Spending a Winter Day at Brookfield Zoo for (Nearly) Free

Tuesday, Jan 17th, 2017 by

Editor’s Note: This post first ran in January 2012, but it is applicable yet again: The Hamill Family Play Zoo is free every day through Feb. 28, 2017, and general admission to the zoo is free on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays also through Feb. 28, 2017. Parking is $12 (it was $10 when I originally wrote this.) I’ve also updated the dates, links and the fees in the below post.


On a day when the thermometer never climbed above 19 degrees, my family had a wonderful time at Brookfield Zoo – and it only cost us $10.


Here’s how we did it: General admission to Brookfield Zoo is free on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays through Feb. 28, 2017. And then we spent most of our time indoors, at the Hamill Family Play Zoo. Admission to the play zoo usually costs a couple extra dollars to visit on top of general admission, but it is free to enter every day through Feb. 28, 2017.


So all we ended up paying was the $10 (now $12) parking fee – we parked at the South Gate, just about a five-minute walk away from the Hamill Family Play Zoo. Read on for more info about the play zoo, as well as recommendations for enjoying a cold day at the rest of the zoo.




In the “zoo director’s office” at Brookfield Zoo’s Hamill Family Play Zoo. Photo by Tara Burghart.



Location: Brookfield Zoo is located at First Avenue, between Ogden and 31st Street in Brookfield. For parking, the South Lot is very close to the family play zoo. This page has detailed directions and maps for how to reach Brookfield Zoo, including coordinates and an address for your GPS.


Hours: The play zoo opens at 10 a.m. each day and closes 30 minutes before the park closes. The zoo is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day of the year.


Amenities: The play zoo has a number of indoor exhibits that encourage imaginative play, along with displays of lemurs, snakes, birds and more. There is also an outdoor section where kids can build forts and search for animal tracks. The play zoo has a family restroom, toddler-sized toilets in the general restroom and a room where you can feed or calm a baby. There are two coatrooms on either side of the main entrance with lots of hooks.


Food: There is no food for sale inside the play zoo, but Brookfield Zoo concessions are nearby.


Prices: Click here for detailed info on zoo admission. But in general, zoo admission is $19.85 for adults, $14.50 for children ages 3 to 11. Admission to the Hamill Family Play Zoo is $3 for adults, $3 for children ages 3-11. Children 2 and under are free. Parking at Brookfield Zoo as of 2017 is $12.


As noted above, admission to Brookfield Zoo is free on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays from Jan. 3, 2017, through Feb. 28, 2017. Admission to the Hamill Family Play Zoo is free every single day until Feb. 28, 2017.


Finally, make sure to check out the Brookfield Zoo Member options before heading out; depending on how many children you’re bringing and how often you visit the zoo, it might be a good option.


Good For: The Hamill Play Zoo is advertised for children “from infants to age 10.” But I think it would be most appealing to toddlers through ages 7 or 8.



In the animal hospital of the Hamill Family Play Zoo, kids can pretend to be veterinarians. Photo by Tara Burghart.


Our Experience: It was a frigid, snowy Saturday in January, and our calendar was entirely free of plans. Since I had just written a post about getting into suburban museums and zoos for free, Brookfield Zoo came to mind. And since it was so cold, I figured we could spend most of our time inside the Hamill Family Play Zoo, which I’d been impressed with when we stopped in briefly during a previous warm-weather trip to the zoo.


On such a cold day, it was nice that the South Parking lot was a quick walk away from the Hamill Family Play Zoo. Inside, I was relieved to find lots of hooks to hang our coats and bags, and benches where we could change out of our boots.


The family play zoo is large – Brookfield says it is 2 acres, although I think that includes the outdoor space as well. Inside, there are a number of exhibits, and we visited all but one in about 90 minutes. In one room, kids can don a white coat and play veterinarian with stuffed animals, X-ray pictures and examination tables. In another, they can pretend to be a zookeeper, feeding the animals and cleaning up, while wearing a khaki shirt. There’s even an office where they can pretend to be the zoo director, and use some blocks to build their own perfect zoo.


My daughter loved the greenhouse, where she grabbed a spray bottle and misted the plants and flowers for a looooong time. She also loved the facepainting station, where we used the facepainting “crayons” and some example pictures to turn her face into something kind of animal-ish. We also built the craft of the day in the art room.


I just quickly peeked in the “Zoo at Home” exhibit, but I think its focus is animals that kids can keep as pets – and the educators there take animals out for kids to see up close. There are also more traditional animal exhibits, featuring lemurs, amphibians, reptiles and birds including a kookaburra. Finally, a section with some toys and play “logs” is meant for crawlers and beginning walkers.



In the greenhouse at the Hamill Family Play Zoo, kids can use water bottles to mist the flowers and plants. Photo by Tara Burghart.



We got to the Hamill Family Play Zoo at about 2 p.m. and had it nearly to ourselves during our visit. The staff members there – called “play partners” – were helpful and friendly; I’d urge you to ask them questions if your child has a special interest.


In fact, one of the play zoo’s staff members had been out for a walk during her lunch hour, and she gave us some detailed info on nearby exhibits where we might see active animals after we left the play zoo.


We ended up having time to only visit one other exhibit: “The Swamp,” which was also indoors. The star attraction were some massive alligators, but other animals on display included snakes, birds, huge turtles and a friendly, energetic otter. I liked how the exhibit – with its wooden “piers” and a full-scale boat – educated us about the history of swamps, how they’ve been abused in the last 100 years (often for lumber harvesting) and efforts to keep them healthy today.


The Takeaway: As we headed back to our car, I realized what a fun (and inexpensive!) day can be had at Brookfield Zoo in the winter. Even if the Hamill Family Play Zoo doesn’t appeal to your kids as much as it did to mine, you could still enjoy a cold day at the zoo by dressing warmly and then hopscotching across the grounds to the indoor exhibits, such as the Seven Seas, the Pachyderm House and Tropic World. And on a warmer or sunny day, you could stop and enjoy some of the popular outdoor-based exhibits without the crowds you’d encounter in the summer.


Editor’s Note: You can see more photos from our day at the Hamill Family Play Zoo in this Flickr album.