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John Ball Zoo

May 23, 2010

  • 1300 W. Fulton Street
  • Grand Rapids, MI 49501
  • (616) 336-4301
  • Website

Last weekend, when J and I went to Binder Park Zoo, we had no idea we’d being going to the zoo two weeks in a row.  Our original plan for this weekend was Deer Forest Park in Coloma, but my brother, fortunately, noticed they just put a  note on their website this week that they don’t open until Memorial Day.  My family had already made plans to come this weekend, so we had to find a Plan B.

We threw a couple things out there, but my brother and his wife were really set on some sort of zoo.  They have a 19 month old and another due in a few weeks.  They really wanted to take the older kid to the zoo one more time before they’re a family of four.

J and I got up and met my brother, sister-in-law, niece, mom and dad at the John Ball Zoo which is on Fulton Street about a mile from downtown Grand Rapids.  The zoo is in a park setting right in the middle of a heavily urban area.  There are a couple parking lots and both my brother and I chose different ones.  Once we got in the same parking lot, we headed past the pond where Nessi resides to the main entrance.

The cost is $7.50/person so it was $45 for the six of us.  My niece is under two so she was free.  I grabbed a map from a volunteer right inside the gate and we set out on our way. 

The first exhibit is the alligators, pelicans, and bald eagles.  The newest alligator just was just put on display a few days ago, so this was a somewhat popular exhibit.  The pelicans were racing each other right near the wall and it really got my niece excited.

The thing I noticed right away about John Ball Zoo is that the exhibits are all a little smaller and a little bit closer to you.  This is great for the smaller kids like my niece because it is easy to spot things.  The zoo is also pretty hilly, but it’s set up really well.  There’s a pretty good flow and once you get inside, you forget that you’re in Grand Rapids.

The next place we stopped was the wallaby and lemur exhibits and here, you are really close to the animals.  They’re inside a little wooden fence and you can almost reach out and touch them.

From there, it was on to some birds along a wooded area.  Off to the right, there’s a pretty cool spot for the older kids.  John Ball has a rope course.  My brother and I thought about going, but passed because the petting corral was up next.

My brother is not big on letting his daughter out of her stroller when they go to the zoo. Once she gets out, she’s hard to get back in.  She’s at the age where she just likes to run around and it can get exhausting…especially in a crowded place.  Still, I talked him in to letting me take her out and bring her in to pet the animals.  She was a little scared at first.  I tried to get her touch a goat, but she was pretty hesitant, so daddy came in.  She didn’t really warm up too much.  She would run up, touch a goat then run away and run in circles.

We got her back in the stroller and walked past the walk in bird aviary.  We didn’t get the kid out of the stroller then, but she and I went back before we went home.  For a buck, you can buy bird feed on a stick and feed the birds.  My niece doesn’t always let me pick her up, but she actually did this time.  I got the stick in her hand so the birds could eat from it.  I never could get a bird on to the stick, but she still enjoyed it….for a while.

After the birds, we walked by pumas, snow leopards, bears, and a lot of the typical zoo animals.  One of the cooler exhibits were the lions.  There are three of them and they  have a pretty large exhibit.  There’s a viewing area at ground level with glass separating you from the animals.  One of the female lions was sitting right on a rock in front of the glass.  A volunteer told us that the rock is heated and that’s their secret to getting the animals close to the people.  The other two lions were laying up in the sun and you couldn’t see them from the glassed in viewing area.  There’s also a sky deck viewing area up four or five stories of stairs.  We went up their to see the other female and the male hanging out.

For a week now, my brother has been telling my niece that they were going to go Michigan to see us and see the animals.  Every morning when they got in the car, she would look up at him and say “animals?”  During that time, he must have been coaching her on monkeys too.  When we got to the baboon exhibit, she pointed and said my name.  I had just walked away when I heard the rest of family laughing hysterically.  Nice of him, eh?  Then, of course, my wife had to tweet it and I had a few messages when I got home giving me crap.

We made our way back to the beginning and tried to sit down and relax.  The aquarium was right in that area and we tried to go in there, but by this point, my niece was in no mood to do what we wanted her to do.  J and I got a Diet Coke from the concession stand then  we found a grassy area where she could run around for a while.  She started to run back towards the sting ray exhibit and I followed her.  We passed the sting rays because she didn’t even want to pet a goat and to pet a sting ray was a buck.  Instead, this is when I took her back to the bird exhibit.  After we did that, there’s a little pond right next to it with a waterfall.  There are no fish in it, but for some reason, she was really interested.

Our day at the John Ball Zoo was just a couple hours, but it was a great time.  My brother was really impressed with the exhibits and loved the layout of the place.  They had been taking the kid to Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and had planned on doing the same this year, but instead, they decided to come see us.  John Ball worked out great for everyone.  It’s a pretty easy trip from Illinois and my niece passed out as soon as she was buckled in to her car seat.  By the time we got to a restaurant two miles away, she was out and stayed out through lunch.

Alligator Exhibit

My niece enjoying the bears

Wild Bird Exhibits

The Flamingo Pond

View of the park from the Lion Lookout.


Nessie in the pond near the entrance

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Melissa permalink
    May 24, 2010 12:41 pm

    I’ve loved your blogs about both JBZ and BPZ- I’ve been gearing up for zoo season with my 19 month old too. However, I wanted to warn you about Deer Forest. I went there at least once a summer during my childhood and, naturally, was excited to bring my daughter last summer. That excitement died the instant we walked in. What disgusting conditions for those poor animals. Due to a LOT of complaints (animal cruelty, neglect. etc), they were forced to close early and auction off everything. HOWEVER, the auction wasn’t very successful and most of the land and some of the animals were “left over” so they decided to reopen this year. If you liked JBZ + BPZ PLEASE do not ruin it with Deer Forest. It was awful for an animal lover like myself.

    • SW Michigan Dining permalink*
      May 24, 2010 12:45 pm

      That’s too bad. It sounds like such a cool place.

  2. Melissa permalink
    May 24, 2010 1:28 pm

    It was, in the 80s and 90s when I went it was THE place to be. Probably 75% of my senior class worked there at one time or another, haha. When the owners sold it, things went downhill really quickly. The new owners weren’t local so I really don’t think they had that same connection and the place really suffered for it. But anyway, just a heads up. Maybe they really cleaned it up after their “warning” last year… but I doubt it.

  3. Mrs. B permalink
    May 29, 2012 1:51 am

    Unfortunately, Deer Forest has not been cleaned up. Our family went there Memorial Day weekend, their opening weekend. We paid $7.50 each for the seven of us. It was the saddest thing we’ve ever seen. There are no walking paths…just dirt and weeds. The exhibits need paint and all the houses need roofs. There is even glass on the floor of one exhibit from a broken window. The walls of the smaller pens have chipped mortar and paint, even inside the pens with the animals. The pens are dirty and the animals look unhealthy and uncared for. Many of the exhibits are empty, particularly the ones that should have water in them. They are just filthy cement basins. The bleachers where they told stories are falling over and lawn chairs are just strewn about. Trees have been cut down in the center of the park and the deer have been moved to the back area. We were told it was so they could grown corn there, but it’s nothing but weeds and tree stumps. The train has been sold at auction. The playground area looks unsafe and dirty. The rides look like they have not been maintained in years. There are no concessions of any kind. We were told we could each play a round of miniature golf for free. The mini-golf area is rundown, full of weeds, and badly in need of paint. The golf greens are filthy with mud and leaves. Needless to say, we did not take them up on the offer. We now know why we were the only people in the park other than the workers. It was so very, very sad.

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