Chester Zoo (www.chesterzoo.org) is the UK’s largest zoo and was the subject of a historical drama charting its beginnings in the 1930s when George Mottershead and his family took over a ramshackle old stately home.Its latest innovation is Islands, where visitors can explore six South East Asian islands and become real life conservationists. See tigers as you make your way through the bamboo forests, watch the macaques on Sulawesi and count the various bird species in the Monsoon Forest. Dorset’s Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre (www.monkeyworld.org) has been on our screens for many years – first in the programme Monkey Business and more recently in Monkey Life. Jim Cronin founded this conservation centre in 1987. Now one of the leaders in primate conservation and rescue worldwide, it boasts the largest group of chimpanzees outside of Africa, numbering more than 50. A trip to Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre allows visitors to get a fascinating insight into the workings of the institute, while watching more than 20 different species of primates interacting in family groups, including orangutans, gibbons, and small monkeys, including the highly endangered woolly monkeys. The Monkey World Education Team offers personal group guided tours of the 65-acre wildlife sanctuary – book on 01929 401003. Disabled visitors can book mobility scooters in advance by calling 01929 401003. Group booking rates and concessions are also available.
ZSL Whipsnade Zoo (www.zsl.org/zsl-whipsnade-zoo) near Dunstable, Bedfordshire, has also had its fair share of the limelight in ITV’s The Zoo.
The park boasts wide-open spaces, fabulous views across the Bedfordshire/Buckinghamshire countryside and a wide range of animals.
Conservation is a hot topic for most of the UK’s animal parks, and at Hampshire’s Marwell Zoo (www.marwell.org.uk), they are actively involved in conserving rhino, Grevy’s zebra and scimitar-horned Oryx. Their latest exhibit is Wild Explorers, which is dedicated to these three species. This summer has also seen some new arrivals at the zoo. A Sulawesi-crested macaque (a critically endangered species) was born to mum, Drusilla and dad, Douglas. Also on the critically endangered list are black and white ruffed lemurs – twins that were born at the zoo this summer.
Groups of 12 or more receive discounted entry, with one adult admitted free for every 12 guests. There is free all-day coach parking and free entry for coach drivers. Free advance visits are available for group trip organisers.
Many animal parks exist in the most beautiful surroundings and Cotswold Wildlife Park (www.cotswoldwildlifepark.co.uk) in Burford, Oxon, is just one example. The gardens in the 160-acre park are beautiful and will delight any keen gardeners among your group. Highlights at the park include The Walled Garden with its meerkats, otters, Tropical House, penguins and squirrel monkeys, and Madagascar; a walk-through Lemur exhibit featuring free-roaming lemurs. If you fancy seeing eye-to-eye with a giraffe, head to the Giraffe Walkway. For younger visitors with a head for heights, check out the new Skymaze, which consists of interconnecting treehouses with slides and jungle bridges.
Group discounts apply for parties of 20 or more. Adult tickets are £11.50 with concessions available.
Knowsley Safari Park (www.knowsleysafariexperience.co.uk) combines its animal attractions with amusement rides, which means that everyone in your group should find something to their taste. The safari itself covers 550-acres and discounts are available for groups of 15 or more travelling in one vehicle. As well as the safari there’s a sea lion show, a bird of prey experience and keeper talks. Activities that require extra payment include high ropes adventure, the train ride and amusement rides. Groups can have their own private tour guide for an extra £1 per person. Groups also get free entry and meal for the organiser and driver, free coach parking, free familiarisation visit and a dedicated coach lane at the park entrance. Drayton Manor (www.draytonmanor.co.uk) in Staffordshire is also well known for its rollercoasters and exclusive Thomas Land rides, but it also has a 15-acre zoo, which houses a pair of critically endangered Sumatran tigers, red kangaroos, cotton top tamarins, unusual Axolotls, a pair of baby North American lynx, fishing cats and a mischievous meerkat mob. Entry to the zoo is included in the park entrance. Discounts are available for groups of 12 or more in one vehicle, with one free organiser per group. Parking is free for coaches and mini buses, and there’s free entry and food for the coach driver and free familiarisation visits.
