The new Great Bear Wilderness Exhibit at the Brookfield Zoo is actually pretty . . . great.


I have to confess that the Brookfield Zoo is kind of foreign territory for us city-dwellers. Call me lazy -- but I have my reasons.

First, there is the drive (and the potential for traffic and traffic-related meltdowns). Then there is the fact that I have to pay for admission for everyone -- AND parking. Plus, there is a free zoo just 10 minutes from my house. So the reality is that we haven't made too many excursions out to Brookfield.

However, thanks to a generous Christmas gift, we are now members at the Brookfield Zoo, which means that we don't have to worry about parking or admission (so that just leaves the 290 construction). By the way, the membership is a great deal that pays for itself in about 2 visits -- highly recommend looking into it.

Last weekend, we ventured out to check out the new Great Bear Wilderness Exhibit.  This permanent exhibit combines Native American themes and iconic North American animals in a national park-like setting that allows visitors to view the animals from several up-close vantage points.
The exhibit features bison, Mexican gray wolves, grizzly bears, a bald eagle, and polar bears. Visitors can see the animals inside and outside from several different perspectives -- which is great because kids get a better shot at really seeing the animals (so hard to see sometimes when you are a short person in a big crowd).

The highlight of the exhibit is the underwater viewing area for the grizzly and polar bears. Visitors can look through  21-foot-wide by 8-and-10-foot-high windows to view the bears. We were lucky enough to see one of the polar bears execute an incredibly graceful cannon ball into the water, causing a massive splash and literally delighting every single person who witnessed it.

A conservation theme runs throughout the exhibit. Signage provides information on each animal and their status as a once-or-current endangered species. Poems and quotes about the importance of conservation efforts appear throughout the space in eye-catching and innovative ways. For example, look for the benches made of fallen trees that have a poem etched across the seats. I really appreciated the overall call to action that the exhibit sends zoo-goers: we can take real steps that will help restore and protect nature.

From an educational perspective, the space includes several fun interactive elements for little ones (like a height chart where kids can measure how tall they stand compared to a polar bear). There is also a playground, picnic area and restaurant for when the kids decide that they have had enough of the animals.

Sondra Katzen of the Chicago Zooligical Society was kind enough to show us around the exhibit and she had a few tips to share for would-be vistors. She advised coming early in the day when the animals are most active exploring their environments. She also recommended checking out the website for specific times for informal bear training sessions that demonstrate how the animals help in their own health care (I think that kids would really be interested to see the keepers interacting with these huge creatures). 

The one thing that I really disliked about this exhibit is the way that the exit is set up.
After oohing and aahing over the bears, all visitors are then funneled
into the crowded gift shop where every single child is
asking a parent to purchase something for them. Meanwhile, toddlers in
strollers are reaching out and touching everything within grasp and you
are stuck behind masses of other zoo-goers who are also trying
to escape this cramped space because they don't want to buy their kids
any more stuffed bears either.

I get that the zoo wants you to buy stuff from the gift shop. But as a parent, I found this set up annoying and wish that there was an alternate exit that did not involve pleas for bear and bison-related merchandise.

Summer is just getting going and we will definitely be back to check out the Great Bear Wilderness Exhibit again (and hopefully see more delightful bear antics). After all, we've got that family membership now. Check out the pictures in the photo gallery to get a better idea of what this exhibit offers.

Anybody else had a chance to check out the Great Bear Wilderness Exhibit yet? Got any tips or suggestions for other families planning a visit? Take a minute to share them in the comments.


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  • My husband had the same complaint about the exhibit was set up! He is a frequent Brookfield Zoo goer. How frequent? Try every week. Sunday mornings when my daughter is in Hebrew school, my husband takes our 3 year old to the Brookfield Zoo, rain or shine! I think we get more use out of our membership than almost anyone.

  • There is also a big poetry exhibit at the zoo, here is a link to some photos of that

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