My son’s favorite animal (Credit: Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian’s National Zoo)
I took my son on his first trip to the zoo a few months ago. The National Zoo in Washington, DC, doesn’t charge admission, but it charges parking fees between $16 and $22, depending on how long you visit the animals.
Free Parking Near the National Zoo
You can avoid zoo fees if you park on the street, but most street parking is limited to two hours, and as with all parking in DC, it’s often difficult to find a space large enough to fit a mid-sized car.
Parking for free near the national zoo may seem like a good idea, but it can be a long hike to reach the animals. Many nearby neighborhoods limit the time you can park or require parking permits, meaning you must drive quite a distance searching for a space.
It’s also not nearly as convenient as paying to park at the zoo. You might need to rush back to your vehicle to avoid an expired meter. Parking fines are high in the DC area, so you don’t want to get back after your meter expires!
Remember, if you can only park for two hours, you must add the time it takes to walk to and from the zoo to your total time. You can easily spend more than two hours looking at animals. If it takes fifteen minutes to walk back and forth, you’ll only have an hour and a half to check out the zoo.
Metro to the National Zoo
The zoo is accessible by metro, but that approach is expensive too. I’d pay $10 to ride the metro both ways and park at the metro station. If my time at the zoo coincides with rush hour, my trip would cost even more.
Trains don’t always run on time. Even under the best conditions, a metro ride takes me an extra twenty-five minutes of travel time.
Washington DC Zoo Price
This morning I took my son on his second adventure to the zoo. At twenty-one months, he is now old enough to help me push the stroller (he didn’t want to ride it much) and run around to the exhibits to point at the animals.
He didn’t seem particularly interested in the big animals, but he loved the small mammal house and ran from cage to cage, giggling, pointing, and saying “more, more.” I taught him the sounds a monkey makes, and he looked up at the animals, pointing and saying ‘oh, oh, ah, ah, e, e, ah, ah” every time he saw one.
We arrived at the zoo just before 10 o’clock and didn’t leave until roughly 1:30. I was charged the maximum amount for parking: $22. The National Zoo doesn’t charge admission, but $22 was a hefty price for a three-hour tour.
National Zoo Membership (FONZ)
While visiting the zoo, I noticed signs for free parking if you signed up for a one-year zoo membership. It didn’t seem worthwhile at the time (for some reason, I thought parking was only $12), but after paying $22, I changed my mind.
The FONZ (Friends of the National Zoo) membership comes with a bunch of nifty perks listed below, but parking for free at the national zoo is the biggest perk!
The price of a one-year membership is $84. If you agree to automatic renewals, the rate is $75. The membership includes:
- Up to two named cardholders
- Free parking during regular daytime visits to the Zoo
- 15% discount on food and in Zoo stores, and discounts on events
- 15% discount on souvenir green screen photos
- Punch card valid for eight carousel, train, or other seasonal attraction rides (My son loves these!)
- Priority registration for camps, classes, and Snore and Roar overnights
- Members-only invitations to animal previews and exhibit openings
- Discounts on popular Zoo event tickets, camps, classes, and overnights
- A subscription to the members-only magazine Wild.Life.
- Weekly Zoo Friends e-newsletter
- Free or discounted admission to more than 100 other zoos and aquariums nationwide
- Access to host birthday parties at the zoo
- Discounts on stroller rentals
- Access to the FONZ Photo Club
Other discounted rates are available for senior citizens, and more expensive ones are available for those looking for a premium experience.
We always bring our food to the park, so the 10% discount won’t help me, but everything else will come in handy. If I sign up for a membership, I’ll see savings by my third visit.
Is a Zoo Membership Worth It?
Membership also includes a reciprocal program with more than one hundred zoos and aquariums. Luckily the Aquarium on Roanoke Island is included in that list.
I haven’t taken my son there yet, but every time we head to the beach, I consider driving south to see it. With this membership, I’ll save $16 (usually $8 per adult) on the cost of admission for my husband and me.
Oh, and I forgot to mention that the cost of membership to the national zoo is tax deductible.
I wish I’d purchased a zoo membership sooner. I already shelled out $41, which included parking for two visits and $3 for my son’s first ride on the merry-go-round.
Oh well, live and learn. Whether or not a zoo membership is worthwhile will rest on the number of times I return next year, and if I visit at least three times, I will break even.
If today was any indication, we will return quite a bit next year. The zoo is only twenty-five minutes from my home, it’s a great outdoor activity, and my son was thrilled to see all the animals.
I’ll try to provide an update to this post a year from now. Hopefully, we’ll visit the zoo quite often, but if we don’t, I feel good spending money this way. The national zoo is fun, and I’m happy to support the cause.
National Zoo Membership Discount
Look out for special deals and promotions if you want to sign up for a membership. Once a year, typically around the holiday season, the zoo offers a 14-month membership for the price of a twelve-month membership. That guarantees two free months at the zoo!
The zoo’s membership is fondly called FONZ, which stands for Friends of the National Zoo. Use this link to sign up and search for promo codes to help you save money