Henry Vilas Zoo Camp of Madison is in an Amazing Place

Henry Vilas Zoo American Badger

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One of the best things in Madison Wisconsin that you can do with kids is the amazing FREE resource: the Henry Vilas Zoo. I know I am just topping 50 in age, but I have amazingly fond memories of this place ever since I was a wee child. Even Better? Henry Vilas Zoo Camp would be a dream way to spend a summer.

Henry Vilas Zoo Camp article cover image with a swimming polar bear

It has changed dramatically since I was a kid – where I remember standing atop a stairway to drop refrigerated sardines to the seals is now a grassy knoll and the round monkey house is another distant memory. The Zor Shriners used to store their camels there and offer rides (for a nominal fee) on weekends.

Henry Vilas Zoo of Madison

We have learned so much in the (*cough*) 45 or so years since those days – everything about the comfort and safety of the animals! The reasons behind pacing behavior, the fact that having kids feed animals might not be the best source of food sanitation, and how riding animals in a noisy setting might be stressful.

The Henry Vilas Zoo we know today is such an amazing place for the animals, and to actually watch them.

Henry Vials Zoo History

The City of Madison was blessed in 1904 as the result of personal tragedy. William and Anna Vilas donated a 63-acre tract of land for Vilas Park, with the stipulation that no admission be charged. It was named in memory of the couple’s son, Henry, who died at a young age five years earlier due to complications from diabetes.

Henry Vilas Zoo Giraffe

By 1911, 28 acres of that park were partitioned into an animal exhibit, marking the creation of the zoo. Three years later came the Madison Zoological and Aquarium Society…and in 1926 became the Henry Vilas Park Zoological Society, which continues today.

According to its mission statement:

The society’s purpose is to build community support and provide funding for improvements to the Henry Vilas Zoo. This includes the acquisition, conservation, and replacement of animals; refurbishing and creating new exhibits; supporting educational programs; and improving the overall educational and recreational value of the zoo. The Zoological Society contributes generously to the Zoo’s operating budget. The society has been instrumental in providing funding for many zoo improvements, generally in partnership with the county and city.

Henry Vilas Park Zoological Society

It has been doing just that, for over 100 years now. Recently it created The Arctic Passage, which included a major expansion that houses a new restaurant, and new enclosures for seals and the returning grizzly and polar bears. It opened on May 23, 2015.

That takes us to the Henry Vilas Zoo Animals

Let me do this for you by exhibit. Each exhibit is now an amazing environment – it has come such a long way from the seals swimming in a pool that could be in someone’s backyard. And yes, we made a FREE downloadable Henry Vilas Zoo Animal Scavenger Hunt for you!
(get it at the end of this post)

Discovery Center and Herpetarium

  • Aldabra Tortoise
  • Alligator Snapping Turtle
  • American Alligator
  • Common Leopard Gecko
  • Desert Tortoise
  • Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake
  • Giant African Millipede
  • Gila Monster
  • Golfodulcean Poison Dart Frog
  • Green Anaconda
  • Green and Black Poison Dart Frog
  • Lemur Leaf Frog
  • Madagascar Hissing Cockroach
  • Monarch Butterfly
  • Ocellate River Stingray
  • Ornate Box Turtle
  • Piranha
  • Red-Eye Leaf Frog
  • Reticulated Glass Frog
  • Seba’s Short-Tailed Bat
  • Standing’s Day Gecko
  • Strawberry Poison Dart Frog
  • Yellow and Blue Poison Dart Frog
  • Yellow-Banded Poison Dart Frog

Tropical Rainforest Aviary

  • African Penguin
  • Blue and Yellow McCaw
  • Blue-Crowned Motmot
  • Capybara
  • Geoffroy’s Marmoset
  • North American River Otter
  • Ocellate River Stingray
  • Orange-Rumped Agouti
  • Piranha
  • White-Faced Whistling Duck

Children’s Zoo

  • Aardvark
  • American Flamingo
  • Chilean Flamingo
  • Indian Crested Porcupine
  • Koi
  • Meerkat
  • Red Panda
  • Turkey Vulture
  • White-Handed Gibbon
  • annnnd the goats!

