I grew up in Africa, with lions practically on my doorstep, so I think I’m qualified to tell you that Taronga Western Plains Dubbo Zoo is the closest you’ll come to an authentic safari experience in Australia.
The Dubbo Zoo is perfect for families – given that you can drive around the entire zoo complex – so there are no tired feet or moaning toddlers. You can get up close and personal with the animals and there is an incredible water play park and playground to break up your visit.
I’ve put together some top tips on how to make the most of a visit to Taronga Western Plains Dubbo Zoo with kids.
1. Make a Road Trip Out Of It
Taronga Western Plains Dubbo Zoo is about a 5 and a half-hour drive from Sydney so while the drive is do-able in a day, my advice is to make an adventure out of it and stop for a night or two on the way.
You can either drive via Orange or Mudgee to Dubbo. We decided to opt for the Orange route as my kids were keen to try out the adventure playgrounds and if you’re a wine lover, you won’t want to miss out on some prime boutique wineries.
We did a quick pit-stop at Leura, in the Blue Mountains, for coffee, then hopped on to Bathurst to have a play in the adventure playground there (pretty fun!). You could always play race-cars and take the kids for a drive around the Mount Panaroma track and apparently, the fossil and mineral museum is a hidden ‘gem’ (although we didn’t have the time to check it out this visit).
Then we meandered onto Orange, the highlight of which was the awesome adventure playground, with a massive wooden fort and lots of fun equipment. We also discovered Spilt Milk – a yummy ice-cream spot that is definitely worth a taste.
From Orange, it’s only an hour and a half drive to Dubbo so we left early in the morning and made it to the front entrance by opening time.
On the way home, we stopped off at an awesome adventure playground in Lithgow, before spending two nights in the Blue Mountains to round off our holiday.
2. Stay A Minimum Of Two Nights in Dubbo
Tickets for Taronga Western Plains Dubbo Zoo are valid for two consecutive days so it’s definitely worthwhile staying at least two nights in Dubbo.
While we spent the full two days at the zoo, you could easily spend an extra day in the city and explore the other attractions on offer.
3. Hire An Electric Cart
One of the best tips I can give you is to hire an electric cart – similar to a golf buggy. In my opinion, this is the very best way to travel around the 5.3km zoo circuit.
You can certainly follow the route with a car and many people ride a bike and some even walk. But the buggy adds so much fun to the experience. Plus you don’t have to keep on strapping kids into and out of car seats, which can be really annoying if you’re stopping every few minutes to look at the animals.
There is parking throughout the zoo so it’s really easy to drive and stop whenever you see an animal that catches your eye.
Each electric cart can seat up to 6 people and kids under three years old need to be restrained in a forward-facing car seat, which you need to bring and install yourself. Drivers need to be over the age of 21 with a full driver’s licence.
It costs $70 to hire the electric cart for three hours – which was more than enough time to see all the animals, plus take a joy ride around the circuit, enjoying the freedom of travelling in a buggy.
The only thing to keep in mind is that if you are visiting during school holidays or other busy periods, the buggies get nabbed within minutes. We were too late to hire one on our first day, so on our second day, we arrived an hour before the zoo opened and waited at the gate. Then as soon as the gate opened, we rushed into the zoo and got into the queue to hire the cart. It’s 100% worth the extra effort and money to secure yourself a cart. You won’t regret it.
4. Take Food And Water With You
There are two main cafes at Taronga Western Plains Dubbo Zoo. One at the main entrance, there’s the Zoo Café & Bar in the Visitor Plaza, and the other at the new Waterhole precinct. There are also a few snack and drink vending machines in some of the rest areas.
The cafes, during our visit, were very popular and the wait for food was quite long. So if you can get yourself organised, I would recommend bringing along a picnic. On both days, we found a patch of shade at The Waterhole and enjoyed a really lovely al fresco lunch. We did make use of the convenient ice-cream cart at the back of the Waterhole and thoroughly enjoyed our treats after water play.
If you’re travelling by car, it’s obviously very easy to pop in an esky with food and drink. Of course, if you’re covering the zoo by bicycle, it’s probably easier to buy food from the cafe. We left our esky in the car and after we returned our cart, we then hopped into the car and drove straight to the Waterhole for lunch.
