Not many zoos give you the chance to get close enough to a camel that you could pet it from your tour bus window, although touching the animals isn't allowed at the conservation center about a 90-minute drive east of Columbus.
Some of the rare and endangered animals, mainly the carnivores, are fenced off from visitors. But many animals roam among the bus paths through the vast expanse of former surface-mining land where scrubby bushes and grass are about all that will grow.
The high point of the dusty, two-and-a-half-hour, open-air bus tour I took with my husband and our 3-year-old daughter came when a camel blocked the road, staring at us for several minutes through the windshield and sniffing the side mirrors.
The children on board, including our daughter, shouted in delight when the camel refused the driver's attempts to move it by lightly honking the horn and slowly creeping the bus closer.
"Beep, beep, camel," one child said.
"Move it two humps," our driver chimed in.
But the animals - rhinos, giraffes, zebras - are just part of the adventure.
The drive from Columbus is far enough that you feel you've escaped the city, passing lush valleys and farmland when you turn off I-70 at Zanesville. The hilly roads had my daughter squealing, "Weeee!"
When you drive into The Wilds complex, the trees disappear and the savannah-like landscape feels a bit otherworldly.
Our tour bus had the top removed, replaced with a canopy that provided some shade. Temperature-controlled, enclosed buses are another option.
The animals are most active during the first and last trips of the day, our guide said. During our midday tour, many animals, including the cheetah and the wild dogs, were in shade out of sight.
Most animals, various exotic deer and the rhinos, lounged in the distance.
But we left feeling we saw plenty of cool wildlife, and part of the excitement is not knowing what creature is going to show up beside your bus around the next bend.
Our driver, who ended many sentences with "yo" and "awww ye-ah," made the ride a whole lot of fun with jokes and facts that kept the kids' attention.
The children might have been most impressed to learn about rumination, when giraffes regurgitate the cud they chew. The driver pointed out the lump of cud in the giraffes' throat that traveled down and back up, getting rounds of "eew" in response.
Older kids heard an easy-going reminder about the perils endangered animals face. And they got a list of animals to check off as they saw them.
The warm weather and bumpy road lulled my preschooler to sleep in the second half of the tour, but there was plenty she enjoyed: feeding catfish, the excitement of riding a bus and watching the giraffes relax close by.
Snacks, such as $3 Snickers ice-cream bars and $1.25 granola bars, are available at points throughout the tour. The cafe at the end has standard kids' meals and sandwiches including grilled chicken and black bean burgers.
We opted to continue our adventure by trying a Zanesville tradition: Tom's Ice Cream Bowl. Take a short drive off I-70 for a hot ham sandwich with relish, a sundae of Tom's own ice cream overflowing with peanut butter sauce and redskin
peanuts roasted in-house.
14000 International Rd.,
Cost: $5 parking. Binocular rental $5.50. Enclosed heated/cooled bus: $20 adults, $15 children ages 4-12. A Columbus Zoo membership gets you a 50 percent discount on this tour only. Rides on the enclosed bus are free with a Wilds membership, which starts at $100 for a family. Open-air bus: $30 all ages. Wildside Tour in a pickup fitted with seats in the back: $125 per person.
Hours: Tours depart frequently from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays in October. Pickup truck tour is at 10:30 a.m. throughout the year with a reservation. Winter tours in heated buses are available on select
Saturdays with reservations.
Cool Tip: Tom's Ice Cream Bowl,
532 McIntire Ave., Zanesville;