Colchester Zoo Review: How To Make the Most Of Your Visit

While I enjoy a day out at Whipsnade or Hertfordshire zoo, my favourite zoo in the south east is Colchester Zoo.  I love Colchester Zoo because it has a great range of animals which seem well cared for and with good size enclosures. There is a huge amount to see and lots of play areas for children. I have written this post using my experience of many years of visiting to help you decide if the Zoo is right for you and to get the most out of your day if you go.

2 of the elephants at Colchester Zoo in Essex
Elephants at Colchester Zoo

Colchester Zoo Review

Why Colchester Zoo is a great place to visit with children

  • Lots of children love animals and it can be enjoyed by parents too. 
  • With so many different animals you are sure to see some of your favourites. 
  • There are 4 playgrounds spread around the site plus plenty of interactive exhibits.
  • The soft play is handy for warming up in on cold days.
  • Children can get close to a wide range of animals thanks to walk through areas.
  • There are hands on activities like bug handling.
  • Enjoy an adventure on the Madagascar Express Road Train.
  • It’s a great way to explore topics about conservation and damage to the animals natural habitats.
  • All activities are included in the entrance price other than where I have specified below.
  • Colchester isn't just for families though and adults are welcome to visit without children.

What Is There To Do At Colchester Zoo?

The main focus of the zoo is the animals and there are nearly 160 species to see.  While this is about 1/4 of the species that London Zoo has, London has lots of small animals like insects, reptiles and amphibians where as Colchester has more large animals. The site is quite large and the paths wind around so it is easy to miss some areas. It took us several visits before we managed to see everything. 

My Favourite Animals At Colchester Zoo

Colchester has lots of amazing animals like giraffes, hyenas, rhino, pygmy hippo and penguins, but my favourites, which I recommend making sure you don't miss, are:

  • Gelada Baboon- the interactions between this group are brilliant to watch, especially the alpha male and the juveniles.
  • Bornean Orangutans - These huge and critically endangered primates look like something from a Disney creation, or Labyrinth at the very least. You can see them best when they are inside.
  • Chimpanzees - If you spend time watching the chimps it is easy to see we are related. I particularly enjoy when they are sitting near the glass as they often interact with you or play games.
  • Elephants - Based on the stories my son tells people the highlight of one of our visits was seeing the elephants going to the toilet! They don’t do much other than eat and poop, but they are so big and graceful that they are amazing to watch.
  • Sun bears - These cute brown bears can prove pretty elusive. When we have seen them it has always been in the higher area where they have an inside section, I have never seen them from the lower viewing area near the penguins. Aim for feeding time so you can definitely see them. 

An alpha male baboon, a female and a baby at Colchester Zoo
The large group of Baboons are entertaining to watch

Activities and Play Areas For Children

The Safari Play Area is the largest of the play areas. It is more or less straight in front of you when you go in to the zoo. If you want to avoid being dragged straight into it then head straight into the Buffy Headed Capuchin (ahead and to your right slightly), or keep left and go into the Chimpanzee Lookout. The Safari Play area has big climbing towers, spider web and slides so it’s great for older children. While there is some equipment for small ones, you’ll need to keep an eye on those that confidence is greater than their ability. 

The Safari Play Area at Colchester Zoo
The Safari Play Area is near the entrance, photo taken on a Zoo Lates evening

The Meerkat Hangout Play Area is fairly small and great for preschoolers.

The Watering Hole Play Area has a few big slides and is most suitable for children 5 plus.

A play area at London Zoo with slides
The Watering Hole Play Area has some great slides

The Remi Brown Play Area is the most recently updated and some of the equipment is accessible for wheelchairs. It has a good mix of equipment for younger and older children as well as seating for parents around the outside, toilets and a water fountain.

A toddler at a playground in Colchester Zoo
The Remi Brown Play Area has a good mix for all ages

Jungle Tumble Soft Play. If you want to go in the soft play make sure you prebook. It has a good size area for toddlers and a large play frame for older children. There is a toilet, limited seating (but just enough if parents don’t use seats for coats) and you can get drinks from the reception area. The slots are 45 minutes long so make sure you are outside 5 to 10 minutes before. They normally check your ticket when you are in the queue so you can go in on time. 

