Brave New (Pandemic) World: A Trip to the Honolulu Zoo Post-Shelter-in-Place

Baby Lemurs at the Honolulu Zoo

During life pre-pandemic, I bought annual passes for my family to the Honolulu Zoo. I figured it was the perfect time in our lives to spend large amounts of time there. Elephants and lions roaming their paddocks still captivated my 5-year-old daughter. My 1-year-old son was now aware of everything around him and LOVED to be outside. And anything that can tire those two kids out was a win in my book. It was a definite “check” for a fun family outing. And then COVID-19 decided to rear his ugly crowned head and called out “checkmate”. Needless to say, our printed passes collected dust in the corner of my desk for the last couple of months.

Reopening day: June 5, 2020

This past Friday, the Honolulu Zoo reopened for the first time since closing its doors due to the pandemic. Friday also happened to be the first day of summer vacation for my oldest kid. As I’m sure it was for many of you, distance learning was a bear. I figured we could both use some well deserved celebrating out in the sun. I dusted off our annual passes and we went to check out what a “social distancing” zoo really meant.

Flamingos at the Honolulu Zoo
Obligatory photo of the first thing to greet you at the Honolulu Zoo, the flamingos.

Some things were the same as before the pandemic. A lot of things were noticeably different. There were some cons as can be expected, a mask in the hot sun was not a good time. However, there were definitely some major pros as well.

Things to know before you go to the Honolulu Zoo

Hours of operations

When the Honolulu Zoo reopened on Friday, it was for limited hours only. Their new times are from 10 AM to 2:30 PM from Wednesday to Sunday, with the grounds closing completely at 3:30 PM. (Check their website for more up-to-date information.)


Despite appreciating the later start time to my day, I was worried about parking. The parking lot for the Honolulu Zoo is a decent parking location for those wanting to enjoy Waikiki beach. And many people park there to do exactly that. (Note that I mean “decent” in terms of comparable costs to other locations in Waikiki. It still is $6 for 4 hours.)

We arrived at the Honolulu Zoo close to 10:30 AM. While we found ourselves in the part of the parking lot farthest from the entrance (and the beach), spots were still plentiful. This was clearly a nod to the 14-day quarantine still in effect for visitors, which has effectively stopped Hawaii’s tourism industry.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice I can give is that you can add additional time to your parking meter remotely. A plus since you can only pay for 4-hours at a time. We spent about 3 hours at the zoo before deciding to head to the beach. While I still had 1 more hour left on my parking meter I paid again in order to cover the next 4 hours (thereby double paying for 1 hour). I figured that an extra $1.50 was worth having to pack up all our beach gear, after being there only 1 hour, in order to pay for more parking. I was shocked 4 hours later to get a text asking if I wanted to simply add more hours to my parking time remotely (albeit for a fee of $1.50, so it was a wash for me).

ProParking Text

Admission information

Even though we got there only 30 minutes after the Honolulu Zoo opened, there was a long line. The entrance to the zoo includes a “members” line” and a “non-members” line. However, both lines were open to anyone, regardless of membership status, in order to move the crowds along. I actually stood in the non-members’ line because it was closer to where I walked in from. Zoo employees were passing out new maps of the zoo to show the new walking trails and new-off-limit areas. While some areas continued to have two-way traffic, the key exhibits only allowed one-way traffic. If you don’t end up getting a paper map as you enter the zoo, fear not. A huge map is located right before the flamingo section (as an overlay to the original map) so you can just take a picture of that.

Honolulu Zoo Pandemic Map

Face masks

The rules state that you are required to wear a face mask if you are over the age of 5. The age differentiation was important to me because there was no way Baby L would allow a mask to be on his face for any length of time. That being said, It looked like every kid that was old enough to walk on there own was wearing a mask. (Great job Hawaii parents!)

The rules are slightly confusing because you’ll eventually get to a specific section of the zoo where wearing a face mask is mandatory. (I’m not sure what that means for the rest of the zoo that falls under the first rule requiring you to wear a mask in the zoo.)

That being said, there are three lawns (perfect to picnic on) which allow you to go mask free. You can also take off your mask to eat at the Plantation Cafe.

