Think About it: A Subzero Day at Brookfield Zoo

What was I thinking? I had enough sense to call ahead, to ensure that the grounds were actually going to be open. Gates open to visitors 365 days of the year, but this wasn’t just any long weekend in Chicagoland. Not only was it Christmas weekend, but there were unheard of subzero temperatures, with winds that made the “Real Feel” something you really don’t want to feel!

The parking attendant seemed cozy enough, in her heated kiosk. I made sure she knew I’d take no offence if she shut her sliding glass window while running my credit card, as I hurriedly rolled up the driver’s window on my 2005 Subaru. The worn out motor on the 15+ year old door couldn’t move fast enough to keep out the 20 mph winds and -22 “feels like” temperatures.

I’d preplanned my visit, with the aim of purchasing a zoo membership, visiting the gift shop I’d worked at for 5 summers as a teen, and enjoying the holiday decorations. ‘Tis the season for community-decorated Christmas trees, twinkling lights, and sculptures covered with the recent snowfall. I was bundled up in my biggest puffy coat, hiking boots, hat, gloves, and the warmest scarf ever, worn on many winter bike rides over the last decade.

The parking lot on the south end of the park is much smaller than the grand north entrance. The north lot parks visitors across the street from the zoo, with a tunnel running under the busy traffic of 31st Street, keeping families, school groups, and other visitors safe at all times. Headed to the south gate, I chuckled when I saw the construction-style street signs, cautioning visitors that they needed a parking reservation for “Holiday Magic” at the Zoo. There was no line of cars waiting to get in, on this December day.

A frequent visitor, as a Brookfield native and a former zoo employee, the south entrance feels like home to me. This was my entrance! I may have even entered by bike a time or two. On this blustery, snow-covered day — this is the windy city, after all — the parking lot was nearly empty, made up of employee cars huddled together at the far end. There was plenty of room for doing donuts in the snow, if that’s your preference.

At the Membership window, just inside the gate, I’d purchase an Ultimate Individual Membership. This costs a bit more up front, but it allows a + 1 (Merry Christmas, Craig!!) and unlimited access to the zoological park’s attractions — the dolphin show, transport tram, wildlife experiences, and family play areas. Free gifts and discounts round out membership benefits!

A quick stop at the main gift shop had my head spinning. The building had been closed and recently reopened for renovations that changes the entire look and feel of the place, to include more contemporary design, innovative products, and self-checkout. The large jewelry display cases are gone, along with the T-shirt counter and the cash register in the children’s’ area. The place had the look and feel of a modern airport, spacious and self-serve.

With the loss of these work stations went the workers – there were just 2 on site, and it seemed they could run the whole place on their own. We chatted a bit, with me revealing my work history and important relationships that had formed at the zoo. The staff shared their own work history – 6 years and counting, having me beat!

I could have remained in the gift shop or wandered over to the coffee shop across the courtyard, remaining warm and people watching. Well, there were no people to watch. I could have sipped on hot chocolate and chatted with more dedicated zoo workers, showing up as consistently as mail carriers, no matter the cold temperatures and high winds

But I wanted to explore the zoo a bit, even thought the membership meant I could come back as often as I like for the next year. Keeping my head down, my winter hat tugged snugly over my ears and scarf pulled up as high as possible, like a think turtleneck, I thought “I shouldn’t have laughed when it was suggested that I bring ski goggles on my trip to Chicago. . . ” My sunglasses steamed up, then the steam froze! I kept them on, out of necessity, to keep the wind out of my eyes and preventing eyelash icicles.

In an effort to see where I was going, I occasionally lowered the glasses to peek at what was ahead, which consisted of long, wide ice-slick walkways and expanses of snow framed by rows of Christmas trees. Luckily I could move fast because I know the park map like the back of my hand. Well, I know the map of the late 1990s like the back of my hand, which meant things weren’t always where I thought they would be.

I’d hoped to visit the polar bears, who shouldn’t mind the cold one bit, but I just couldn’t find them. It seems Great Bear Wilderness opened in 2010, which is shortly after my last visit to the zoo. What had been done with the beer garden, historically across the path from the bear enclosures, where visitors would enjoy their antics? If you check out a recent map of the zoo, linked and shared below, you’ll get the big picture. Hamill Family Wild Encounters stood in its place, where visitors can interact up close with:

The cold was threatening to force my cell phone into an inconveniently-timed shut down. I dropped it into the deep pockets of my puffy coat – the longest one I own, with an equally puffy hood. I thought I’d take a different route back, after my failed search for the bears, and found myself marching directly into a headwind. I’d take a few steps, peeking at where I was, and then I was forced to turn my back to the wind for a moment or two, long enough to prevent icicles from forming on my glasses or my eye lashes.

I leaned into the wind and carefully made my way down the promenade of the East Mall, to take a selfie with one of the many stone lion sculptures scattered around the zoo. I’d been coming to this zoo, having grown up in Brookfield, since before selfies were a thing. I’m certain there are many photos from our zoo visits of the lions by themselves, but not so many with us in it. Well, except the ones with us standing proudly beside a statue in what looks like a prom photo pose. Selfies rule the day, giving the subject control of camera angle, lighting, cropping, etc. so I think they are here to stay.

We weren’t always members of the zoo, growing up, but it was a major feature of our childhoods. My childhood home is just 1.5 miles away. We’d visit as a family and I went on many school fieldtrips, as a student at Congress Park Elementary School, 2 miles from the zoo’s bus parking at the North Gate. It’s really has been a remarkable zoo, all along!