Discovery Den. There is a sand box with a landscape projected on to it which changes as you move the sand around eg if you make a pile of sand in turns in to an island or volcano and dinosaurs appear on it, flatter areas turn blue to look like water. They also have colouring sheets you can colour in an aquatic creature before scanning it so it appears on a virtual aquarium on a large screen. This area requires staffing so it has reduced opening hours on off peak days.

A sand pit in the Discovery Den with a landscape projection on to it
Move the sand around to change the landscape (in the Discovery Den)

Normally in the Discovery Den, but sometimes in the Sensation Station there is the chance to hold a small animal like a giant snail or hissing cockroach.

Throughout the site there are lots of small activities for children so it is really easy to keep them engaged and entertained.

Children's hands held out over a table with a giant snail on one pair of hands
Holding a giant snail

Lost Madagascar Road Train. 

The train goes on a little journey alongside the lake and past a number of animal enclosures. It can be a nice way to see the lemur, flamingoes, wolves and cheetah. You also go passed the binturong and otters, but I can never spot them from the train. 

In warmer weather you stop half way round and go through the ring tailed lemur walkthrough. On some visits we have seen them really well, on others they have all been hiding inside.  In winter the train is normally non-stop because the lemurs don’t come out.

There are two road trains and when it is busy they run both so the queue doesn’t take too long.

Crazy Sand £

Next to the Meerkat Lookout play area there is a Crazy Sand station open weekends and holidays. This is a chargeable activity where you can fill a bottle or pendant with coloured sand. My tip is make sure you tap it gently to settle the sand and get it as full as possible as the sand will inevitably settle more later and if there is any space the different coloured layers of sand get mixed up.

Face Painting £

Between the Safari play area and Penguini’s restaurant there is a (chargeable) face painting station . This is always pretty popular so we haven’t tried it. 

Animal Feeding £

A few years ago you used to be able to queue up and feed the giraffes and elephants at their feeding time. Elephant feeding is no longer available and you now need to prebook and pay for Giraffe feeding. It’s pretty cool to do as their long tongues wrap around the food and you get to see them close up. This costs £20 (although it’s called “a donation”) for a group of up to 5. At weekends and holidays this books up well in advance, but on a quiet day you can ask at guest services for on day availability. It is worth booking online when you buy entrance tickets if it's something you really want to do. 

You can buy nectar and feed the lorikeets from 10.30am. They can be pretty cheeky and land on you while they feed. It’s worth heading to this early on if you want to do it as when there is a limited amount they sell each day and it’s more fun when they are hungry. You can also go through the enclosure and see the birds without paying to feed them. 

A preschooler with a plastic pot which a lorikeet colourful bird is drinking nectar from
You can feed nectar to the lorikeets

You can buy food for the goats and feed them in a walkthrough area called Colenso Village. There are a few types of goat and sheep in this area. The hungry goats can be a little scary for children as they are determined to get the food. 

Two goats eating from a girls hand at Colchester Zoo
The goats love to be fed

Like all zoos you can also buy various experiences which involve getting close to animals. The Zoo Academy is for children 6 to 15, Keeper Shadowing for 8 plus and Keeper for the Day from 14 plus.

Dinosaurs at the Zoo

New for 2024 is a Dinosaur area replacing what was the outdoor theatre area. It is expected to be open by Easter and it has a number of animatronic dinosaurs.  

If you have a dinosaur fan make sure you check out the Nature Area to see if they still have LEGO dinosaurs there (they were there late 2023, but we didn’t check on our 2024 visit). Also make sure you go to the Discovery Den for the moving sand dinosaur exhibit.

LEGO Brick stegosaurus in grass on the Nature Walk
Colchester Zoo has a few dinosaurs already but more full size ones are coming soon

Eating At Colchester Zoo

There are lots of places to eat around the zoo, although some of these are only open peak days (marked on the map as “seasonal”) . The main restaurant, Penguini’s has plenty of places to sit down inside and out, but it does get busy on nice days. It sells a range of sandwiches, pizza, cake and other meals. Other outlets sell hot dogs, crispy chicken, wraps, chips etc. We have eaten from most of the outlets at one time or another and it’s all been ok. 

If you just want a small snack, drink or ice cream you are rarely far from a concession with the exception being the far ends of the site (the children’s zoo, Edge of Africa and Rajang’s Forest where the Orangutang are). Most venues offer some form of Gluten Free and Vegan options.

There are tables around the zoo where you can have a picnic, but there is no single large concentration of them so if you have brought your own food I would just look for the most convenient one when it’s time for you to eat.

