Where we venture off into the great midwest in search of the ultimate zoo experience. Zoo science daughter in consult, we quickly narrow down our choices to Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha Nebraska, Sedgwick Zoo in Wichita Kansas, St. Louis Zoo in St. Louis Missouri and Memphis City Zoo in Memphis Tennessee. All top rated zoos reasonably close together in pretty interesting places, and off we go.

Click the zoo names below to join us for a quick tour highlighting the best of each location.

We fly into Omaha Nebraska, rent the pretty comfy van we’ll be traveling in for the next ten days and begin our journey. First surprise, Omaha is a pretty cool town. Lots of street life during a weeknight, excellent food choices and the killerest T-shirt shop imaginable, Curbside Clothing. Pleasantly surprised, but not why we came all this way. Next morning we’re off to Henry Doorly Zoo. This zoo, in a word, is fabulous. Three indoor rainforests, two geodesic deserts, an underground bayou, a fabulous ape exhibit alongside a stunning aquarium. Henry Doorly is consistently listed at the top of the nations best zoos and it’s earned that reputation. We spend a day and a half and it isn’t enough, Henry Doorly Zoo should be on everyone’s itinerary.

Our plan now is to head to Wichita Kansas, the longest drive of our trip. That is until we serendipitously stumble upon a brochure for the Kansas City Zoo followed by a quick map study. Now Sedgwick in Wichita is pretty highly regarded, but 4 hours less drive and a bit of research and we’re already abandoning our long studied plan. I’m not a big “things happen for a reason” guy but the Kansas City Zoo turns out to be my expert daughters favorite zoo of the tour. This zoo is immense, and the animals get most of the room. There are areas you can imagine you are on the Serengheti and the closest beast is a quarter mile away. A zoo uniquely for animals with humans a mere turnstile entertainment.

Every zoo has its individual character, and St. Louis Zoo has character to burn. It’s grounds are gorgeous, well kept and have the patina of old world charm. Small animal collections are housed in buildings that harken back to the days of grand old world’s fairs. Equal parts botanical garden and animal exhibit, St. Louis is unique in its appeal. A pleasure to walk through, wonderfully designed and a real visual treat, St. Louis is a zoo for everyone. St. Louis also has Pappy’s Smoke House, undeniably the best BBQ I’ve ever eaten. So if your zoo experience requires culinary and sensory overload, we’ve found your zoo.

The final stop on our tour, Memphis City Zoo, Memphis, Tennessee. Fun city, more great BBQ and an amazing collection of lions, tigers and the only pandas we see on our trip. Memphis Zoo is one of only three zoos in America with Chinese Pandas, that alone makes it pretty desirable. The Asian pavilion and gardens are a great way to highlight this rare and curious animal. Highly recommended. Beale St. on a warm Friday night was a blast, music end to end, good food and a mellow crowd. We just missed Sun Records on Saturday as they were closing when we pulled up, but a late afternoon trip to Graceland was a fabulous way to end our adventure.

Eleven days, four zoos and a whole lot of great times, memories and an increased perspective on the changing world of captive animals. How zoos balance public demand with animals needs is an ever evolving aspect of zoo design and implementation. The varying direction these four zoos have taken made for a great learning and appreciative experience.