Dubbo Zoo review: Is it worth it with kids?
Finder's Dubbo Zoo review was conducted by a family of five, including three kids under ten. Is it any good?
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Dubbo Zoo: Quick Verdict
Dubbo Zoo offers a unique wildlife adventure that is a thrilling day out for families even if it can be physically challenging. Expect a welcoming and accessible experience with plenty of space for riding, driving or walking around the vast park. Just try not to do it in the heat.
- Location: Obley Rd, Dubbo NSW 2830
- Ticket price individuals: $48 (Adults), $28 (Kids 4-18), $38 (Concession), Free (Kids < 4)
- Ticket price family: $104 (1 Adult + 2 Kids), $124 (2 Adults + 1 Kid), $152 (2 Adults + 2 Kids
- Alternative ticket: Zoo Friends Annual Pass starting at $99
- Opening hours: 9am to 4.30pm (8.30am in school holidays)
- Family friendly? Yes
- Reviewer: Father, mother and three kids under ten
Pros and cons
- Great selection and access to animals
- Unique experience
- Part of the Zoo Friends pass
- Physically taxing
- Back half is lite on attractions
- Isolated from major cities
The Western Plains Dubbo Zoo is a thoroughly enjoyable experience for animal lovers of all ages, but especially for families. In fact, the vast majority of families who head to Dubbo do so specifically to visit this zoo. Indeed, this was the case for my family; my wife and I, as well as our three kids aged nine, seven and five.
This review is based on our second visit in January 2021. You may also want to read my 11 tips to doing Dubbo Zoo as a family.
Dubbo Zoo is certainly isolated and that's perhaps the biggest challenge many people will need to overcome. It's a five-hour drive from Sydney without stopping. As a result, you don't want to day-trip it. There are plenty of highlights on the way too, such as the Blue Mountains, Capertee Valley, Mudgee, Hill's End and Bathurst. And all tickets get you two days access to the zoo itself. So, take a few days if you can and make the most of it.
It's a great experience but is Dubbo Zoo worth it with young kids? Absolutely. However, it may not be for everyone in the extended family. There is plenty you need to know about the experience before you arrive and in my Dubbo Zoo review I will walk you through all the positives and negatives you'll encounter.
How to save money on Australian zoos
There are a few Zoo discount options to be found at different times of the year in Australia. But if you're a family living in Sydney, Perth, Adelaide or Melbourne travelling to Dubbo, I strongly suggest getting a Zoo Friends Annual Pass. For two adults and four kids, the annual pass costs $198, which is only $46 more than one visit to Dubbo Zoo. (This assumes you buy online and not at the gate.) The Zoo Friends Annual Pass offers a full year of bonuses as well.
What animals are at Dubbo zoo?
Dubbo Zoo has 44 species of animals to experience, many of which aren't available at its sister location of Taronga Zoo in the centre of Sydney. For obvious reasons, it's more focused on savannah wildlife than aquatic fauna. And it's focused on bigger beasts than tiny critters.
As a result, instead of seals and penguins, you'll find hippos and rhinos. As opposed to snakes, birds and spiders, you'll find ostriches, apes and cheetahs.
Dubbo Zoo is also massive at 300 hectares. It makes use of its isolation to provide sprawling enclosures for its animals. The smaller paddocks are still the size of a football field, with plenty of flora and water spaces within, as well as geological formations.
Despite the size of the paddocks, you get a good look at the majority of animals. Yes, like every zoo, some animals need to be coaxed to the edge of their homes by judicious use of feeding times. And on hot days, shade is a premium for spectators and attractions alike. But I've now experienced Dubbo Zoo a couple of times and I've never walked away feeling like I didn't get up close to some truly magnificent wildlife.
The large displays also mean you're rarely crammed next to other visitors. You're not trying to peer between the legs of tall people or over the lens of wannabe photographers. For the most part you can ride your pushbike right up to the edge and get an eyeful without even getting off the seat.
