An Insider’s Guide to Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens

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riverbanks zoo- botanical gardens- columbia sc

One of my absolute favorite things to do is visit Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens.

My mom and dad have been taking me to this zoo every since I can remember. I’ve seen the zoo go through many changes (anyone else remember the polar bear?!). I even worked there for a couple of years, which taught me even more about my favorite place in Columbia.

When they built the bridge from the zoo to the Garden, my mom bought me a brick of my very own, right in the middle of the bridge. I don’t want to brag, but Betty White also has a brick on that bridge…so we are pretty tight by association. 

If you plan to visit the zoo any time soon, here is some information that you may find valuable:

The zoo is open from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. (during the warmer months the zoo closes at 6 p.m. on weekends). Adult tickets are $19.95 and children cost $16.95. Children 2 and under are free. There are also military discounts available. For complete ticket information and any updates, check the visitor page on their website. Whether you live in Columbia or further away, if you plan to visit the zoo more than once a year I would highly recommend purchasing a membership. Check out all the different packages and pricing.

Each year in December my mother in law renews our membership as my birthday/Christmas gift. It’s a fantastic gift that keeps giving all year long!

When my son turned two we upgraded to the family explorer membership. He’s old enough to be aware of all the rides and attractions and actually enjoy them, so it’s perfect for us. With the family explorer membership we get wristbands that allow us to ride unlimited rides (carousel, rock wall, pony rides, train, and even things like feeding the lorikeets and giraffes). We also get unlimited visits to the Lights Before Christmas and 12 guest passes. I love having so many guest passes for whenever we have guests in town, or just for taking my mother in law who gifted us the membership in the first place!

Since we have our zoo passes, we go all the time. It’s a great way to fill an otherwise empty day. My son learns something new each time we go and things are never the same two days in a row! He also LOVES animals (maybe because we go to the zoo so much) so he is always amazed by the things he discovers.

riverbanks zoo-carousel

There are certain times we tend to go more or less, so let me fill you in on my personal preferences. I understand that not everyone has an open schedule like we do, and sometimes you can’t avoid going during peak season or on weekends! These are just my opinions as someone who has seen the craziness from both sides (a guest and as an employee).

Times to avoid if possible:

Spring Break: You will very likely regret any decision to go to the zoo during these busy times. I’ve never seen the zoo so busy as it is during spring break. To be safe, we tend to avoid the zoo for the whole month of April. Sometimes a little longer.

Weekends: Saturdays especially, but if you go on Sunday right when it opens you will miss the bulk of the crowd.

Any holiday: This really should go without saying, just like weekends … but working families obviously tend to frequent the zoo on days like this because it’s most convenient for them. I totally get it! We just avoid this time. The zoo only closes on Thanksgiving and Christmas (unless otherwise stated) so July 4th, New Years Day, even Easter are usually pretty busy at Riverbanks.

Summer: This one might be a bit far fetched but I personally don’t go very much during the summer. It’s hot and miserable, summer break means tons of kids, big and small, not to mention day care field trips and zoo camps are going on.

School Field Trip Time: It’s hard to avoid school groups and field trips during the school year but they usually happen right after school starts or right before school lets out. Children visiting the zoo on a field trip are typically hyper and overexcited, so I try to take a different route from the groups if I can.

I know, if you don’t go to the zoo during any of those times you may as well not go at all, right?! Not necessarily. I’m just giving you a rundown of what I’ve learned to be the busiest times. I still go at busy times and we still have a good time!

Best time to visit:

My absolute favorite time to go to the zoo is during off season. I love being able to let my son run ahead if he wants. Parking close to the entrance is also a perk, as well as being able to ride the carousel three times in a row without stopping. So it might get a little chilly, but that’s just part of the experience!

One more pro tip if you plan to go when it’s a busy time: Park up at the garden entrance

Make sure you enter the right address (1300 Botanical Parkway, West Columbia, SC 29169). The parking lot might be full but it’s still a MUCH shorter walk to the gate than if you park at the main entrance. I like to park in the (newly paved) lot off to the right of the garden entrance. Plus, there are picnic tables right there if you decide to pack a cooler for your group! By the way, coolers are not permitted in the zoo. I usually pack a lunch or snack in my son’s backpack or diaper bag and have never had an issue, but they will not let you bring a cooler into the zoo.