A large sandy space with rhino, zebra, giraffe and crane
Giraffe, rhino, zebra and cranes

Colchester Zoological Society

Colchester Zoo has big plans for the future which includes becoming a charitable trust under the name Colchester Zoological Society in January 2025. They have shared their vision for the future on their website and the plans include accommodation in the form of lodges, a water playground (and effectively a lot more play areas in general) and many changes to the animal exhibits. It will be interesting to see how this proceeds and what level of disruption there will be. 

Tips For Visiting Colchester Zoo

  • You can download an app to plan your visit, view a map online or pick up a paper copy when you arrive.
  • Decide which animals you want to see most and make sure your planned route takes you past them. If there is a feeding time or talk advertised for them aim to be there then. It will be busier, but it means you are more likely to see some of the shy creatures. There is no guarantee you will see any specific animals. Most of them have indoor and outdoor enclosure and many will have private areas they can retreat too as well. 
  • If you want to go in the soft play book it in advance when you book your tickets. It’s free, but there are time slots and they can get fully booked.
  • My favourite place in the zoo to enjoy an ice cream or coffee is upstairs in the Kingdom of the Wild Building. There is a balcony you can go out on and enjoy your snack while looking over the large enclosure containing rhino, giraffe, zebra, kudu, ostrich and cranes. It really is the best seat in the zoo. Weekends and school holidays the “Spirit” snack outlet next to the balcony has snacks, ice cream and drinks. Outside of this you will need to bring your snack from another outlet.
  • If you know for sure when you are coming then book in advance. It saves money and you are more likely to get a space in soft play or giraffe feeding if you want it.
  • Look for Zoo Lates. On selected dates in the summer the zoo stays open late. Entry doesn’t cost any more on these days, but you get to stay longer. They are great as you get to see animals differently as they start to go to bed or nocturnal animals become more active. There are also various activities which take place like camp fire stories and performances on the stage. We went to one last year and after arriving at the zoo at 10am we ended up leaving after 8.30pm, it was lovely weather and a great experience. Some of the indoor animal areas closed as it got dark (so the animals weren't disturbed), but the play areas were open in the dark and there was plenty to do.
  • The majority of the time the exit is via the large shop. It sells everything animal related you can think of and is a huge appeal to children. To the right of the shop entrance, past the lockers, another exit is sometimes open so look for that if you would rather avoid buying anything

A pygmy hippo eating some food and looking like it is smiling
The pygmy hippo seems pretty happy

Useful Information To Know Before Visiting (FAQs)

Peak Times - When Is The Best Time To Visit The Zoo?

On quieter days the zoo closes earlier, has less food outlets open and may have reduced hours for activities like the Discovery Den. The quieter days are generally week days outside of school holidays. We went on a weekend in January and everything was open like on a peak day, but it was a dry day and I suspect if lots of rain was forecast and ticket sales are slow then less food outlets would be open.

We have been at the weekend in the summer several times and while it was busy, the number of people wasn't a problem. The design of the zoo means everything is spread out so visitors tend to be spread out quite a lot too. The biggest problems on busy days is the queue for the toilets and finding somewhere to sit down while you eat. We try and avoid getting lunch between 12.30 and 2pm when food outlets are busiest. In our experience the Meerkat Hangout toilets tend to have the shortest queues.

In school holidays they ofter have more activities and talks on, they also tend to stay open later. I think this balances any downsides from extra people. Of course if you can go on a sunny week day in term time that is worth it too. I would recommend planning your visit based on the weather forecast, aiming for a dry day and not worry too much if it is a weekend or school holiday. 

Is it suitable for pushchairs?

Colchester Zoo isn’t the best if you are going with children in a pushchair. While there aren’t many steps there are lots of steep slopes which can be a challenge. Make sure to look at the Easier Route marked with green arrows on the map if you have wheels.

Some of the enclosures can be hard to see into for children sitting in a pushchair or toddler height children, although they do seem to be working on improving visibility.

Having said that I have taken a pushchair before because it is a lot of walking for little legs and we managed ok. There were a few times we have had to pick our children up to see better though. When taking a baby I have preferred to use a baby carrier so they can see better.


Toilets can require a little planning for small bladders. Some areas of the zoo are really well covered with toilets although most are only a cubicle or two. The side of the zoo where the entrance is has them in lots of locations, once you get past the elephants though there is a huge section of the zoo with only one toilet block (in the children’s play area).

