The Family Travel Adventurer: Where the Wild Things Are
Whenever I travel, I welcome any opportunity to explore a destination's wildlife scene, whether it's in the jungle, on the plains, in an ocean, in a nature preserve or during a safari. I can't think of any better family experience. After spending time with wild creatures in their habitats, I always walk away with a deeper feeling of the interconnectedness of animals, humans and the rest of the natural world. It's a great way for parents and kids to have fun together and start a conversation about the importance of revitalizing endangered and threatened species.Galapagos Islands
Some of the most thrilling experiences I've had with animals have been in the Galapagos Islands. You'll see land and sea creatures that you won't find anywhere else on the planet except in captivity. The giant tortoises, which live in the islands' highlands, are absolutely amazing, and you can walk right next to them. At the Darwin Breeding Center, a guide was teaching us how to be tortoise whisperers. You don't touch the tortoise, but you slowly raise your hand up and down, and it mimics the movement with its head. And you sit there and marvel at this creature that basks in the sun and can survive up to a year without eating or drinking.
Also in the islands: marine iguanas look kind of like dragons, and they love to sunbathe on the rocks. Kids go berserk over them! And you can't miss the scene-stealing blue-footed boobies — flightless birds with blue feet — or the penguins. People are always surprised to see penguins in the warmer climate, and sometimes you find them swimming with you in the water. One day I was snorkeling along, enjoying the colorful underwater tableau, when a sea lion came charging at me. At the very last moment, it performed a quick twist to avoid a collision. I learned from one of the naturalist guides that sea lions are incredibly playful and like to mimic humans. It's a game to them, and they'll even come right up to you on the beach and plop down on an uninhabited beach towel! They are so funny, and their pups are absolutely adorable.South Africa
On a South African safari, you'll have a chance to see the "big five" — leopards, lions, cape buffalo, elephants and rhinos — plus a lot of other iconic African creatures like wildebeests and zebras. Giraffes are my favorites, and I go crazy over the warthogs. Most people don't go to Africa thinking they've got to check a warthog off their bucket list of "must sees." But warthogs are really fun animals! Even small creatures like dung beetles are hits with kids. On our safari, the kids go out and identify scat from different animals and watch the dung beetles rolling up balls of dung. They're as fascinating as the big cats and elephants — who would have thought?Australia
If a trip to Australia is on your wish list, you can plan a tour of the Outback to see kangaroos, wallabies and other native animals in the wild. You might see a koala in Queensland. Our Australia adventure devotes a day for an excursion to the island of Tasmania, where Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary guides introduce you to wombats, endangered Tasmanian Devils and other at-risk animals. And of course, the Great Barrier Reef teems with gorgeous coral forests and spectacular tropical fish, sea turtles and rays.Costa Rica
In Costa Rica you'll see many mischievous monkeys, beautiful birds, sea turtles and butterflies. The howler monkeys are incredibly loud, and you'll often hear them calling at night. My favorite animal in the Costa Rican rainforest is the sloth. It looks a little bit like the koala and, similar to the koala, it has a very slow metabolism, so it moves very slowly. They're not always easy to spot on jungle walks, but if you keep looking up, you're bound to find one.China
In Chengdu, China, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is a wonderful trip highlight. At this beautifully landscaped breeding conservation center, a zoologist explains the story of the pandas and the conservation efforts underway to save them and other Chinese animals like the red panda, golden monkey and South China tiger.United States and Canada
During trips to Alaska, Yellowstone National Park or Banff, you'll get a chance to see grizzly and brown bears, moose, elk, bison — all in their natural habitats. It's not unusual to see elk or deer during a Grand Canyon visit and, of course, lots of eagles, osprey and other magnificent large birds.
Here are my top tips for animal spotting:
1. Do Your Animal Spotting Early or Late. The best time to see animals out and about in their natural habitats is at dawn or dusk. They often sleep or stay hidden during the heat of the day. So go to bed early and be ready for crack-of-dawn mornings — it's part of the adventure!
2. Ask Questions. Naturalist guides have spent years learning about creatures great and small, and they want to share their knowledge. The guides who lead our animal experiences in the Galapagos Islands, South Africa and other parts of the world can interpret the natural history in a way that's interesting and fun for guests of all ages — especially for the kids. Encourage children to participate by asking questions and sharing their thoughts about the experience. For children in particular, these experiences can be life changing.
3. Don't Touch or Feed the Animals.When you're in a conservation park, jungle or other habitat for wild animals that have no fear of you, avoid touching them. Even when animals like the Galapagos sea lions get close, you can enjoy their antics without reaching out to touch. Feeding wild animals is also off limits except in rare cases such as a private tour of the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary in Tasmania, where visitors are given the opportunity to feed free-ranging kangaroos and wallabies living at the sanctuary.
4. Use Animal Spotting Guides. If you're not taking an organized adventure with a guide, look for spotting guides at your resort or other location. They're often one-page, laminated guides with pictures and brief descriptions of the creatures in a reserve, national park or conservation area. They make animal spotting a more interesting adventure.
5. Invest in Binoculars.They don't have to be expensive; in fact, you'll find a nice pair of binoculars at a reasonable price. Shop around. And consider buying two or three pairs depending on the size of your family. There's nothing quite like that close-up peek of a creature in the wild.
5. Wear Sensible Shoes, Comfortable Clothing and a Hat. Until you've been "plopped" on by a flock of birds, you don't always think to don a hat for a wildlife excursion. I recommend one — not just to avoid a really bad hair day, but also to keep the sun off your face .
Heather Killingbeck is director of trip and program development for Adventures by Disney, a global leader in guided family travel, and has been helping families live their travel dreams for more than 25 years. She has traveled to 53 countries on six continents (some of her favorite destinations include South Africa, the Galapagos Islands, Italy, Alaska and Greece).