5. Have A Midday Break At The Waterhole
The Waterhole is situated half-way around the 5.3km zoo circuit so this is a perfect half-time spot. We found that after about two hours of animal spotting, the kids were flagging so the Waterhole was just what we need to revive our clan. The new precinct is tastefully designed with loads of fun water fountains and jets as well as a large stone elephant spouting a stream of water. There are stone animal sculptures dotted around the area, and the kids loved clambering all over these. There is a toilet block with cubicles that are large enough to serve as change rooms. There isn’t much shade around at the moment, but hopefully the foliage will grow and provide more sun-protected areas in the coming months.
Near the entry to the precinct, make sure you don’t miss the interactive Meerkat tunnel and pop up window which brings you eye to eye with the adorable Meerkat mob.
6. Make a Playground Pitstop
Taronga Western Plains Dubbo Zoo has a fabulous kids’ playground near the entry of the zoo. The kids had a quick play before we entered the zoo and then again at the end of the day, to work off any leftover energy. The African themed playground boasts a variety of timber climbing obstacles, balancing beams, a timber hut and sand pit, bridges, percussion instruments as well as a safari jeep and a number of animal sculptures. There are monkey bars of varying heights and lots of other equipment to keep the kids busy.
7. Save Some Cash For The Shop
Don’t miss a stop at the Taronga Western Plains Dubbo Zoo gift shop near the ticketing area. It’s packed with lots of great zoo-branded clothes and really cute toys. I love the Dubbo zoo caps and the kids went crazy for all the fluffy toy animals and the other gimmicks. I also appreciated that shop is actually well-priced and doesn’t feel like a typical tourist scam. We gave our kids a budget of $10 each and they could have spent hours picking out their favourite things.
8. Don’t Miss Any Animals
Taronga Western Plains Dubbo Zoo is not massive so it’s totally doable in a day. But it’s even better to do it slowly over two days. I love that you are not rushing from exhibit to exhibit and can take your time enjoying the animal antics.
It’s a good idea to download the free Dubbo Zoo app, which features a real-time, interactive map and tells you which animals are nearby.
There are a number of different precincts where you can see a variety of animals in one stop. There’s the Gateway to Africa near the start of your journey, where you can watch African Wild Dog, the adorable meerkats, black and white rhino, giraffes, eland and zebra. There’s also the Australian animal enclosure where you can spy roo, koalas and echidna up close.
The highlight for me is the Lion Pride Lands, home to the majestic King (and Queen) of the Jungle. The incredible massive glass window allows you to literally get face-to-face with the lions – what a thrill.
The kids were absolutely overjoyed to see the spontaneous show put on by the charismatic Siamang Apes. These two primates were yelling and warbling at the top of their voices and the whooping sounds rang out throughout the zoo. They acrobatted through the air, swinging on the trees and effortlessly clambering across thin ropes. Amazing!
9. Do The Encounters
Due to COVID-restrictions, the zoo keeper talks and animal encounters are on hold at the moment. But when they return, make sure you pop these into your itinerary, During a previous visit to Dubbo Zoo, I fed the giraffes, did the Pride Lands Patrol, the Savannah Safari and joined a number of zoo keeper talks. View the Daily Timetable here.
10. Stay At The Zoo If You Can
When we visited, all zoo accommodation was already booked out. So instead, we stayed at the wonderful, very well-priced and extremely comfortable Abel Tasman Motor Inn, just a few minutes drive from the zoo.
But if you are able to get organised, a stay at the self-contained Savannah Cabins or camping at the Billabong Camp would be worthwhile. Zoofari Lodge offers the ultimate glamping experience, including luxury accommodation, meals and exclusive behind-the-scenes tours of the Zoo.
We loved our visit to Taronga Western Plains Dubbo Zoo and both grown-ups and kids had so much fun. It’s a fantastic adventure for families of all ages and we can’t wait to return.
How To Get There
Dubbo Zoo is accessible by car, rail or air. You can fly direct from Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Canberra, Newcastle, Cobar and Broken Hill to and from Dubbo City Airport.
What You Need To Know
The zoo is open 9.00am – 4.00pm daily.
The entry fee starts from $43.20 for adults and $25.20 for kids aged 4 – 15 years. Children under 4 are free. Family tickets start from $83.20. Keep in mind that this is the online price – the gate price is a bit more expensive.
The entry fee includes two consecutive days’ admission, to give you ample time to explore all the Zoo has to offer.
Visit the Taronga Western Plains Zoo Website for more info.
Have you visited Taronga Western Plains Dubbo Zoo? Or would you like to? Tell us in the comments below.