11 best tips for families visiting Dubbo Zoo: Parents’ guide
Dubbo Zoo is a great experience for families with kids of all ages, but get some inside tips in our parents' guide before you go.
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Five hours northwest of Sydney is a vast, 300-hectare wildlife reserve called Dubbo Zoo. And it's a blast for families. You'll find an extensive write-up about the nuts and bolts of the experience in my Dubbo Zoo review, but there's some particular tips for families that are worth knowing.
I've herded the kids into the car and done the hike from Sydney to Dubbo Zoo a couple of times. I've done it in winter and I've done it in the full heat of summer. Our most recent visit was January 2021, with my children aged nine, seven and five; the youngest not yet ready to ride a bike, but the other two proficient on two-wheels.
The below parents' guide to Dubbo Zoo is based on my own experiences, including the successes and failures. Hopefully it will help you make the most of this fantastic experience.
Start first thing in the morning
Yes, I know how hard it can be to get kids out the door in a timely fashion, but it's wise to try. Make sure you get to the zoo early, before it even opens. The days get warm and they can be exhausting, so you want to do it fresh and get the bulk of the experience done before the heat of the day kicks in.
If you're hiring a bike or electric cart, you'll need to queue, so keep that in mind. Plus, you'll need to cream-up and argue a bit to convince the kids that their bike seats don't hurt and that it won't be scary and yadda yadda yadda.
We've found the ideal approach is to start early enough that you have the zoo experience done and dusted by 2-ish in the afternoon. After that point, heat and exhaustion turn the kids into devils. (And you need a beer.)
Not everyone has to ride
Perhaps I'm being presumptuous, but I think most families will want to ride around the zoo. Kids love to ride. It's a real treat and what helps set the Dubbo Zoo experience apart from any other zoo you're likely to find. It's healthy, too. Plus, if you have your own bikes with you, it's free.
But you don't all have to ride.
Such was the heat when we visited Dubbo Zoo, that the kids and I chose to ride our bikes around, while my wife followed in the air-conditioned car. Not only did this work for her, but it meant we could keep heavy items off our backs and in the vehicle. In fact, we even had an esky full of cold drinks on hand! I'm not trying to be sexist here; that was our situation – maybe for you it's hubby behind the wheel while mum is doing epic skids through the dirt. Each to their own.
While I'm on bikes, for my youngest I hired a bike that came with a trailer carriage. He really enjoyed it – well, after five minutes of coaxing him into trying something new and "scary". I had no trouble towing him about Dubbo Zoo. It's basically flat, with only a few inclines to manage.
Get wet at The Waterhole
There's a newly completed oasis called The Waterhole at the opposite side of the park from where you enter. It's open from 10am to 2pm. You can stop here for food, ice-creams and drinks. However, there is also a waterpark. It's rather small, but still a joy for the kids (and yes, this old man stood in it too).
It's worth packing some swimmers and a towel, and planning to have your lunch here. There's easy access to toilets where you can change. This is a great place to revitalise yourself ahead of the second part of the Dubbo Zoo experience.
The second half of the zoo is less exciting
The back half of the zoo is a little sparser on attractions and has more ups and downs that can challenge younger legs. You've also built up plenty of exhaustion by that point. It can be wise to get off the road and cut through the various paths that link through the trees. You may miss an animal or two, but they're not the big-ticket ones.
When we last did the zoo, my wife was following us in the car as mentioned above. As such, we dumped our bikes at the start of one of the loops, jumped in the car for some precious air-con, and drove up to the animals before meeting back up with our bikes as we looped back down. This was a nice break from the pedalling for everyone.
One side note on this tip: at the very end of the circuit there is a playground. It's a good one, so maybe budget some time in for that. The kids can burn their remaining energy while you start rubbing the death out of those hammies and calf muscles!
Buggies sell out
If you want to get a buggy, make sure you book early. Especially when a hot day is forecast as that may inspire many parents to ditch the idea of riding a bike. The day before we visited we considered a cart and we were too late. At least, we were for an early morning cart – there were some left for the afternoon session, but by then it was 40 degrees!