There are baby changing facilities wherever there are toilets and in most cases these are available to both male and females.

They currently only have one Changing Places Toilet, this is near Meerkat Hangout and a RADAR key is required.

Wifi and Mobile Signal

Mobile signal isn’t great around the zoo on some networks (including mine: Three). There is free wifi for guests  (current password “Elephant01”) but this isn’t accessible everywhere. So don't rely on a phone to meet up with someone.

Is It Dog Friendly?

Other than Assistance and Medical Alert dogs, dogs are not allowed into the zoo or car park. Due to the distress dogs may cause some of the animals they have strict criteria around when Assistance and Medical Alert dogs are allowed in  and there are some exhibits where the dogs are not allowed in at all due to the assessed risk. They have full information on their website about this and the reasons for the decisions.

A male lion sitting inside
Bailey the lion is 16 years old

Is It Worth Visiting On A Rainy Day?

There are a number of indoor enclosures so if it’s a showery day there are options for hiding inside while it blows over.  Having said that much of the zoo is outside and you need to walk between the inside enclosures so it’s not ideal for really wet days.

Are There Lockers?

There are some lockers near the exit, but you have to pay to use these (all day use is £5 for medium, £10 for large). You might find it easier to leave items in your car.  Make sure you get a wristband for re-entry if you need to leave and re-enter. 

Are There Quiet Spaces?

The Zoo can get a little overwhelming and sometimes you need somewhere with less activity for some quiet time or to get little ones to nap in their pushchair. If you are looking for a quieter space then there are a few places that tend to get less visitors, but they aren't guaranteed to be quiet. 

Try visiting: the Nature Area behind the tigers, the Koi Carp, Vulture Valley or any paths that are a dead ends (eg by the ruined church or The Edge of Africa). The paper map has the areas that tend to be quieter marked on them as quiet zones.

When Does The Zoo Open and Close?

Colchester Zoo is open all year except for Christmas Day. It opens at 9.30am, but closing times vary: normally between 4pm and 6pm depending on time of year. If it is very quiet they might close half an hour early. Some food outlets and exhibits will close an hour before the zoo.

Do You Need To Buy Tickets In Advance?

You don't need to buy tickets in advance, but they will always be cheaper in advance and you can get in faster. If you haven't prebooked you can buy tickets online on the day of your visit, which gives you faster access, or you can buy your tickets on arrival. The cost of on the day tickets is currently £22.50 for adults, £18.50 for children 3 to 15 and free for under 3s. These prices are expected to go up on 29th March.

If you buy your tickets online in advance (at the latest checking out at 23.59 the day before) they will cost less. In advance they cost £20.25 for adults and £16.65 for children, although until 16th February prebooked tickets are on offer for £12.50 weekends, £10 weekdays (January blues offer).

You can use Tesco Clubcard vouchers in exchange for entry with the vouchers worth double when used to buy tickets. The clubcard vouchers can't be used to buy the tickets online so you will pay whatever the equivalent is of the on the day price in vouchers. 

What To Take With You When Visiting

  • Socks if you are booked to go in the soft play (they sell some if you have forgotten).
  • If you bring a water bottle there are several water fountains where they can be refilled around the site.
  • Snacks and a picnic will help you keep costs down.

An amur tiger in grass land
Colchester Zoo has 3 Amur tigers

How To Get To Colchester Zoo And Where To Park

Address: Maldon Road, Stanway, Heckfordbridge, Colchester, CO3 0SL

If coming by car the zoo is well signposted with brown signs from most directions. There is plenty of free parking at the zoo with disabled parking available closer to the entrance. 

If you want to come by train the zoo is about 10 minutes drive away from the City Centre and Colchester Main Rail Station. You can get the number 75 bus from the Bus Station to the zoo. 

What To Do Nearby Colchester Zoo (Including Places To Eat)

Colchester Zoo is a full day out, but if you are on holiday and looking for other places near by check out these places to go in Colchester.

You might also want to look at staying nearby at the gorgeous Feather Down Farm site at Layer Marney (Affiliate link) which is 15 minutes drive away from the zoo.

Tollgate Shopping Centre and Stane Leisure park are 5 minutes away from the zoo. In this area you can find a McDonalds, Costa, Nando’s, KFC, Frankie & Benny’s and Harvester as well as plenty of shops and supermarkets. If you need a bite to eat before heading home then they are a good option and it's easy to park.

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