I don’t even know where to begin, in telling my own stories about the variety of personal experiences I’ve had at the zoo. I’ll need some additional blog posts — and a zoo membership — to bring these to light. I look forward to both – Merry Christmas, Craig!

Since the opening of Brookfield Zoo in 1934, the Chicago Zoological Society has had an international reputation for taking a cutting-edge role in animal care and conservation of the natural world.

Among its historical firsts are indoor multispecies exhibits, zoo nutrition residencies, methods for animal husbandry, and medical care that includes successful brain surgery for a gorilla.”

Brookfield Zoo website

Some zoo highlights, through the decades:

  • On July 1, Brookfield Zoo, buildings designs by Edwin H. Clark, architect opens to the public. Cookie Cockatoo arrives. He remained the oldest animal resident living at the zoo until passing away in 2016. A bench overlooking Formal Pond is dedicated to him. (1934)
  • Children’s Zoo opens, beginning decades of connections between Chicagoland children and domestic native animals. (1953)
  • Seven Seas Panorama opens the country’s first inland dolphinarium. (1961)
  • The first Mold-A-Rama machine is installed. (1966)
  • Work begins on Tropic World. The exhibit’s three sections open in 1982, 1983, and 1984. (1973)
  • Samson Gorilla arrives. He sires five offspring, adding important genetic diversity to zoo gorilla populations. A statue commemorating this popular primate now stands at the entrance to Tropic World. (1980)
  • The first Holiday Magic is held and soon becomes an annual tradition with Chicagoland families. (1982)
  • Binti Jua Gorilla rescues a boy who falls into the Tropic World exhibit. (1996)
  • The Society helps launch a new discipline called conservation psychology, which is the scientific study of the relationship between people and nature. (2000)
  • Great Bear Wilderness opens. (2010)

Did you see the note about the Children’s Zoo? The petting zoo was the best, and the cows, and the stepping stones. Holiday Magic is the winter wonderland I was experiencing, especially as we got closer to closing time and the lights on trees, displays, and buildings. So pretty! So festive! I’d say 1966 was a great year, with the first Mold-A-Rama machine installed. What’s a Mold-A-Rama, you ask? What fun – amazing – an “automatic miniature plastic factory! Was this the precursor to 3D printers? It’s certainly a treat!

I’ll share, for now, my joy upon entering Tropic World! Memories rushed back as the cold air rushed into the building on my heels. Just a few steps in and my glasses, phone (and its camera) were covered in moisture. I was the only visitor on site. The warm air that engulfed me, and the humidity from the waterfalls and occasional rainfall in this rainforest habitat, were a welcome treat!

As I moved further and further into the exhibit, which took 10 years to build and opened in stages, I began shedding layers — first my gloves, then the hat and scarf, followed by the winter coat itself. Ahhhhhh – relief from frozen eyelashes. At first glance the exhibit itself appeared empty. I took a seat, on a nearby bench, and just watched and waited. The branches and vines came alive! Black-handed Spider Monkeys, Orangutans, Goledi’s Monkeys, and Western Lowland Gorillas began climbing, chasing, and playing, much to my delight! The Angolan Colobus is a silly, active, swinging entertainer. The two-towed sloth ambled along the ground.

I could have remained for hours, entertained (and warm). After about an hour I realized it was getting close to the zoo’s closing time. I took a quick selfie, sent it to my dear friend who had worked at the zoo with me during our teenage years – she in the restaurants and I in the gift shops. We’d imagined, as 16-year-olds, that we would be working with the animals. Nope. We were thrilled with our summer jobs, in any case.

With a membership purchased, I’d be back soon, with company! (Merry Christmas, Craig – I can’t wait to share this wonderful place with you. Let’s bring our camera back, over the next year. There’s a photo contest, so we should get started! See the link below for the rules and regulations for last year’s contest. The zoo website will bring you to this year’s winners!)

The Brookfield Zoo is a place for all!

Free admission is available to guests on the following dates:

  • October 4 to November 17 on Tuesdays and Thursdays
  • November 21 to December 20 on Mondays and Tuesdays
  • January-February 2023 on Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays

I will note. . . Tuesdays used to be free all year long, when I was working in the balloon stand, back in the late ’90s. We’d have crowds and crowds of families, happy to purchase a $1 zoo balloons – a simple and affordable pleasure. (I can share stories of my days as a balloon salesperson another time – my first “real job” and the last year that the zoo ever sold balloons. Thank goodness they came to their senses about the impact balloons have on the environment, when they are released into the air. Again, a story this balloon salesperson can tell on another day…)

“At Brookfield Zoo, we believe in building an inclusive conservation movement and cultivating holistic approaches to our programming. Through our A Zoo for All initiative, we strive to provide opportunities that bring meaningful experiences to all guests. We recognize that up to 20% of our guests have some level of disability and we are committed to providing innovative engagement opportunities for everyone.”

Brookfield Zoo website

All are welcome, and encouraged to visit the Brookfield Zoo. If that’s not within your budget, there’s always the Lincoln Park Zoo in downtown Chicago, free to all. Just go enjoy a quality, compassionate, and educational zoo. There are many out there, including the one in my home town of Columbus, OH. I’m a bit spoiled, when it comes to zoos – I can’t wait to bring Craig to experience this one.

Join me on my next adventure,

~ Kat

Related Links:

Brookfield Zoo:

Job Search:

Gateways Membership Magazine:

3 Chicago memberships worth the investment:


Map – Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo:

Chicago Wilderness:

Brookfield Zoo Photo Contest – 2022 Official Rules:


  1. This was a complete joy for me to experience through your narrative and photography, Kathy!
    I know I’m a broken record, but your clear and expressive commentary and photography is Nat Geo worthy!!!


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