Skip to Content

Is A Zoo Membership Worthwhile?


My son’s favorite animal (Credit: Mehgan Murphy, Smithsonian’s National Zoo)

A few months ago I took my son on his first trip to the zoo. The National Zoo in Washington, DC doesn’t charge admission, but it does charge parking fees ranging between $16 and $22 depending on how long you visit the animals.

You can avoid the 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. To be honest it’s also not nearly as convenient as paying to park at the zoo. You typically have to park a fair distance from the zoo and then make certain that you don’t stay longer than two hours. Of course, that time includes your walk to and from the car.

The zoo is accessible by metro, but to be honest that approach wouldn’t save me much money. I’d pay $10 to ride the metro both ways and park at the metro station. Trains don’t always run on time and even if everything runs perfectly smoothly it would still cost me an extra 25 minutes in travel time. If my time at the zoo coincides with rush hour my trip would cost even more.

This morning I took my son on his second adventure to the zoo. At 21 months he is now old enough to help me push the stroller, (he didn’t want to ride it much), and run around to all of the exhibits so that he can point at the animals he sees. 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 was looking 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. That seemed like a significant amount of money to spend for a three and a half our trip to the zoo. Granted we didn’t have to pay for admission, so it wasn’t so awful, but it certainly wasn’t a cheap three hour tour.

FONZ Membership

While we were 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 looking at the $22 bill I paid as I exited the parking lot I was willing to take a look at the alternatives. The FONZ (Friends of the National Zoo) membership comes with a bunch of nifty perks listed below.

In my opinion parking for free at the national zoo is the biggest perk! You can park near the national zoo for free in some areas, but it can be a long hike back to the animals. Many nearby neighborhoods limit the amount of time you can park or require parking permits. That means you have to drive quite a distance searching for a space.

What Does a National Zoo Membership Cost?

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

There are other discounted rates available for senior citizens and more expensive rates for those searching for a premium experience.

We always bring our own 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.

Membership also includes a reciprocal program that includes more than one hundred zoos and aquariums nationwide. 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, (normally $8 per adult), on the cost of admission for my husband and I.

Oh and I forgot to mention that the cost of membership to the national zoo is completely tax deductible.

It’s unfortunate that I didn’t take this approach sooner. If I was a bit smarter I would have purchased a membership on my very first trip a few months ago. I’ve already shelled out $41, which included parking for two visits as well as $3 for my son’s very first ride on the merry-go-round.

Oh well, live and learn. The question of whether or not a zoo membership is worthwhile will rest on the number of times I return in the next year. If I visit at least three times I break even.

If today was any indication we will definitely return quite a bit in the next year. The zoo is located about 25 minutes away from my home. It’s a great outdoor activity and my son was thrilled to see all of the animals.

I’ll try to provide an update to this post a year from now. Hopefully we’ll visit the zoo quite a bit, but if we don’t I feel good spending the money this way. The national zoo is a lot of fun to visit and I feel very good supporting this cause.

If you are considering signing up for a membership look out for special deals and promotions. Once a year the zoo offers a 14-month membership for the regular price. That guarantees you 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. Promo codes can also help you save money. Use promo code: ADVENTURE to save 10%.

» A Recap of 2013 One Frugal Girl

Saturday 4th of January 2014

[…] wrote about one of the toughest part of being a stay-at-home parent, watched our net worth climb, bought a membership to the zoo, wrote about the joy of tossing the brown bag approach to lunch¬†and focused on the […]


Saturday 27th of July 2013

We bought a zoo membership this year too. Our zoo has free parking, but adult admission is 14 bucks each and kids over 2 are 12. I think the membership was $85, and we have already been there twice. Next trip will be practically free! I'm a big zoo fan, and our 2 year old is really into watching the animals now. I think she llooked at the sea lions for 30 minutes at our last visit. Interestingly enough, my husband and I met at an event at the zoo, so it holds a special place in my heart.


Saturday 27th of July 2013

I personally think a membership is a great idea. Where I live there is an educational working farm that allows visitors and has exhibits and workshops all summer long. The animal barns are like a real farm but we are able to tpuch amd imteract with the animals. We recieved a membership about 6 years ago as a gift and needless to say we have been renewing it each year since then. My daughter lives animals, and we go so often that she knows the animals by name and her way around the entire farm and most of the employees who work there. If an animal is new or one is missing she notices. Just this past week we went twice in anticipation of some piglets and a calf being born. As of today the mothers had not given birth so we will be back again over the weekend to check for the new babies.

Like you said it is a great outdoor activity and for a child who enjoys animals it is a great outing. With membership you will be free to go whenever you have the time and desire to go without having to worry about the $$ cost of parking or the hassle of taking the metro. I will be surprised if you don't feel it was a worthwhile purchase in a year.