My husband and I made a spur-of-the-moment decision yesterday to leave the yard work behind for a day and take our two girls, ages 8 and 5, to the National Zoo. It was an awesome decision and it was made even better by the tips and tricks I've discovered that make the zoo trip easy and fun for the whole family. Here are my secrets to a day of family fun at the National Zoo:

Enjoy the animals and the extras. Like most big zoos, the National Zoo has all the big names when it comes to wild animals: lions, tigers, and (panda) bears, oh my! Not to mention gorillas, elephants, zebras, birds of every feather, komodo dragons, small mammals, and so much more. My kids loved each and every one of the animals they saw, but my 5-year-old enjoyed the extra features and exhibits at the zoo almost as much as she enjoyed seeing the animals. So make sure you leave enough time for your kids to explore exhibits like the snake dissection replica in the Reptile Discovery Center and the panda family tree along the Asia Trail. If your kids are little, make sure you leave enough time for them to frolic on the giant pizza in the Pizza Garden!

Bring $$ for parking. There is no admission to the National Zoo but it does cost $20 to park, so don't forget to bring some cash or credit cards for the trip. Another option is to take the metro or a bus to the zoo. To be perfectly honest, I have done this and it's not that easy, but it is definitely doable if you know the tricks. The zoo is directly in between the Woodley Park and Cleveland Park stops on the Red Line, so you'll have about a one-third mile walk in either direction. It's an uphill walk from Woodley Park to the zoo, and a level one from Cleveland Park. So if you're juggling two kids, a diaper bag and a backpack (as I was) you'll definitely want to take the Cleveland Park stop.

Start at the bottom. You can't tell from looking at the map, but the National Zoo is situated on a decent-sized hill. Parking Lot A is near the top, while Parking Lots D and E are at the bottom. Do yourself and your kids a favor and start at the bottom. You can stop and see the animals all the way up and then take it easy on the walk back to the car or metro. If you start at the top, you're in for a long haul up the hill just when your kids are most tired.

Pack it in. Food that is. This tip is not essential, as the National Zoo does have food available for sale at fairly reasonable prices (a hot dog is $4, popcorn is $3, and a burger is $4.75.) But the zoo also has lots of great grassy areas and picnic tables available for you and your family to have your own picnic. Just like with school lunches, you can control the waste and ingredients more easily when you bring along your own grub.

Have fun at the zoo!

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