Friendly reminders and general tips

This should be obvious, but smoking is also not permitted inside the zoo. Just don’t do it. Don’t let your cousin or father-in-law or great aunt do it either. There are areas outside the zoo to smoke, or better yet, do it at your car. Or as far away from all of the small children as you can possibly get.

Most of the food you can purchase inside the zoo is pretty yummy. You will pay ‘theme park’ prices for food, drinks, and souvenirs, so come prepared if this is something you think you may be interested in. If you are a zoo member, you get 10% off in the gift shop (not for food though, sorry) so don’t forget to show the cashier your membership card!

Former employee request: Please keep your money somewhere sanitary. Not your sweaty shoe, or your sweaty bra, or anywhere else that could get sweaty. I have had someone say to me “Oh sorry it’s wet, but it’s OK … it’s just sweat.” Yeah, no that’s NOT okay ma’am.

If you decide to feed the Lorikeets (the colorful birds attached to the koala exhibit) know that if you go first thing in the morning, you WILL be covered in birds. I would advise (from experience) you not to take small children or those that are easily startled in to the lorikeet exhibit until later in the day when they have already been eating for a few hours.

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If you feed the giraffes, be aware that they actually don’t like being pet. So just feed them their lettuce, snap a few photos and then go get some hand sanitizer! This attraction closes at 1 p.m. so be sure to get there early! 

giraffe feedings-riverbanks zoo-animal encounters-columbia- south carolina

Make sure to stop in and see all of the zoo babies that may be around!! Right now we have a baby giraffe, three baby lions, a baby koala, and a baby gorilla (with another on the way). Love is in the air at the zoo and it seems like there are new babies being born daily, so keep your eyes peeled while you’re there!

If it’s really hot, raining, or even really cold, remember there are still a number of indoor exhibits and you can hop from one to another with general ease and be indoors most of the time if that’s your thing. Don’t forget to stop in to the education building to see the naked mole rats! There are also bathrooms and water fountains in there! Other indoor exhibits: The aquarium, bird house, sea lion viewing area, gorilla exhibit, koala exhibit and even the small mammal cave.

One of my son’s favorite traditions is taking photos with all of the animal statues around the zoo, so make sure to take advantage of those photo ops!

If you want to make a full day of it, make sure you check out the botanical gardens. The tram from the end of the bridge to the amphitheater at the top of the hill is free and runs every 15 minutes or so. The hike up the hill is a steep one so be prepared for that if you plan to walk! There are bathrooms in the large building right at the top of the hill (the water in the fountain by the men’s room in that building is the COLDEST.)

If you are a fan of flowers and dirt and plant life in general, you will love walking through the gardens! If that’s not your thing, keep going until you get to Waterfall Junction. Your kids will have a blast and it’s totally free with zoo admission!

There are two splash pads, one for bigger kids and one for the little ones, a dino dig, a playground, a huge tree house, a grassy area with blocks, hula hoops and balance beams, and SO much more. Concessions are sold there as well and the area has plenty of fans and picnic tables! There are bathrooms close by as well as changing huts.

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Events and special happenings are always sure to be a good time at the zoo! Some annual ones that I’ve enjoyed or heard great things about are:

Twilight In the Garden: Once a month in the summer time the botanical gardens is open after dark for splash pad fun and then a movie in the grass! Concessions are available for purchase! This costs 3$ for members and 5$ for non-members.

Brew at the Zoo: Usually held in August, this beer and wine tasting event is a popular one! The cost of your ticket includes a small plastic shot glass sized tasting cup that you can take around to different vendors to taste their beverages. No one under 21 is allowed. Food is available for purchase, and there will also be live music and up close animal encounters! Perfect date night material!

Zoofari: The zoo’s yearly silent auction event is held in September each year. I’ve gone to a couple of these (once to work and once to attend) and it’s always been a blast! The food is amazing and the bidding is lots of fun! You can bid on products and services from all over Columbia, as well as zoo specific things like behind the scenes animal encounters and even naming new babies!

