Your guide to one of the best family-fun destinations on the planet

Living in Central Ohio means we've got easy access to one of the best family-fun destinations on the planet - the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. So we asked the friendly zoo folks to help us help our readers figure out how to make the most out of a visit to the zoo. They supplied us with one of their super docents, Kathy Shank, and a golf cart (don't hate us), and we learned all kinds of great insider info. Read on to learn more!

The Nitty-Gritty

Location: it depends. Some mapping systems recognize 4850 W. Powell Rd., Powell, as the address and some recognize 9990 Riverside Dr., Powell. And, just to complicate matters, one of the staff members advised us that many GPS units will send you to the business office on the now-privatized section of West Powell Road, which has been renamed Jerry Borin Trace. Use the directions published on the Zoo's website (columbuszoo.org) or take the COTA bus (cota.com)

Phone: when in doubt, call the main number at 614-645-3550.

Open: every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas, and they close early on Christmas Eve. Daily hours vary by time of the year, but are roughly 9 or 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Check the website to be sure.

Admission: There are more variations on admission costs and discounts than we can recount here, but the baseline costs for a single visit are: $14 (ages 10-59), $10 (ages 60+), $9 (ages 2-9) and free under 2. Parking costs $5 (but members park free). And if you plan on visiting twice or more in one year, a family membership will probably save you money.

What's a Docent?

Pronounced "DOH-sehnt," a docent is a trained volunteer with an encyclopedic knowledge of zoo animals and operations, and they live to answer your questions. These folks know when animals are most active, what they eat, who's in trouble (if the brown bears were grade-school boys, they'd be in perpetual detention), when the new baby animals are on display, and all kinds of other interesting animal gossip. They also know where the bathrooms are, how early you need to arrive if you want to get a seat at any of the animal-keeper talks, and how to get a gorilla to pay attention to you.

The docents wear white or red tops (with zoo logos). Other volunteers, who can also answer questions, are teen-aged ZooAides (in green shirts) and the Nationwide Zoo Crew (in dark-blue tops). Staff members wear either blue or black tops.

On the Move

It's a plus that the zoo has room to grow and has grown plenty since opening in 1927 at its Delaware County site. It currently houses more than 5,000 animals on nearly 250 acres, and a new African Savanna is slated to be built by 2014. However, all that room means you're going to cover a lot of territory when you visit.

It can't be overstated: Either bring a stroller for little ones or rent one at the entrance. The zoo-provided strollers are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. A single-seat stroller costs $8 and a double-seater costs $12.

Manual and electric wheelchairs also are available, again on a first-come, first-serve basis (for $12 and $30 respectively). The latter requires a valid driver's license to rent. Though you don't need to produce a disabled parking permit to use them, neither is available for recreational use only. For more information, call 614-724-3732.

Teaching Moments

Animals can be such animals - which means that you and your children might encounter some interesting animal behaviors. These can include:

• Animals peeing and pooping.

• Animals engaged in acts of sexual gratification (beware the bonobos and giant tortoises).

• Animals eating other animals that had the misfortune to fly into their enclosures (polar bears dined on Canada geese recently, while the alligators have snacked on ducks).

Shank assured us that the docents are armed with enough factual information to aid any parent in explaining these real-life moments to children, but she said the docents always take their cues from parents about how much information is needed. Don't hesitate to give her an index finger across the throat, Shank said, if little Gertrude or Roderick isn't ready for a trip around the Circle of Life.

Close Encounters

• Want to lure a polar bear over to the "sniff port" located on the far left side of their above-water viewing space? Eat peanut butter beforehand, said Shank. At the sniff port, you're supposed to breathe out, and the scent that wafts through to the other side often lures the polar bears over. And peanut butter is the smell that seems to be the most alluring.

• Want to hang out with a gorilla? Don't make eye contact, advised Shank. Sit down next to the glass and pretend to be disinterested: "If you don't look directly at them, they're more apt to come over, especially with kids." The gorillas also seem to recognize regular visitors and react with interest to them, even checking out pictures or artwork that the visitors might have sitting out on their laps.

"Did Your Mommy Get Lost?"

That's what Shank said docents often say when they encounter kids who have that wild-eyed and trembling-bottom-lip look. It's part of their training to get kids and their lost parents reunited.

"This is one of the primary reasons we carry radios, so we can call security who then takes over," Shank said, adding that the top locations where kids get separated from adults are:

• The above-water level of the Polar Frontier exhibit: "They turn around and head right for the Battelle Ice Bear Outpost behind," Shank explained.

• The Nocturnal House (a.k.a. "Bob and Evelyn's Roadhouse"): "The way the doors are in there, it's easier to get separated."

• The Reptile House: "It's constructed as a big loop, but if you get separated, go look for them at the staffed lab. That's where kids usually go."

• Discovery Reef: "It's dark in there, and the best thing to tell your children is that, if they get separated from you, they shouldn't leave the building."