Sydney's Taronga Zoo would kill for such luxury!
List of animals at Dubbo Zoo
How do you get around Dubbo zoo?
Beyond the animals and their enclosures, what makes Western Plains Dubbo Zoo so much fun, especially as a family, is how it is accessed. There is a circuit running clockwise around the zoo that is 5.5km long. And you'll probably double that distance while you explore the interlinking tracks, distractions and pathways.
The front half off the circuit is loaded up with all the main attractions. In fact, the second half is mammoth in comparison, especially given the long expanses of road. In the future, I'd love to see the Western Plains Zoo bring more to the second half of your tour.
It's still worth exploring this back half with kids, so do push on if you are a family. The Wild Herds area gives you a chance to feed some animals at no cost. The Lion Pride Lands is an impressive adventure. You can get up close and personal with some Aussie animals. Plus, there is a playground at the end. But if you're low on time or energy, the pay-off when considering exertion vs sights is much lower.
There are four key ways of exploring the park:
Traditionally, this is the way you do Dubbo Zoo. I rode my "pushy" around Dubbo Zoo when I was ten and I did it again when I was 40. For families, it's a great part of the experience. The roads are wide and safe, there's plenty of space to park at attractions and it's more-or-less flat. Most of the exhibits are built so you can ride up into them with little fuss too.
It's free to ride your own bike or you can hire one at the venue. The hire bikes are good quality and there are tonnes of them; you won't miss out. On our most recent visit, my nine-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter rode their own bikes. I hired a bike that came with a little trailer behind it so I could tow my five-year-old. Despite being 38 degrees, we had no troubles riding around the zoo for five hours.
Day Bike Hire (including helmets) is $17 (standard) or $24 (geared).
At no extra cost, you can drive your car around the circuit. This is a great option for those not into bike riding or unable to do so (or scared off by the heat) to experience the zoo. The one downside is that you will do a lot of getting in and out, as cars cannot get up close to the enclosures, and the enclosures are so big you can rarely combine multiple animals at one stop.
Due to the heat on the day we last attended Dubbo Zoo, my wife chose to follow the kids and me in the car. She preferred the air-conditioned comfort and was able to transport our food and gear easily. Meanwhile, we loved the riding experience, which was made easier by not having to carry our entire day's supplies.
3. Electric Safari Cart
If you've got a bit of money to spend, you can hire a cart to drive around the zoo. Effectively the same as a golf cart, these electric vehicles are safe and easy to manoeuvre, and are easier to get in and out of at the animals than your car. They can also duck off the road and down the various pathways, which cars cannot.
They are a pricey addition at $70 for three hours, but they do fit six occupants. Note that the driver must be at least 18 and hold a valid driver's licence. They book out too, so get in early.
Electric Safari Kart cost is $70 for three hours.
I was surprised by how many people I saw walking around the zoo. What a punish. It's definitely an option and you can do it, but it would be the last of the four options I would consider. It would be a BIG day to walk Dubbo Zoo.
How to plan your Dubbo Zoo trip
Even in autumn and spring, you can expect some genuine heat at the Western Plains Dubbo Zoo. Even when it's between 20 and 24 degrees it feels hot and dry. And in summer, you can expect serious sun. When my family and I visited in January, it was 39-degrees by about 11am and it didn't let up till deep into the night. This shouldn't put you off; just make sure you plan accordingly.
I highly recommend getting there early so you're ready to go at opening time. This allows you to beat the heat for much of your Dubbo Zoo experience. If you are hiring a bike or an electric cart, there is a queue and a bit of a wait to start your day. It's not too long, but factor that into your thoughts if you want to get to an early zookeeper talk.
I think Dubbo Zoo has missed an opportunity to play with its opening times in the warmer months. It would be smarter in this writer's opinion to open at 8am or even 7.30am and give visitors a chance to enjoy the park out of the heat of the day.