Boo at the Zoo: This is one for the whole family to enjoy! I worked this event many years in a row and had the best time wearing a different costume each night and interacting with the kids in some of the cutest little costumes you have ever seen! It’s just as fun as an adult taking my own son! There are trick or treat booths set up all over the zoo, a DJ and dance party, fun activities, and even a foam pit area. A little tip-sometimes it gets chilly at night (you never know around here) and the foam quickly turns into sopping wet, miserable and often cold kids! If you think the foam is something your child would enjoy, save it for last and make sure to pack a towel and change of clothes! Better safe than sorry!

Tickets for Boo at the Zoo are $9 for members, $11 for non members IN ADVANCE. If it’s not sold out, tickets are $13 at the gate. A word of advice here, if you can make it work, try to go to Boo at the Zoo either on a week night, or as far from Halloween night as possible. The closer you get to the last day (30th), the longer you will sit in line on the side of the interstate. I’m not kidding, it gets CRAZY. Same advice goes for the Lights Before Christmas. Weekends and dates close to Christmas get really busy so plan accordingly!

Riverbanks Run: A 5k through the zoo to kick off the Lights Before Christmas!

Lights Before Christmas: You don’t want to miss this! A stunning show of thousands of Christmas lights set up all through the zoo. Some flash in time to music, and there is even a huge Christmas tree that puts on a show each hour. There are often special concessions and there will definitely be hot chocolate and s’mores!! You will see snow fall (it’s soap, so maybe don’t let this kind land on your tongue), meet special Christmas characters, and even sit on Santa’s lap! It’s the perfect way to get in the holiday spirit. Adult admission is $11, children are $9 (under 2 is always free). If you are a member you get one visit for free!

To read all about the zoo events going on, get more info and even purchase tickets, visit their website here.

Additional Tips:

There is a nursing room as well as a first aid room to the right of the main entrance. I’ve never found the zoo to be anything but accommodating as far as nursing in public but if you (or your baby) need quiet, privacy, or air conditioning, head into Guest Services and sign in! They will give you the key and it’s as simple as that. There is a recliner in there as well as a couple of smaller chairs if you have other kids. As far as I remember there is a changing table as well!

The zip line is a lot of fun! If you are going to pay to experience this, I would go ahead and book the larger package. It’s worth it to zip across the river! I believe they want you to book these tickets in advance. If it’s a very slow day you may be able to do it on a whim.

If you check out the barn, don’t forget to look up! Many people miss the barn owl exhibit because you have to walk in a little bit and look up and behind you. I often forget they are there, but they are pretty cool to see!

The zoo hosts sleepovers from time to time! If you get a large enough group together you can book an overnight stay at the zoo! This has always been something I’d love to do…maybe when my kids are older!

On busy days they will sometimes have a souvenir vendor right outside the gates. If you have promised your kids a toy and want to spare your credit card, try to bypass the gift shop and grab one of the cute stuffed animals or toys that are $5 or less! Generally less drama, less money, and less options (which is often a good thing).

I could probably write a book on Riverbanks Zoo! If you want to do some digging for yourself, check out their website! If you think of any critical information that I missed, let us know in the comments!! 

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Ayana is a stay-at-home mom to Leopold (2) and will add a baby girl to the mix this September. Born in Arizona but raised in Columbia, Ayana has had plenty of time to adjust to the heat and humidity, but can still be heard complaining about it all summer long. She has always taken an interest in all things baby and toddler, so all bets are off now that she has children of her own. Some of her interests include pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum (being a doula is on her to-do list) as well as baby clothes and gear. This passion mixed with having a tiny test subject led Ayana to start her own mommy blog, Little Prince Leopold. It is there and on her Instagram that she spends her free time talking about the latest and greatest in the kid world, as well as giving her opinions, advice, and firsthand experience on all things baby related. Ayana also loves reading (although she never makes time for it anymore), travel, Harry Potter, musicals, and watching Netflix in the evenings with her husband James and their dogs, Niko and Rahksi.

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