Sandown Zoo used to have a bit of a dodgy reputation. The Times called it 'the slum zoo of Britain' in the 1970s, but more significantly my mother's friend once said that her friend's daughter in law used to work with someone who thought it was 'a bit iffy'.
That may be the reason why we never went to the zoo as children. Our only encounter was with a lion cub which licked my young brother's face whilst he was being taken for a seaside walk.
We decided it was time to break the habit of a lifetime and take the next generation to what is now known as Isle of Wight Zoo.
The Zoo is housed in the rains of a former fort which like most of the Isle of Wight was (presumably) built out of a paranoia of the French. It looks a bit ugly to the uninitiated but with the context of history it is a bit more interesting and it looks a lot better from the inside. It is also next to a grim looking hotel (or HTL as it currently says thanks to the deteriorating letters) which really drags down the Yaverland end of the Esplanade, although apparently something is happening at the site.
Anyway, the Zoo itself went down very well. I can never tell if a marmoset is smiling or frowning (they are great at poker apparently) but the habitats look to be clean and spacious.
Like all modern zoos they focus very much on the conservation message rather than the old fashioned approach of charging extra to prod a tiger with a stick.
The signs are clear and give just enough information and the staff seemed to know what they were talking about. There is also a great little game for smaller children which involves collecting ink stamps on a card when you've seen certain animals. My daughter became more interested in collecting the stamps than seeing the animals and it also gave us permission to go home once we had collected everything.
There was also some small prize for getting all the stamps (a lolly I think). By that point our daughter had eaten her way through more than the lions' daily diet so we kept quiet about that.
For someone like me with only a moderate interest in animals there were enough really impressive lions and tigers, so it wasn't all just pretending to look interested in owls and ducks. The lions and tigers are housed in Jurassic Park style cages with huge walls which helps add to their reputation.
They did seem to spend most of their time sleeping but I imagine that is a good sign, and it is probably a bit much to expect them to be playing football or darts or something just to entertain me. They are certainly the stars of the show, unless you particularly like meerkats. There are also goats near a lion enclosure. I like to imagine the lion licks his lips and taunts the goat when the park has closed.
There were also several talks throughout the day, which we missed as our toddler is a bit too little to keep still and hear about the diet of a raccoon. There was a lion feeding time which I would have liked to see but we were playing catch on the sandy beach by that time.
A recent addition is the arrival of Isle of Wight Adventures Activities. At the time of our visit you could do archery, rock climbing or bushcraft for £3 each or do all three for £6. There was also a circus skills bit which I think was tight rope walking (you don't get a lot of time to take things in when you are trying to control an excited toddler).
Those options seemed very reasonable to me compared to what you might normally pay for those sort of things. It didn't seem to be running when we walked past (it was out of peak season) and I didn't bother asking for our toddler but it would be a good way of making the trip last a bit longer.
We always race round attractions due to my poor attention span but I would guess we were at the zoo for nearly two hours by the time my daughter had played on the (only) swing and we had drunk the (not great) Nescafe coffee. Entrance was about £10, with the rock climbing etc as an extra.
Isle of Wight Zoo is pretty much all outdoors so save it for a decent day. It is also right by the sandy beach at Sandown, Dinosaur Isle, Browns Family Golf Course and the excellent free playground at Sandham Gardens so you can certainly spend a whole day in the area.
I've informed my mother it is now safe to visit Isle of Wight Zoo...
Isle of Wight Guru's Blog