Savanna and High Plains

  • Aardvark
  • Alpaca
  • Bactrian Camel
  • Somali Wild Ass
  • White Rhinoceros
  • Reticulated Giraffe

Arctic Passage

The exhibit features underwater viewing of the polar bears and seals and a stream where the grizzly bears love to fish! Check out the interactive, educational experiences for visitors of all ages, including the retired Tundra Buggy research vehicle from the Arctic!

Henry Vilas Zoo Website
  • Grizzly Bear
  • Harbor Seal
  • Polar Bear

Primate House

  • Black and White Ruffled Lemur
  • Bornean Orangutan
  • Golden Lion Tamarin
  • Ring-Tailed Lemur

Big Cats Exhibit

  • African Lion
  • Amur Tiger

North American Prairie

  • American Badger
  • American Bison

Wisconsin Heritage

  • American Badger
  • Sandhill Crane

That is not all for the Kid friendly excitement.

The Henry Vilas Zoo has a Children’s Zoo in it! is a wonderful place for kids of all ages! This is where you will find a lot of interactive things for the littles like the rides, playground, and goats!

Henry Vilas Zoo flamingos

Henry Vilas Zoo Train

How fun would it be to ride in a train, through a tunnel, and around the Children’s Zoo? The Electric Zoo Train will do just that and for a $2 token per rider.

Henry Vilas Zoo Carousel

Dubbed the “Conservation Carousel” it is housed inside the carousel building and just adjacent to the playground. Beautifully maintained and with a plethora of animals to choose from, again, it is just a $2 token per rider.

**note: both the train and carousel run from April through October. If you don’t want the tokens, you can get multi-ride punch cards! Keep in mind that the nominal fee helps support the zoo. That is FREE to visit.

Get Playful

The Adventure Play Area is totally free and a great place to get the wiggles out. Things to climb on, over, and under, as well as run around. It is beautifully done.

Then, there are the goats! The sustainably-designed Red Barn houses them and offers goat feed dispensers (you will need quarters) so you can feed them, if you wish.

Make sure you hit the GREEN barn that has other animals in the Children’s Zoo area – I LOVE the Red Pandas!

Lets Talk Henry Vilas Food

First of all, you can enjoy a FREE zoo and even bring in your own food. There are a ton of areas to spread out a blanket and enjoy a picnic. Keep in mind that drink lids and straws are not allowed on the property – this is for the safety of the animals and supports their conservation message. Plan your water bottles, sippy cups, etc accordingly, and leave the alcoholic beverages at home.

Even picnic tables abound the common areas, but they DO have a restaurant you can enjoy.

Henry Vilas Zoo Glacier Grille

Just like it sounds, it is in the Arctic area. The zoo’s Glacier Grille combines healthy, tasty food with a one-of-a-kind setting. Our Grille is the only indoor restaurant in the country to look out onto a polar bear exhibit!

How cool is that?

With the average entree price of just six bucks, and the incredible view – what is the reason to NOT try it out? Oh yeah, the profits go back into supporting the zoo!

Keep in mind that over the winter it is only open on weekends, that changes in April!

Henry Vilas Zoo Rive Otter Picture

Henry Vilas Zoo Fundraising Run

We talked about how the Henry Vilas Zoo is FREE and if there is anything to pay for (rides and food) that it goes back into supporting the zoo. One of the major fundraisers the zoo has each year is their run!

The zoo hosts an annual Zoo Ru with a 5K-10K run/walk. The race starts and finishes in the zoo, and uses portions of the adjacent University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum. It is one race/walk that has an incredible view!

Henry Vilas Zoo Events

The run is simply one of the many-many-many events that the zoo has.