At least you're free to bring as much food and drink as you can with you. There's not much in the way of shops or vending machines as you traverse the park. I actually prefer this as it gives you an uncluttered view of nature. However, if you're used to the condiment-at-every-turn experience of other zoos, you may lament their absence.
The recently completed Waterhole, open from 10am to 2pm, sitting midway through the Dubbo Zoo circuit, is your main port of call. As a destination to put up your feet it's great. There's ample outdoor seating, a waterpark full of ornate sprinklers you and the kids can play in, and a shop selling food and drinks.
However, the shop is poorly built to handle a crowd. The entrance and ordering area can only hold a handful of people at once, which is a nightmare around lunchtime or when tour busses or school groups come through.
With all that in mind, bring your own food and drink, and be prepared to get wet on a hot day.
Are the Dubbo Zoo activities worth it?
There's a full schedule of experiences you can enjoy at Western Plains zoo, mostly in the form of talks by zookeepers. These feel informal and informative at the same time. There's plenty of free ones to get involved with (see below), and they generally come in the same order they are encountered as you circle the zoo.
Some of the keeper talks occur immediately after the park has opened when you may still be sorting out your bike or buying tickets. Others are late in the day when it's a furnace in summer. The logistics of keeping animals happy and having the required staff on hand may be the controlling factor here. But it's tough to bank on seeing any more than three or four of the talks in any given day.
Unfortunately, I'm unable to give first-hand experience on any of the paid activities. Looking at the comments of other visitors online, they're quite well regarded. They certainly looked like fun. But they quickly add up in cost; especially as a family. Plus, some were closed at the time of my visit due to COVID-19.
If I get an opportunity to test these in the future I will add to this write-up.
Schedule of activities at Western Plains Dubbo Zoo
|Time||Animal or Activity||Experience||Cost per person|
|09:25 am - 09:35 am||Black Rhino||Talk and Feed||Free|
|09:50 am - 10:00 am||Meerkat||Talk||Free|
|10:00 am - 12:00 pm||Savannah Safari||Tour||$10 (Adult), $5 (Kid 4-15)|
|10:00 am - 10:45 am||Pride Lands Patrol||Tour||$29 (Adult), $19 (Kid 4-15)|
|10:00 am - 10:30 am||Giraffe||Animal Encounter||$10|
|10:00 am - 01:30 pm||High Tea at the Zoo||Food||$24 or $29 with wine|
|10:10 am - 10:20 am||Meerkat||Animal Encounter (max three people/group)||$79|
|10:30 am - 10:40 am||Otter||Talk||Free|
|11:20 am - 11:30 am||Hippopotamus||Talk||Free|
|11:20 am - 12:00 pm||Hippo||Animal Encounter||$59|
|11:35 am - 11:45 am||Cheetah||Talk and Feed||Free|
|11:45 am - 12:05 pm||Big Cats||Animal Encounter||$59|
|11:45 am - 11:55 am||Asian Elephant||Talk||Free|
|12:10 pm - 12:20 pm||Sumatran Tiger||Talk||Free|
|12:50 pm - 01:00 pm||Spider Monkey Feed||Feed||Free|
|02:15 pm - 02:30 pm||Galapagos Tortoise||Talk||Free|
|02:15 pm - 02:30 pm||Takhi||Talk||Free|
|02:15 pm - 02:30 pm||Regent Honeyeater||Talk||Free|
|02:25 pm - 02:35 pm||Otter||Talk||Free|
|02:45 pm - 02:55 pm||African Lion||Talk||Free|
Where to stay: Dubbo Zoo accommodation
There's no shortage of accommodation options in Dubbo. The zoo itself is only about five minutes drive from the town's centre, plus the surrounding region is blessed with a number of Airbnb options and farm stays. There is also an NRMA Dubbo holiday park, with camping, caravan sites and cabins.
Western Plains Zoo itself has three different accommodation options on-site. A premium, standard and budget offering. I can't offer you first-hand experience of these currently, but will add to this review if I can in the future. I've seen the budget offering, however.
