Despite having visited Colchester Zoo many times as a child, I’d not visited as an adult, until October 2020 when we visited for my birthday (birthdays at the zoo are not just 6 year olds – 26 year olds can enjoy them too!) in an attempt to help local businesses who had suffered during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Colchester Zoo had recently welcomed the arrival of a gorgeous baby rhino, and if there’s one thing you need to know about me before reading this post, it’s that I adore animals (especially rhinos) and I cried when I saw our first rhino on safari in South Africa… and cried again seeing the adorable little baby at the zoo.
Given that I clearly am missing my fix of seeing animals in the wild (from a safari in South Africa to spotting sloths in the Amazon Jungle in Peru, to making friends with turtles and sharks in the Galapagos Islands) on my travels, my parents kindly gifted me, my boyfriend, my sister, and her girlfriend an “EXTRA-ordinary” experience morning at Colchester Zoo for Christmas.
While didn’t exactly know what to expect, but ended up have the BEST day.
My parents booked the morning EXTRA-ordinary experience as the website listed that rhinos were on the agenda for that particular experience. One thing you should be aware of is that the website gives just a guide as to what you may experience within a day, it’s not a strict itinerary. Given we couldn’t visit the zoo until 6+ months after my parents bought the voucher, the rhinos had all recently been re-introduced in the main paddock, and therefore the opportunities to interact with them were somewhat slim.
To make sure our host knew just how much I love rhinos, I obviously opted to wear my “save the chubby unicorns” rhino conservation t-shirt… It doesn’t hurt to make your host extremely aware of the animals you’re hoping to see. 😉
The EXTRA-ordinary experience allows you to get up close and personal with animals, with the benefit of a knowledgeable guide to answer all of your weird and wonderful questions!
At the time of writing (August 2021), the prices for the EXTRA-ordinary experience are:
Included in the price for the half-day session (which is what we did) is:
While the prices aren’t cheap, you certainly get a lot of bang for your buck. Given that standard admission to the zoo is around £26, the additional amount for the experience (if you opt for the half-day experience, like us) is £69 per person.
We arrived extremely early (and I mean, extremely early – 40 minutes earlier than we needed to be); clearly, we were very excited for our day! We knew we were early when we pulled into an empty car park – a rare sight at Colchester Zoo!
One of the perks of a morning experience is that you get to enter the zoo before the public opening time. However, the complimentary breakfast takes up most of the time you have before the zoo opens to the public. If there’s one thing we would change about our day, it would be that breakfast is swapped for lunch after the experience, so we could truly enjoy the zoo without any crowds.
We were greeted by our hostess for the morning, Amanda who talked us through what our day may entail who then took us to a private room at Penguini’s Restaurant where we were greeted by exceptionally friendly and helpful restaurant staff.
Despite our reservations about the timings, the breakfast was great! The menu was extensive and there was something for everyone (including vegetarian options). 3 of us opted for sausage sandwiches (which were huge!) and my sister ordered the croissants/pastries. Full English breakfasts were also on offer, and the staff are extremely accommodating – we ordered a round of hash browns for the table too (my favourite part of a full English!) to accompany our breakfasts which they agreed to without hesitation. We then got a choice of bottled drinks to take with us for the rest of the day.
Overall, much more than we were expecting for a quick breakfast stop!
The first stop on our agenda was the penguins! Amanda talked us through what to expect and pointed out the grumpy little teenage penguins who were going through a “catastrophic moult” (their annual plumage shed) who may not be thrilled to see us.
After a quick chat, we all donned some lovely plastic gloves and were allowed into the penguin enclosure! As I have a fear of fish (don’t ask), I didn’t particularly partake in the feeding, but thoroughly enjoyed watching the others and snapping pictures.
After leaving the penguin enclosure, we began walking to our next experience. On the way, we noticed that one of the sun bears was roaming around his enclosure. We all commented on the fact that we’d never been lucky enough to spot the bears at Colchester Zoo (their enclosure is new and built exactly with the bears in mind, with tonnes of enrichment, meaning it’s easy for them to hide from humans). One of our favourite things about Amanda was that she was exceptionally accommodating, she didn’t hesitate to pause our journey so that we could get a good look at the bear and have a chat.
Now onto one of the undisputed highlights of our day, the ringtailed lemurs! We were warned that it takes a little while to get used to having a lemur jumping onto you, and were then led into the enclosure. Within 30 seconds, one of us had let out a squeal as an inquisitive lemur jumped onto our shoulders! Once the lemurs had settled, we all sat on a log seat and spent a good 25-30 minutes enjoying the lemurs’ company.
They were calm, inquisitive (they loved to climb over us!) and so much fun to watch interact. Amanda gave us tonnes of facts and answered all of our questions; we were almost reluctant to leave the lemurs after our time with them!
