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Winter Magic at the Kansas City Zoo

OTTERS + POLAR BEARS + PENGUINS, OH MY

Article by Kate Baxendale

Photography by Kansas City Zoo

When the water freezes over and you can see your breath, when the air turns icy and snowflakes begin to fall, certain animals at the Kansas City Zoo start to stir with excitement.

While many people may think to visit the zoo during the warmer months, keep in mind it’s open year-round—and special cold weather attractions and activities can turn your visit into a whole new experience. 

“There is still a lot going on here in the wintertime,” says Sarah Gay, the zoo’s marketing and communications manager. 

Some Like it Cold 

“When you first walk in, there’s our river otters. They really love the cold weather. … They’re still swimming in their pool even when it has a layer of ice on the top of it,” Sarah says.

The zoo’s polar bear, Berlin, gets particularly eager about the change in season.

“She likes to come out and start sniffing the air,” Sarah says. “She has a pep in her step when it’s cold and snowy.” 

Sea lions also like it frigid, and it doesn’t stop them from performing in two Sea Lion Splash shows a day for visitors to enjoy.

Lions, tigers and the zoo’s other big cats are also able to tolerate temperatures down to about 25 degrees, so there’s a chance you’ll see them as well. 

The zoo also welcomed rare red panda triplets in July. Normally located in an air-conditioned habitat on Tiger Trail, the red pandas are moved to an outdoor habitat in the wintertime. 

“They’re definitely at a very cute age right now,” Sarah says. “They’re just little red panda fluffballs, and they’re venturing outdoors and enjoying the cold weather as well.”

Then, there are the penguins.

“Obviously, the penguins love it cold,” Sarah says. “It’s 45 degrees in both their water and air temperature inside their exhibit. Even though it’s nice and toasty warm in the viewing area, it is always kept at 45 degrees for them year-round.”

Winter Activities + Events 

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The penguins are also front and center for Santa Dives, held the first three weekends in December. 

“It’s a really fun opportunity for families to come have their picture taken with an underwater Santa,” Sarah says. “He wears his traditional red suit over his wetsuit and dives inside the 45-degree water pool inside the penguin exhibit.” 

Santa then swims with the penguins as they torpedo around him and he poses for photos. 

Another exciting event is the Gentoo and King Penguin March, which takes place every weekend through February.

“Our cold weather birds actually leave their exhibit, march outside and kind of make a lap outside the front of the building and then march back inside,” Sarah says. “They do a couple of laps, and it’s a chance for people to really get up close—a lot closer than you would normally—to these penguins and really see their size, to see them beak-to-beak, if you will.”

Opening gifts is another activity that everyone seems to enjoy—including zoo animals. 

“Next weekend is our Santa Delivers, which is really fun because Santa and Mrs. Claus come and deliver presents to the animals,” Sarah says. “It’s wrapped enrichment items or treats, and then the animals unwrap those items, which is pretty fun to watch. You’ll see them interact with Santa and open their presents.”

Stay Warm + Toasty

Not feeling the cold like those above? That’s OK. Stop by the Beastro Concession in the front lobby for a hot cup of coffee to enjoy while exploring all there is to see inside.

“We have plenty of indoor exhibits that are close to the front entrance so someone can come to the zoo on a cold day and see lots of animals without having to brave the elements too much,” Sarah says.

These include the Polar Bear Passage, the snakes building, Discovery Barn, Tropics and Helzberg Penguin Plaza.

The Discovery Barn is home to several species of frogs and toads, including the blue poison dart frog and marine toad. It also houses several primates, such as ring-tailed lemurs and squirrel monkeys, and beautiful, colorful macaws.

Visit the Tropics to see more primates, such as Mona monkeys, blue monkeys, Saki monkeys and white-tailed gibbons. There are also two African crested porcupines and some Asian small-clawed otters.

With so much to see and do during the winter, gather up the kids, rejoice over smaller crowds than in the summer, and rediscover the Kansas City Zoo from a new perspective.