Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium once again established itself as a world-class visitor destination in 2023. USA Today named it the nation’s best zoo in the 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards, thanks partly to the efforts of zoo leader Dr. Luis Padilla, who recently celebrated his first year as director and CEO. Joined by the Zoo’s director of animal health, Dr. Taylor Yaw, Padilla shared Zoo highlights and favorite Omaha attractions for this wild addition to Visit Omaha’s series Locals Know Best .
What highlights should visitors to the Zoo be sure not to miss?
Dr. Luis Padilla: When visitors come to our zoo, they absolutely need to see our elephants. It's one of the largest herds of African elephants in any zoo. It's the only one that has four African elephant calves in the United States. And it is something that you cannot miss, it is amazing.
Dr. Taylor Yaw: Being from Nebraska and growing up in cornfields, I’m going to say our aquarium and marine mammal exhibits. We have one of the largest aquariums in a zoo in the United States. That's really foreign to me to be able to see all the different species underneath the water. When you walk through one of our largest exhibits, you have sharks and rays swimming around you. Every time I go, I see a new species that I hadn't seen before. It’s the place to be if you want to see something new, exciting and dynamic.
Can you share some anecdotes, observations or exciting highlights about animals at the Zoo?
PADILLA: There are so many things to see if you pay attention. If you go see our elephants, and you explore them just picking the bark out of trees or doing just the natural things that elephants do in Africa. It's exciting to see animals like our sea lions, coming up on the glass and trying to check out and interact with the visitors. That's something you shouldn't miss.
YAW: I was recently up in the Pacific Northwest, and getting to sea lions in the wild and see how they interact and their curiosity with me being on a kayak and then coming back in the next day being here at our exhibit and seeing our seals and sea lions exhibiting those same behaviors was a really unique experience. Meadowlark Theater also has exciting presentations. You can see free flight macaws and guinea fowl running through the crowds.
There are so many places for thrills at the Zoo – what about relaxation?
YAW: I have 14 nieces and nephews. When they come to visit, my siblings and I love to sit in the rocking chairs at Adventure Trails and set the kids free to go run, play and learn. It’s a relaxing spot to sit and have a conversation before you go on to the next attraction. Also, in the Lied Jungle, you are surrounded by life, vegetation and the sound of birds. Sometimes I find a bench and just take it all in.
PADILLA: And the Desert Dome is a warm place to explore during the winter.
Where do you go in Omaha for fun, and where do you like to take visitors?
YAW: I could also spend all day talking about food. One of my favorite bakeries is Orsi’s Italian Bakery and Pizzeria. You go in there, and you’re immersed in Italian culture. Get one of those pizzas. When my family drives from six hours away, we always have to have Orsi’s pizza. We also love California Tacos and Johnny’s Café. California Tacos is a low-key place to grab a really good lunch.
Johnny’s Café is a special place to dine and see the history of the Nebraska cattle industry. As an agricultural state, our farmers markets are awesome. I love going to one on a Saturday or Sunday. To see the variety of farmers selling their products is a cool experience for me having grown up on a farm. In regards to the outdoors, there are so many opportunities at our state parks to connect with nature. Finally, I like to take visitors to hockey games, because we have great hockey here. We have a USHL team and an NCAA Division I team (University of Nebraska Omaha).
PADILLA: A place I like to fly solo is Archetype Coffee. I get an iced coffee, sit in a chair in the corner and enjoy. That’s my place to escape. I could eat my way through South Omaha. There are loads of authentic small family-owned restaurants. La Poblanita is one of my favorites. Mercury is one of our local partners. They created an entire menu inspired by the Zoo, the animals and the experiences.
When visitors come, after showing them everything at the Zoo and the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari, where you can drive through the park and see native animal species of Nebraska and more, I like to take them to The RiverFront and show all three parks there. It’s amazing for visitors to see how vibrant and how dynamic it is, how people of all ages are enjoying that space. It makes me proud to tell people, “When you come to Omaha, this is what we’re about.”
Kiewit Luminarium is also an exciting new facility and a great addition to the Omaha scene that’s aligned with the Zoo’s mission in many ways. We’re both inspiring young minds, creating excitement and providing hands-on science exploration.
For more wild fun for the whole family, head to VisitOmaha.com.