It's worth noting that you only get an electric cart for three hours, which is a tight turnaround. Especially if you are planning a visit to The Waterhole and listen to some keeper talks. Is it worth the $70?
One day is enough
Your Dubbo zoo ticket gives you access to two days of entry, but you don't need it. Yes, it's a big zoo, but I can't imagine what we would have done with a second consecutive day there. Maybe if you missed a very important animal or a keeper talk you were desperate to hear, but I wouldn't budget on spending two days on the zoo as you organise your road trip.
Bring your own food and drinks
Unlike other zoos, Western Plains isn't jammed at every corner with vending machines and cafes. There's not too many to speak of at all. Really, you only have The Waterhole, and it doesn't handle a crowd of people ordering at once that well. Save yourself some money and pack your own food. Just get a chook, bag of salad and some rolls, right? Job done for a tickle over a tenner.
Consider the Zoo Friends Annual Pass
The Zoo Friends Annual Pass is well worth considering if you intend to visit both Dubbo Zoo and Taronga Zoo. For our family, it was only an extra $48 to get the Zoo Friends pass, but we got unlimited access to Taronga and Dubbo Zoo for a year. Not to mention the Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne zoos should we ever travel there. There are tons of other discounts off food and experiences too.
Our family has had this pass for more years than not since my first born arrived on the scene. We've visited our local Taronga Zoo a good five or six times a year as a result. We've probably made that $48 back just on discounts at the ice-cream shop. Well worth it.
Consider a farm stay for your Dubbo Zoo accommodation
There are a lot of hotels in Dubbo, but there's also a number of farm stays in the surrounding countryside you can call home for a couple of nights. They're affordable and extend the "nature" and "wildlife" theme beyond the zoo itself. Exploring these farms, feeding the animals and talking to the locals – many of whom are doing it tough after the drought – is worth it.
You may have to drive 20 minutes or so to get in and out of town, but what else are you going to do really? After riding around Dubbo Zoo all day your kids will be out cold before the sun sets. And so will you; be honest.
I also like the space that farm stays offer. You usually get a decent sized house with nobody else around. You can make noise without being judged by prying ears and the kids can ride their bikes. Throw some snags on the barbeque and watch the sun set. You get the idea! And the stars out there… wow!
The Dubbo Aquatic Leisure Centre is great
The Western Plains Zoo is the big deal in Dubbo and there's not too much else doing. One place that we're very happy we discovered was the Dubbo Aquatic Leisure Centre. It's cheap at $16 for a family. During our smoking hot summer visit, it basically saved our lives.
The main pool is deep and fun on its own, but there's also a great waterpark, a shallow kiddy pool and even two waterworks. The latter costs extra, $9 for 30 minutes, but is totally worth it. Even on a busy, hot day, our kids had their fill in 30 minutes with probably 10 rides each.
We ended up going directly from the zoo to the pool for a cool down after riding in 40-degree heat all day. Best. Idea. Ever.
Turn a Dubbo Zoo trip into a holiday
Driving for five to six hours straight with the kids from Sydney sucks. Why not make it a bit of a road trip? I can personally recommend a stay in or around Katoomba or Jenolan Caves. The Mudgee area is lovely too, if you want to push on a bit further in that first stint. It has wineries. Wineries are good!
Other fun activities include stopping by Bathurst to drive Mount Panorama; exploring the mines and history at Hill's End; walking the Glow Worm tunnel, accessed east of Lithgow or from the north via Capertee Valley. You can't do all of these in one trip as they veer off in different directions, but they're all good options.
The countryside between the Blue Mountains and Dubbo is stunning. One last tip is to consider taking Banjo Patterson Way (Obley Road to the locals) which goes from Molong to Dubbo, starting just west of Orange. The road has numerous sculptures along it, which the kids will love hunting down and spotting.
Images: Photos were taken for Finder by Chris Stead of Old Mate Media on a Canon R5.
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