Review of Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, WI

by StevenHelmer

I took my family here this past weekend. Read to find out what I thought of it.

Description: Non-profit, admission-free zoo located in Madison, WI and containing a wide-variety of animal displays as well as a children's zoo and a discovery center. My family and I visited this zoo this past weekend while down in the Madison area and spent roughly 2 1/2 hours looking at the animals and checking out the other displays.


My daughters had an ice skating competition in the Madison area this past Saturday and, since we knew that was only going to take a couple hours, my wife and I discussed doing something else to justify the gas. After some consideration, I suggested the Henry Vilas Zoo, both because of the location and because there was no admission. This, as it turns out, ended up being a fun family experience for all of us.

Of the four of us, the only person who had not been to this zoo before was my youngest daughter. However, it had been several years since any of us had visited there and, because of that, it was a relatively new experience for all of us. And, the zoo did not disappoint.

Steven Helmer

When compared to some other zoos we've been to, this one was a bit small. And, because of that, it was somewhat easy to notice some of the displays were empty, either because of routine maintenance/animal care or because it was just too hot outside for some of the animals. 

Despite this, we did manage to see quite a few different species ranging from apes to reptiles, enough to keep us busy for more than a couple hours. In addition, unlike some other zoos we've been to, most of the displays were set up so we could get a reasonably close unobstructed view of the animals. And, again like many other zoos, I didn't need to lift up my youngest daughter so she could see.

One of our favorite displays had to be of the prairie dogs. We were standing above them so we could see every movement and, when they started barking, I thought, for sure, my wife was going to try to stick one in her purse. The walk-in aviary was also kind of neat, mostly because the birds are able to fly around you unobstructed, making it easy to get good photos.

Henry Vilas Zoo Aviary
Henry Vilas Zoo Aviary
Cynthia Helmer

The fact the zoo was free (they just ask for donations) was a nice plus. What surprised me, however, was the gift shop. Because there was no admission to the park itself, I figured they would make up some of their lost revenue by gouging us at the gift shop. That, however, was not the case. The souvenir items (and there were quite a few to choose from) were all reasonably priced.

In fact, my only real complaint about this zoo has to be the parking. I'm not sure if there was some sort of special event going on or if this was normal, but we had a heck of a time finding a space because the parking lot and all the surrounding streets (for several blocks) were full. As a result of this, we did have to drive around for about 20 minutes before a spot opened up and, for a few minutes, we were considering giving up and just going home. However, given where this park is located and the limited amount of space, I don't see that as something that could easily be resolved and, instead, just recommend showing up early.

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Final Opinion

Other than the parking situation, I really didn't have any complaints about this zoo. I feel it was a good decision for a family trip and, if you are in the Madison, Wisconsin area, I do recommend taking the time to visit it.

My Grade: A

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Updated: 07/27/2015, StevenHelmer
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Mira on 07/28/2015

I see. Well, it's a nice idea :)

StevenHelmer on 07/28/2015

It's a a publicly-owned zoo run by volunteers.

Mira on 07/28/2015

Who runs this zoo? Is it privately-owned?

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