Social distancing rules for a pandemic world

The Honolulu Zoo now includes painted green dots at most of their exhibits. These green dots show families where they are allowed to stand to view the animals. This was a big plus in my book. While you have to wait your turn for a spot, once you get there, you have a prime view of the animals. Some exhibits, like the penguins and hippopotamus sections, allowed only a few families (3-4) in at once. Each family was given a green dot to stand on. While this did create long lines in some places, the good thing was they allow you to bypass exhibits if you prefer to not wait around for a green spot. Since the reptile section was a hard pass for both Em and myself, we got to “skip the line” at the Ectotherm Complex.

Social Distance Spots at the Honolulu Zoo

Unsure if you want to spend your newly found freedom at the Honolulu Zoo? I have 2 words for you: Baby Lemurs

During the height of the stay-at-home pandemic orders, I received an email from the Honolulu Zoo. The email announced that twin baby ring-tailed lemurs (an endangered species!) had been born. I completely forgot about that joyful announcement until we scored our exclusive green spot in front of the lemur enclosure. There I was staring at “Lemur Island” when a little head popped up and a curious baby lemur stared back at us with a modicum level of interest. I’ve been to a lot of zoos, but that might have been the most precious thing I’ve ever seen.

Baby Lemurs at the Honolulu Zoo

The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Animals at the Honolulu Zoo

One of the longest lines at the zoo was to view an Orangutan. The COVID-19 pandemic is a zoonotic disease. This means people can transmit the coronavirus to animals, especially apes and cats. The Honolulu Zoo was especially worried about those animals that share similar DNA with us. The lesson of the day for me (taught to me by the person manning the Orangutan line), was that human DNA was 97% the same as Orangutan DNA and 99% the same as Chimpanzee DNA. To be fair, I wasn’t a great biology student (or even just a good one), but that was pretty interesting to me.

Pandemic - A Zoonotic Disease

Temporarily closed areas of the Honolulu Zoo

The playground and hippo sculpture were both closed. A fact my daughter was NOT happy about. The Keiki (children’s) zoo, walk-in aviary, and all water fountains were also closed (so bring lots of water with you!). However, as previously mentioned, the Honolulu Zoo does allow you to be mask-free in the lawn areas and at the Plantation Cafe, huge plusses in this pandemic world.

Food options at the Honolulu Zoo

Plantation Cafe

If I was a more organized person I would have brought my own food with me. It would have been the perfect day to have a picnic on the lawn. Instead, I forked over money to eat over-priced food at the Plantation Cafe (albeit discounted over-priced food, thanks to my annual pass holder status).

The Keiki meal came with a soft drink option, animal crackers, and spam musubi. My daughter was in heaven. I opted for a hot dog and fries but cheeseburgers and chicken tenders were also viable options. Note: there are no self-serve condiment options. However, pre-packaged ketchup cups are available upon request.

We grabbed lunch right around noon and the tables were pretty empty. I think a lot of people opted to each lunch on one of the lawns since there seemed to be quite a few people buying lunch at the same time we were. Since you can no longer use water fountains, you can also buy bottled water at the Plantation Cafe.

Dippin’ Dots concession stand

Well played Honolulu Zoo, well played. Smartly located right ahead of the picnic lawn, a visit to the Dippin’ Dots cart was a highlight of the day. We were able to find a spot on a couple of tree trunk legs far away from others. Masks off and digging into our cold treats was a highlight of our day.

Dippin Dots

In Summary

As a result of waiting in lines to see some of the animals, we saw less of the zoo than normal. However, I would prefer it that way as having our own space to see the animals was pretty magical. Additionally, I’m not sure what exactly caused it, but I felt we got much clearer views of the animals we did visit. Half the time I’m at the zoo I feel like Jeff Goldblum’s character in the first Jurassic Park. You know the scene. Where he knocks on the camera/monitor to ask “now eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs on your dinosaur tour, right?” This time the animals were right there.

The masks may be a pain to wear and hot, but if you are looking for something to do in this post-shelter-in-place pandemic world, the Honolulu Zoo is a great place to be.

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