  • Birthday parties
  • Breakfast with Santa
  • Boo at the zoo
  • Weddings
  • Holiday lights – Christmas Lights
  • Ice skating in winter
  • etc

Henry Vilas Zoo Camp

This might be my favorite of all events that the zoo has – camp! I LOVE experiences that are not only fun but educational and how much more of a match made in heaven could camp + zoo be?

What is neat is that it isn’t only summer camp! They have camps offered in the Spring, Summer, and Winter! Yes, they have wild week-long day camps all summer long… but in addition to that? Single day camp on no-school days for what they call “Mini Camp”. Winter break brings full day camp and the same can be said for Spring Break.

Spending actual time with animals is the heart of the Zoo Camp experience! Each day, campers will have an opportunity to step into the role of the zookeepers: putting out food for an animal or helping to prep an animal enclosure for the day. At least once each day, campers get to see or touch an animal up close. They also focus on investigating the real life challenges zoo staff and vets face. Campers will have opportunities to build their teamwork skills as they complete our science challenges.


The Henry Vilas Zoo Camp is one to do over and over again as there is a new theme each day, with different animal encounters, and a new daily challenge and science investigations.

Better yet – they are age-appropriate by group!
Email: education@henryvilaszoo.gov or call 608-283-1610 to learn more. But again, as a source of income for the zoo – you are helping support this amazing free resource with your Henry Vilas Zoo Camp enrollment.

Check out the amazing Carousel at Henry Vilas Zoo!

Henry Vilas Zoo Virtual tour

This is the way COVID-19 seems to be bringing much loved places to the classrooms, etc. It can be hard to take a class to a zoo field trip when you are all distance learning.

Have no fear – there are several ways to virtually visit the zoo – from recorded “Keeper Chats” to a Virtual Critter Connection.

Henry Vilas Zoo Admission


The Henry Vilas Zoo is one of ten remaining free zoos in North America. It is totally community supported via donations and fundraisers.

The zoo is never allowed to charge an admission price – it is in the bylaws from over 100 years ago when the land was donated. That is why the zoo does fundraisers and relies on donations – to do the best it can for our community of animals.

Henry Vilas Zoo Family Membership

Yes, the zoo is free, but as a way to help support it, you can “donate” $75 a year and get a Family Membership. Not only do you get a 10% discount in the Glacier Grille and the gift shop, an invitation to our members-only events, and discounted admission to over 150 AZA-accredited zoos & aquariums across the U.S.

That alone is huge.

But, there is more! you also get priority registration and member discounts for Henry Vilas Zoo camp offerings and classes, and a punch-card for 24 FREE train or carousel rides!

How cool is that? You can see more about Henry Vilas Zoo Family Membership HERE.

Henry Vilas Zoo Map
Along Lake Wingra is a fantastic beach (top left)

Henry Vilas Zoo Parking

This is the challenge as the land was donated over 100 years ago and the city has grown around it. Yes, there are a few free public parking lots – with a 3 hour limit, but street parking is hard to find. Plan on carpooling, going early, or during the week to avoid massive congestion and frustration.

Madison Zoo Entrances

If you get into the parking lots, there is an adjacent entrance to the zoo. The main entrance is on the north side at the intersection of Drake St. and Randall Ave.

Then there is the beach entrance. The alternative “bridge entrance” is on the southeast side on Vilas Park Dr. across from the beach. NOTE: The bridge entrance is currently closed due to COVID-19 precautions.

Henry Vilas Zoo Hours

I think the zoo is only closed early three days a year – on holidays, unless severe weather is an issue. Otherwise it is open every day from 9:30am – 5:00pm. Different animals are more active in different seasons so it makes sense to go back often!

The zoo is closed at noon on the following days:

  • Thanksgiving Day
  • Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
  • New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day

Get your FREE Henry Vilas Zoo Animal Scavenger Hunt!

Places To Stay Nearby

Other fun things to do in Wisconsin besides the Henry Vilas Zoo Camp: