Sleeping over at an Australian zoo after the crowds have left for the day is an ideal way to experience Australia’s wildlife, the majority of which are nocturnal. Many of the following zoo stays are upscale, offering gourmet meals, personalized tours, and five-star accommodations. There is no particular order to the list, but I have saved some of the smaller country zoos till the end as they balance out some of the more expensive options and can be just as much fun.
1. Jamala Wildlife Lodge, Canberra, ACT
Jamala Wildlife Lodge is an African-themed lodge inside the privately-owned National Zoo and Aquarium in Canberra. Owners Richard and Maureen Tindale believe that when people have close encounters with the animal kingdom, they become more interested in animal conservation. The incredible decor and experiences reflect their extensive travels to African lodges and their love of “big cats.”
Animal interactions at Jamala are more intense and prolonged than in a traditional zoo. Feed a giraffe at eye-level from your balcony, watch the antics of a Malayan sun bear from your bubble bath, or sleep only feet away from a pride of lions, tigers, or cheetahs separated only by a wall of glass. They are free to wander but come to the glass to check guests out. During your African-themed dinner, lions watch guest’s every bite. The nightly rate from $890 mid-week includes a five-star suite, multi-course African-themed dinner, breakfast, a private morning tour with a zookeeper, two days’ zoo entry, and memories to last a lifetime.
Pro Tip: Australia’s capital of Canberra also offers some of Australia’s best free cultural attractions.
2. Roar and Snore, Taronga Zoo, Sydney, New South Wales
Roar and Snore is an unforgettable experience featuring animal encounters, keeper talks, delicious food, and safari-style accommodations. The fun starts with the scenic ferry ride across Sydney Harbour from Central Quay to Taronga Park Zoo. Ride the Sky Safari cable car and watch a herd of Asian elephants play beneath you. Snap a photo of the giraffe’s long necks playing up the city’s skyscrapers. Join the night safari to see the nocturnal animals such as brushtail and ringtail possums.
The safari tents come with spectacular views of the Sydney Opera House, and the Harbour Bridge lit up at night. Roar and Snore sleepovers include twilight drinks and canapes, a stay in an architecturally designed tent, and a sumptuous roast feast. The campsite has shower and bathroom facilities. The next morning, experience the Zoo before the crowds. Adults-only nights run most weeks throughout the year. Tents from $364.
Pro Tip: Not into camping? The Wildlife Retreat, Taronga’s newest offering is an elegant Australian eco-retreat surrounded by a lush sanctuary home to koalas, echidnas, and platypuses. Rooms start from $480 per night.
3. Zoofari Lodge, Taronga Western Plains Zoo, Dubbo, New South Wales
Taronga Zoo offers an African safari-style experience at its Western Plains Zoo in rural New South Wales. Opened in 1977, this is one of the world’s great open range zoos offering large animals such as elephants and antelopes more space. Instead of fences, concealed moats separate the animals from each other and visitors. Winding through the park is a circular 5-mile safari-like track you can explore by bike, golf cart, or car. Luxury stays in the Zoofari Lodges offer a prime viewing spot above the animals, exclusive tours, delicious cuisine, a saltwater pool, and bike rental. Stays from $370 per person. Or camp out under the stars at its Billabong Camp next to the lion’s den, where accommodations include a barbeque dinner from around $176 per person.
Pro Tip: Dubbo is a short regional flight from Sydney or Canberra. Dubbo is also a stop off on a multi-day road trip between Melbourne and Brisbane via the Newell Highway or on The Great Inland Way from Sydney to outback NSW through to Queensland.
4. Slumber Safari, Werribee Open Range Zoo, Melbourne, Victoria
Like Dubbo Zoo, Werribee Open Range Zoo offers plenty of space. But it is much easier to reach as these plains resembling the African savannah are only a 30-minute drive from the Melbourne Central Business District. The Slumber Safari is a luxury glamping experience with an ensuite and a balcony overlooking Werribee River and the rhinos, hippos, lions, and zebras. Spot nocturnal wildlife on an evening safari. A 4-wheel drive safari-style vehicle weaves past herds of Mongolian wild horses, giraffe, bison, antelope, rhino, zebra, and ostrich.
The drivers keep a respectful distance, and the animals continue to graze. But to get so close is an amazing experience. You feel like you are in the wilds of Africa. Enjoy a sunset tipple (drink) followed by a sustainable African-inspired dinner. The Australian walking trail is popular for overseas visitors with its sightings of eastern grey kangaroos, emus, brolgas, and koalas. The Slumber Safari includes two-day admission to Werribee Open Range Zoo. Cost from $345 per adult.
Pro Tip: Werribee Park is an important leisure precinct. Tour the historic mansion, enjoy a cocktail or meal at the Lancemore Mansion Hotel, and smell the roses at the Victoria State Rose Gardens. Shadowfax Winery is next door.
5. Roar ‘n’ Snore, Melbourne Zoo, Melbourne, Victoria
Melbourne Zoo also offers its own version of Roar ‘n’ Snore. Having done this years ago, I know where the name comes from as I lay awake, listening to the roar of the lions nearby, reassuring myself they were safely in their enclosure despite being so loud. Melbourne Zoo has over 320 species of animals but is also famous for its landscaped gardens.
Check out the Asian Rainforest for the Sumatran tigers, the tropical gardens, and Australian Bush for the red kangaroos and southern hairy-nosed wombats. Built in 1862 and Australia’s oldest zoo, the Melbourne Zoo was modeled on the one in London. Some empty circus-style cages remain as a historical reminder of how animal welfare has advanced since then. Guests wine, dine and sleep where the elephants once lived in the 1940s elephant exhibit.
Explore the Zoo after dark in a torch-lead tour with senses finely tuned to hear and see nocturnal creatures. Enjoy breakfast and a chance to meet the keepers and experience up-close animal encounters and life behind the scenes. The zoo provides camping equipment except for a sleeping bag and pillow. Note this is more camping than glamping — free entry to the zoo the next day. The cost is around $166 per adult.
Pro Tip: Roar ‘n’ Snore is open Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from the end of August to May.
6. Mansfield Zoo, Mansfield, Victoria
Mansfield Zoo is a charming country zoo on 30 acres of picturesque parkland — about two hours drive from outer Melbourne. A rarity for a zoo, visitors can hand feed or, in this case, spade feed the animals, including deer and kangaroos. Meet Hobbs, the mischievous capuchin monkey, and Cybil, the cheeky camel who loves to steal spades. Fall asleep to the roar of lions and dingoes howling. The overnight stay is basic but memorable. Bring camping gear or rent a swag (a waterproof sleeping bag with a canvas cover) for $20 and sleep under the stars.
According to the owner, some people find these claustrophobic, so you might be more comfortable bringing your own gear. Bring your own barbecue for dinner or drive to a restaurant in town. There are toilets but no showers. Hence the one-night stay. The $55 per adult sleepover includes zoo entry for two consecutive days.
Pro Tip: Numbers are limited to keep the experience personal, so book ahead. Camping from September 1 to May 31 only. Lion feeding of the beautiful white lions is at 1.30 p.m. each weekend and on public and school holidays.
7. Wings Wildlife Park, Gunns Plains, Tasmania
Wings Wildlife Park is a small private zoo tucked into Tasmania’s beautiful northwest. And the only wildlife park in the state with accommodation onsite. The family-run park is about an hour’s drive from Davenport, where the Spirit of Tasmania ferry brings over passengers and their vehicles from mainland Australia. With shades of the movie We Bought a Zoo, this multi-award-winning family-owned business claims the largest collection of Tasmanian wildlife in Australia. Many are rescue animals who are released into their natural habitat when rehabilitated. When they can’t be released, they have a home for life.
Accommodation options include units, a caravan park, and a camping ground on the banks of the Leven River. Enjoy kayaking, swimming, and fishing. Walk through the wildlife park to see Australian native animals — Tasmanian devils, koalas, wombats, kangaroos, reptiles. Other exotic animals include monkeys, meerkats, camels, and American bison. Don’t miss the daily feedings of the Tasmanian devils at 1 p.m. They are tenacious! In winter, join a nocturnal spotlighting adventure to hear the boobook owls hooting in the night air, possums rustling in the treetops, and the thumping of wallabies bounding through the bush. Finish the night off with a muffin and hot drink by the fire.
Pro Tip: Wings Wildlife Park is also a stopover on the challenging 6-day Penguin-Cradle Walking Track. The area also offers many less strenuous walks.
Zoos and national parks are fantastic places to see wildlife up close but be sure to follow safety protocols: