The L.A. Zoo has been welcoming visitors and busloads of school kids since 1966. In 1982 the zoo inaugurated a display of cuddly koalas, still one of its biggest attractions among 1,100 animals from around the world. Although it's smaller than the world-famous San Diego Zoo, the L.A. Zoo is far easier to fully explore. As much an arboretum as a zoo, the grounds are thick with mature shade trees from around the world that help cool the once-barren grounds, and new habitats are light-years ahead of the cruel concrete roundhouses originally used to exhibit animals (though you can't help feeling that, despite the fancy digs, all the creatures would rather be in their natural habitat).

The zoo's latest attraction is the Elephants of Asia, which tracks the history and culture of the animal through Cambodia, China, India, and Thailand. There are bathing pools, sand pits, and no less than five viewing areas for the public.

In 2007 the zoo debuted the $19-million Campo Gorilla Reserve, a habitat for seven African lowland gorillas that closely resembles their native West African homeland. Visitors partake in a pseudo-African-jungle experience as they journey along a misty, forested pathway with glassed viewing areas for close-ups of the gorillas living in two separate habitats: one for a family troop of gorillas. There's also the Sea Lion Cliffs habitat, where visitors can view the saltwater habitat from an underwater glass viewing area; the Jane Goodall-approved Chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains habitat, where visitors can see plenty of primate activity; the Red Ape Rainforest, a natural orangutan habitat; the entertaining World of Birds show; and Dragons of Komodo, featuring a pair of the world's largest lizard species. The gargantuan Andean condor had me enthralled as well (the facility is renowned in zoological circles for the successful breeding and releasing of California condors, and occasionally some of these majestic and endangered birds are on exhibit).

The zoo offers an audio tour, aptly named Weird and Wonderful, highlighting more than a dozen of the most intriguing residents, including the red-knobbed hornbill, Komodo dragon, double-wattled cassowary, rock hyrax, African wild dog, Chacoan peccary, white-crested turaco, Coquerel's sifaka, fossa, Sichuan takin, mountain tapir, and the Cape griffon vulture. The tour guests hear fascinating facts about the animals, as well as information on the zoo's curators and animal keepers. The tour, which also explains conservation efforts, is also available for downloading in English and Spanish from the zoo's website, under the "Fun Zone" tab.

Kids will also enjoy the Winnick Family Children's Zoo, which contains a petting area, exhibition animal-care center, Adventure Theater storytelling and puppet show, and other kid-hip exhibits and activities. Tip: To avoid the busloads of rambunctious school kids, arrive after noon.

The Moss Family Conservation Carousel is expected to open in late spring 2011, followed by the Living Amphibians, Insects and Reptiles (LAIR) center in the fall of 2011.