A Night at the Zoo
For my birthday I was given a voucher allowing me to book an overnight stay in either London Zoo or it’s country cousin Whipsnade Zoo. Given that we have both been to London Zoo many times we decided that Whipsnade was the obvious choice as neither had visited before.
The overnight experience allows you full entrance to the zoo from opening time on the day of your stay, two evening walks around the zoo once it is closed to the public, one either side of dinner, a night in a cabin close to the animals, breakfast and another walk prior to public opening. You are also then free to spend the rest of the day around the zoo where you stayed or make your way to the other one for a visit there.
We arrived mid-morning at Whipsnade and were able to drive straight in and begin our exploring. One thing to note at Whipsnade is that, if arriving by car, you have two options. You can park in the free car park and continue as foot visitors, or you can choose to pay to enter in your car. The latter option allows you to drive around the zoo and park up whenever you feel like visiting an exhibit. Although the cost of taking your car in is quite high I would definitely recommend doing it. Whipsnade is very big, for context the Rhinoceros enclosure alone is approximately the same size as the entirety of London Zoo, and thus it is quite a walk between exhibits with very little to see en route. There is also an area more akin to a safari park that is only accessible to vehicles.
We had around five hours to wander around before the scheduled meeting time at the lodges and we still didn’t quite manage to get everywhere. The biggest advantage of having such a lot of space is that animals can be housed in large enclosures rather than the more cramped accommodation found in a lot of other zoos. This is great for the animals and allows them to behave a lot more naturally, but it also gives them plenty of scope for positioning themselves out of sight, which can be very frustrating!
At around 16:00 we made our way to the lodge area for the 16:30 arrival time and were warmly greeted by the staff, given an orientation talk and welcome drink before being allocated to one of the nine cabins. Each cabin sleeps two people in either a double or twin beds with the bathroom facility being in the public block a couple of hundred metres away. We then had a couple of hours in which to relax before the zoo closed and we could set off on our first walk.
The walks all take a similar format, each lasting an hour, you are accompanied by a couple of zoo staff and visit 4 exhibits where you are given an informative talk about each of them. With some of the animals you are also given some food that you can throw to them. The animals, not the keepers…
In between the two evening walks you go to the main zoo restaurant for a two course meal. I would guess that in ‘normal’ times you would eat communally and be able to get to know the other people on the tour, but for now we were all kept at suitably distanced tables. The big advantage of these out of hours tours is that you don’t have to fight for a view with large crowds, and the lack of crowds also mean that the animals are starting to ‘relax’ a bit and offered better views – especially as with a number of them they know that they are going to get some extra food!
The evening’s activities wrap up at around 22:00 and although the facilities in the cabins are minimal the beds are comfortable, and after such a full day that is all that matters! It was impossible not to sleep well.
The second day starts with a full English breakfast back in the main restaurant before the last of the guided tours prior to the zoo opening to the public. The same format is followed, and because it is the start of the day the animals are quite active as they enjoy the moments before the crowds arrive, and also enjoying the additional food that the tour group feeds them.
The final tour concludes as the zoo opens to the public and you are then free to continue enjoying Whipsnade at your leisure, or head on down to London Zoo where your Lookout Lodge ticket is valid for entry. We were still quite tired after our unaccustomed exertions of the previous day so we opted for a leisurely look at some of the exhibits we had missed before heading home.
This was one of those things that you book without knowing exactly what to expect but it is safe to say that it thoroughly exceeded all expectations that we had. The chance to get a look around when the park is empty is great, you don’t have to fight the crowds and the animals are more relaxed giving much better views. The staff were all incredibly genial and knowledgeable giving some excellent insight in to each of the species and also about the work that zoos do in helping to conserve vulnerable species.
It may seem expensive but I would say that it is actually incredibly good value for money, and proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable birthday gift.