Many zoos and parks specialise in a certain animal group, with Twycross Zoo (www.twycrosszoo.org) in Warwickshire, originally a centre for primates. Although there’s a whole host of other animals at the zoo now, Twycross still retains a focus on primate conservation. This dedication has recently been rewarded with the birth of a baby bonobo this summer. Twycross Zoo is the only zoo in the UK where you can see all types of great ape – gorilla, orangutan, chimpanzee and bonobo. For younger visitors, Twycross has a created a huge water play area – the Wet and Wild Zone – with penguin sprinklers, zebra fountains and elephant water jets. Another new development is the giraffe savannah – home to three new giraffes.
Howletts Wild Animal Park near Canterbury, Kent, is another destination that has a deep affinity with primates – it is famous for its gorillas and 130 babies have been born at Howletts and its sister park Port Lympne. The Sumatran tigers are also a star attraction, along with other big cats such as the stunning snow leopards. Visitors can also enjoy keeper talks and a number of animal encounters. Group discounts are available for parties of 15 or more, with adults paying £15. Large groups of up to 22 guests can book a specially adapted safari truck exclusively for around £200 (plus park entry fees). Edinburgh Zoo (www.edinburghzoo.org.uk) has been in the media a lot recently, as everyone waited on tenterhooks to see if a baby panda would be born. Sadly, no baby has appeared, but the zoo still offers a great chance to see these rare creatures (note that free timed tickets are needed to view the pandas). In its 101-year history, Edinburgh Zoo has been home to many famous animal residents, including the giant pandas and the UK’s only koalas. There are daily talks, the famous Penguin Parade, reptile handling sessions and an Animal Antics show. It is also possible to buy different kinds of keeper experiences.
If you’ve been inspired by the BBC’s Big Blue Live over the summer, a trip to one of the UK’s many aquaria could be a neat addition to your wish list.
The UK’s newest aquarium is SEA LIFE Manchester (www.visitsealife.com/manchester), which offers all the fun talks and feed shows you would expect, alongside Europe’s first seabed walk. SeaTrek allows non-divers aged eight or over to walk in the tank at the aquarium, getting up close with the resident Giant Green Sea Turtle Ernie, sharks, rays and hundreds of fish.
Participants don a wetsuit and a special breathing helmet. For anyone who doesn’t fancy getting in the water, the underwater tunnel will allow them to watch the rays and sharks swim overhead without getting their feet wet. Tickets for groups of 10 are £10 per person and there are free leader inspection visits.
The Scottish SEA LIFE Sanctuary (www.visitsealife.com) at Oban is not only home to a spectacular aquarium, but is also the country’s leading seal hospital. Visitors will witness the majestic sharks, graceful rays and enchanting seahorses and also get a chance to meet the seals and hear the stories behind their rescues. Otters, squirrels and more local wildlife can be seen. Special experiences include breakfast with the seals, which includes a chance to take part in seal training and feeding, and breakfast in the Shoreline Café. Prices are £50 for two people aged 10 and over.
Groups of 10 or more visiting the Scottish SEA LIFE Sanctuary will receive discounted entry, free downloadable activity packs, easy coach access for drop off and pickup, plus leader preview visits. VIP tours with a sanctuary expert are also available.
On the waterfront in Plymouth, the National Marine Aquarium (www.national-aquarium.co.uk) is the UK’s largest aquarium.
There are more than 70 sharks from more than 10 different species and there’s also a daily interactive dive show.
Displays take visitors across the world’s oceans, from the Plymouth Sound to the Eddystone Reef, showcasing a typical offshore reef in British coastal waters. Group entry prices are £10.49 for adults with concessions available.