Then onto something a little more fast-paced! We didn’t enter the otter enclosure (in Amanda’s words, “they’re ankle biters”!), so we stood with the general public throwing pieces of fish over the glass barrier. You could see the rest of the visitors wondering why we were getting special treatment and wondering how they could get in on the action.
The otters were feisty little things, it was so fun to watch them squirm over each other trying to catch the fish. We were encouraged to throw the fish as far as possible and into as many different places as possible to encourage enrichment…. sadly, the otters were much faster and more intelligent than us, so I don’t think we posed much of a challenge for them!
The otters did give us the best photo of the day – while you probably think otters are adorable, the above picture of the otter swallowing the fish will probably change your mind!
There are two areas in the zoo where you usually have to pay (although they’re both usually below £2) – feeding the goats and feeding the birds. On the way to our next stop, Amanda got us some feed and we had a walk around both enclosures.
On a normal trip to Colchester Zoo, the aardvarks will never be the most impressive animal. You’re likely to find them sleeping (as they’re nocturnal) in the small section of their enclosure which is made to feel like a burrow. You’re able to see them through the window, but let’s be honest, sleeping animals aren’t particularly interesting to watch.
However, seeing the aardvarks on an experience day is a completely different kettle of fish. We entered their small burrow enclosure and got up close and personal with these sleeping giants.
It isn’t until you’re close to aardvarks that you realise quite how weird they are… None of their body parts are in proportion to one another, and it almost looks like a few animals have been stuck together – their ears/nose look almost like that of a kangaroo, but the nose ends in a pig-like snout!
One of the aardvarks had to be hand-reared as a baby, and kept trying to suck on our fingers while we were stroking her (while staying completely asleep the whole time) – something that certainly doesn’t happen to you on a normal day! It’s a wonder these animals are not extinct, they sleep so deeply that any predator could have them for dinner easily!
Now for the part of the day which excited me the most…
Our itinerary included meeting and feeding the giraffes. We were led to a private platform (different to the area where the public giraffe feed takes place), but unfortunately, the giraffes weren’t interested in our bowl of cabbage. We didn’t mind too much, as it was just incredible being so close to them – the platform was raised, so we were at a good height to really see the giraffes up close and personal.
We’d already spoken to Amanda about how much we loved our time on safari in South Africa and how much I loved rhinos, and without hesitation, she was radioing her colleagues to see how our giraffe experience could be improved, given they weren’t interested in the cabbage we had.
By coincidence, two of the rhinos were spending some time by the gates at the front-end of the paddock, so Amanda arranged for us to have access to that area to get up close and personal with the rhinos – eek!
We were allowed to stick our hands through the barriers (as long as our arms were kept straight, so we could pull our arm out as quickly as possible in case anything did go wrong) and the rhinos loved it. After a short while, we heard a slight humming/squeaking noise, which we realised was going from the rhinos who were loving being stroked! I didn’t think it was possible to adore these gentle giants any more than I did!
While we were distracted by the rhinos, one of the giraffe keepers appeared, handing Amanda some leafy tree branches, which were clearly delicious as the giraffes were far more interested in these than the cabbage.
We spent some time feeding the giraffes and feeling the full strength of them pulling leaves off the branches we were holding (I thought one was going to pull me off the ground)!
We wouldn’t have been disappointed if we had a brief encounter with the giraffes while trying to feed them cabbage, so Amanda and the giraffe keepers didn’t need to go out of their way to improve our experience, but they did and we couldn’t be more grateful for it. I am one extremely happy rhino lover!
As we only opted for a morning experience, we had the rest of the day to explore the zoo at our own pace and to see the animals not includes within the experience. It almost felt odd to suddenly be wandering around without a guide, and without the ability to enter the enclosures! We have been spoilt and coming back to Colchester Zoo on a regular visit will no longer feel the same!
Overall, we (I’m speaking on behalf of all 4 of us) were incredibly surprised with how good our day was, and we highly recommend Colchester Zoo’s EXTRA-ordinary experience days – particularly if you manage to get the lovely Amanda as your host!
While there is an itinerary for each session (understandably, the sessions are rotated so that a variety of animals are involved and one set are not over-exposed to humans), and you, therefore aren’t guaranteed to see any particular animals, our day was extremely fluid and the staff (particularly Amanda) made sure to make our day as special as possible.
For the same reason, Amanda explained that there is only one round of experiences each day (either one full day experience, or two groups, one on a morning and one on an afternoon session). Therefore, you need to book your preferred dates as soon as possible to avoid disappointment due to limited availability. We received our vouchers in December 2020 and had a date booked for February 2021 which we couldn’t attend due to a COVID-19 lockdown, when the zoo had re-opened and we were able to re-book, weekends were sold out until November 2021(!), but we were able to secure a weekday slot in July 2021.
We loved our day so much that we are considering booking a full day experience in the future! So what are you waiting for, book your Colchester Zoo experience day now!
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