two children can feel like we’re living in a zoo.  However, as summer approached I thought to myself – what would it be like to spend a night with my family in a real zoo?

Luckily for this traveling family, the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, RI is within easy driving distance from our home. Since it’s an affiliate of our local zoo membership, and our good friends live 10 minutes down the road from the park, we’ve taken many day trips there and it ranks among our favorites.

I believe really cool family vacation destinations don’t have to involve planes, trains, and passports and I was thrilled to find out that the Roger Williams Zoo offers a Family Snore ‘n Roar program. For an affordable price, we were able to experience a memorable and unique overnight travel adventure at the zoo within two hours of our home.

We arrived at the gates just before 7 p.m. on Saturday evening as directed. Our guide, Tena, waited until all the cars were lined up and then systematically let us enter, park the cars , and unload our belongings – simple overnight bags, sleeping bags, and air mattresses – into the Education Center, which would serve as our safe and secure sleeping quarters for the evening. I must admit, day-to-day I struggle to coordinate a simple trip to the grocery store  but it was clear that the zoo had continuosly improved their process for managing family groups. Tena had about 25 people – adults and children – organized, aligned, and ready to go within minutes. Most were from the New England area – Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and it’s island, Block Island. For several families, this was their second or third overnight stays.

To get things going and to help everyone get to know each other, Tena and our other guide, Sarah, had us participate in a couple of games. The theme of this particular overnight adventure was Amazing Animals, Super Senses so the activities helped us start to think about how we use our senses and what might be the same – or different – for the animals we encountered that evening.

possum.jpgAfter snacking on make-it-yourself ice cream sundaes, we were introduced to several creatures who had super senses we humans can envy.  A python with its super heat sensors. A tarantula with its highly sensitive hairs to detect prey or danger. A bird whose eyes are finetuned for flight and catching dinner.  A possum whose long snout gives it an extra powerful sense of smell.

The highlight of the evening was a night hike in the zoo. Tena and Sarah carried special red flashlights that when shined on the animals let us see them but that they could not detect the light. We saw the farmyard animals like donkeys and goats hanging out. We caught the bald eagles perched on the branches, resting after a busy day.  A special treat was seeing the elephants outside at night – a rarity we were told. What was so awesome about this experience was the quiet of the park and seeing the animals in the nighttime setting with no distractions. Us and them. No crowds. No noise. No hot sun. Amazing.

Returning to the Education Center, we inflated our mattresses and settled in. I was surprised at how coordinated the effort was and that everyone fit easily into the circular room. The floor was hard so the suggestion to bring along air mattresses was a good one. The group voted on watching Madagascar and I fell asleep right after the animals are caught at Grand Central Station and Alex, the lion, gets whacked by the old lady.

The next morning, Tena’s wakeup shout at 7 a.m. had us jump to attention. We had an hour to eat breakfast – cereal, watermelon, and juice – and then wash up and gather our belongings. At 8 sharp Tena escorted us outside to our cars. The designated drivers parked the cars outside the gates (to make room for the zoo employees who would be arriving for work shortly) and we all met for a morning hike before the zoo opened. We retraced our path and visited many of the same animals we saw the night before. We visited the giraffe house and hung out with baby Keira. The elephants were inside, too, munching on their morning hay.

What truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience (and not part of the usual adventure) was that the kids were able to smear peanut butter and honey on rocks, trees, and windows for the bears’ breakfast. The bears, of course, were locked away for the evening. What a wonderful experience it was for them to help the zookeeper put out the food and then later return to watch the bears use their super senses to find their morning treats and lick them up.

At around 9, Tena bid us farewell. We were free to spend the day at the zoo on our own. We stopped by the Flutterby exhibit, always one of my favorites. I could watch butterflies for hours. We played peek-a-boo with the most adorable gibbon who bonded with me and my kids.  By 11 we were ready to head home and deal with the usual I-95 summer shoreline traffic, which did not fail to disappoint this trek.

Before we even left the zoo grounds my kids were begging to do an overnight adventure again next year. If you, like me, are already thinking ahead and doing family trip planning for next year check out your local zoo websites for family adventures. If you live close to Rhode Island, or plan to visit the area, check out the Roger Williams Park Zoo website. In addition to the Family Snore ‘n Roar, there are other fun things to do in the park and nearby Providence is a beautiful city with restaurants and shops.

Perhaps the wild nights of my youth were slightly different than this, but spending the night at the zoo added fun and excitement to our summer and was within easy driving distance and at an affordable price.