Zoofari Lodge. This is the premium option, with lodges for four or six people, kitted out with plenty of luxuries. The four-person cabins face right onto the savannah attraction, letting you get an eyeful of some of the star attractions from your bed. The bushland cabins sit just behind. The purchase comes with a host of extras, including tours and park entry.
Savannah Cabins. Not too dissimilar to the lodges, but not right up against the animal enclosures. The Savannah Cabins offer a range of packages, allowing you to use them just as a self-contained place to sleep, or to upscale to offerings that include zoo experiences.
Billabong Camp. These sturdy, fixed tents are situated inside the park itself and surrounded by common areas in which to hang. They are close enough to the Lion Pride Lands that you will no doubt hear some roars, but not up against any of the enclosures. I'd be very nervous about staying in the tents in hot weather.
Where was our Dubbo Zoo stay? Eulandool Cottage review
As for my family, on all our trips to Dubbo, we've chosen to stay on a farm just out of town. There's plenty on offer within a 20-minute radius of Dubbo. We love the silence, space and ability to feed some of the farm animals.
We most recently stayed at Eulandool Cottage. The house is huge and it's contained in a fenced-off, manicured little corner of a sprawling sheep farm. The couple who own the farm and their young family have been doing it tough on the back of the drought but were great hosts. Our kids got good access when feeding the farm animals, and the fresh eggs for breakfast were delicious.
Should you visit Dubbo Zoo?
I think Dubbo Zoo is great. It's spacious, allowing families to experience some spectacular wildlife from all over the world without tripping over other patrons. It's also very accommodating. You don't have to pay for parking or to explore the zoo with your own car or bike. You're not forced to buy their food and drink, the keeper talks are provided at no additional cost, and you get two days of entry with one purchase.
I find that so refreshing in this day and age. You don't feel like your wallet is getting gouged every step of the way.
It's definitely hard to get to, which isn't the zoo's fault, but it can't be ignored. Petrol and accommodation costs mean it's not a cheap activity overall. And Dubbo Zoo's enjoyment is more impacted by weather extremes than other zoos. I'd love to see the Zoo add a few more animals to the latter half of its circuit to make it as exciting as the first half. And an investment in more electric carts wouldn't go astray, as they can sell out fast.
But I'll be back. Indeed, my family and I returned only three years after our first visit we enjoyed it that much. And we'll go again I'm sure.
Frequently asked questions
Can you get a Dubbo Zoo discount code?
At the time of writing, you can get a 10% discount by buying your Dubbo Zoo ticket online as an individual. And you can get a 20% discount on the family passes online. But as mentioned at the top of this article, the Zoo Friends pass is worth considering for families.
How big is Dubbo Zoo?
It's 300 hectares or 741 acres. The main circuit road is 5.5km, but there are hundreds of little side-tracks and pathways beyond that.
How much is parking at Dubbo Zoo?
Parking is free and there is plenty of it.
What time does Dubbo Zoo open?
Dubbo Zoo is open from 9am to 4pm on most days. It's open at 8.30am to 4pm during school holidays.
How long to spend at Dubbo Zoo?
On our visits, we've been more than happy with five to six hours at Dubbo Zoo. For most visitors, that will be enough. However, if you want to do a few of the paid activities, or catch all the keeper talks, you may want to spread it out over two days. It's worth noting that your ticket purchase gives you two days' worth of entry.
How much does it cost to go to Dubbo Zoo?
A family of four can expect to pay around $122 online ahead of arrival. If you need four bikes, you're looking at another $100. Expect to go through two full tanks of fuel on a visit from Sydney, and you'll likely spend between $200 and $600 on accommodation for two nights in or near the zoo. Add food and incidentals, maybe an extra activity or two, and you're looking at a $1,000 holiday.
How far is Dubbo Zoo from Sydney?
It's 388km in a northwest direction. It will take between five and six hours to drive.
Images: Photos were taken for Finder by Chris Stead of Old Mate Media on a Canon R5.
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