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story.lead_photo.caption Courtesy photos Branson's Promised Land Zoo offers tons of animal encounters -- both with animals you can see in the park and exclusive experiences you can only get with a VIP ticket.

Despite the billboard hanging there, it can still be easy to miss Branson's Promised Land Zoo as you're coasting down Shepherd of the Hills Expressway. Though the drive-through safari entrance calls to mind the Jurassic Park gate, it's easier still to misjudge the more than 75 acres of park filled with unique animal experiences that lies beyond.

"People see us and think we're just a little roadside zoo," says zookeeper Marcia Phillips on a recent sunny May morning. "They don't realize how much we have and how much time you can actually spend here."


Promised Land Zoo

WHEN — Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

WHERE — 2751 Shepherd of the Hills Expressway in Branson

COST — Basic $11.95/children 2-12, $19.95/adults; Better $26.95/$34.95; Best $66.95/$74.95; Ultimate $150/person

INFO — 417-337-9453,

The Branson location is the zoo's second -- the founding location is Promised Land Zoo in Eagle Rock, just north of Eureka Springs -- and it is still constantly updating and expanding. The newest addition is the Animal Adventure Building, where lots of reptiles, touch tanks and close-up encounters (more on those in a minute) reside. The building still has a new smell about it and is a respite from the heat if visiting on a hot day.

Though the zoo is known for the drive-through safari, the sheer size of the property and variety of encounters allows Promised Land to offer a customizable visit based on how much or little guests want to interact with the animals -- and at what distance. I recently spent a full day at the zoo and came away with a few memories I'll never forget. (Spoiler: The story involves sloths and a lemur.)

Visitors to the zoo choose ticket levels that correspond with the experiences they want to have -- and even the "Basic" tier includes enough activities for several hours. With general admission, guests lead their own safari as they drive the 2.5 miles around the park. This tour skirts the perimeter of the enclosures so there is always a fence between the vehicle and the animals, but even from your own car you can see hundreds of animals not native to the Ozarks, many of which are threatened or endangered in the wild.

On the safari path, guests will find the Animal Adventure Building and surrounding Foot Safari area. Capybaras, a guinea pig village, Mace the giraffe and more are found here as you take as long as you wish to traverse the meandering paths, stopping in the shade of a pavilion or feeding a few of the animals.

After your driving safari -- or before; it's your experience! -- there are close-up interactions happening at the front of the park. A petting zoo is always a hit with families, and Promised Land's petting area also has some exotic and unexpected animals sprinkled throughout -- not for petting, just for looking. In Parakeet Paradise -- some visitors' favorite part of the whole park, Phillips reveals -- you'll get a small stick with seed on the end you can then feed to the parakeets. Sure, you see these colorful birds any time you pass through a pet store, but there is something whimsical and delightful about being surrounded by so many tiny, hopping parakeets while feeding a few.

Be sure to grab a schedule on the way in because that's how you'll know the times for the Live Animal Shows that take place throughout the day. On a small stage just inside the entrance to the zoo, keepers bring out a few animals not on display elsewhere in the park for visitors to learn about, touch and take pictures with. The animals rotate daily so it won't always be a hairy armadillo or a bearded dragon, but the keepers always make the show educational and fun for the kids.

If you want a little bit more action, the "Better" ticket comes next. A climate-controlled tram ride through the safari with a knowledgeable staff member added to the experience is going to get you some more insight into the animals in the park and why the zoo is doing everything possible to conserve and protect them. You also may get to feed a few of them along the way.

Also part of this ticket level, a VIP Animal Encounter, like the Live Show, involves a keeper introducing guests to a few animals not on display. But when you're in the "VIP lounge," you'll get to hold these little guys in a more intimate setting. Some 15 animals are on rotation for this encounter so as not to overwhelm any one of them, and during my visit, we got to hold a teeny ringtail possum, a very chill ball python and a red kangaroo joey as she lounged in her man-made pouch. (She likes to be scratched on the neck and was very cute.)

The "Best" ticket package provided what were, I must admit, the highlights of the day for me. An Exclusive Encounter that, again, varies based on the available animals and how they're feeling that day is added at this tier. But regardless of who's feeling social during your visit, know you're in for an experience you won't find many other places. Back in the Animal Adventure Building, our small group of four stepped inside the enclosure with three sleepy sloths lounging under a heat lamp. They didn't mind slowly climbing their way over to us, though, because they knew people in the room meant they got some delicious slices of apple and pear. Three adorable faces with their funny little round noses hung upside down, reaching out their hooked claws to pull our hands in so they could reach another piece of fruit. It was a really special experience.

As unique as it was to meet a sloth in person, Neo the lemur (short for Neapolitan) was my favorite animal of the day. The small primate was curious and friendly from the moment we entered her enclosure, bouncing from person to person as she inspected my notebook and our hair. It was a treat to interact with her as long as we did -- at least 10 minutes, but it felt like more -- as Phillips educated us on the species, Neo and the zoo's efforts to keep all the animals healthy and happy.

The highest ticket tier is the Ultimate Excursion, which adds an off-road tour that gets you right up next to the animals. In a small RTV vehicle, Phillips revved along through the park where we met emus, camels, ostriches, water buffalo, fallow deer and more just next to us. A few of the animals we would stop and feed -- sometimes needing the "drool towel" Phillips provided us. This package also brings you to the edge of Mace the giraffe's cage where you stand eye-level with him as you feed him lettuce leaves. Not yet fully grown, Mace will grow 4 or 5 more feet in height but is already impressive to stand face-to-face with.

Being so close to so many beautiful, imposing and majestic animals was an incredible experience. And being there with Phillips every step of the way added so much as she described behaviors, pointed out interesting features and illustrated the consequences of people not being equipped to take care of an animal. Some 30 percent of Promised Land's animals are rescues -- even more among the birds. The education and conservation components of my visit left me very aware of the importance and the purpose of such establishments.

Photo by Jocelyn Murphy
Sloths enthusiastically greet visitors to the Promised Land Zoo in Branson.
Courtesy photo Branson’s Promised Land Zoo offers tons of animal encounters — both with animals you can see in the park and exclusive experiences you can only get with a VIP ticket.
Courtesy photo Branson’s Promised Land Zoo offers tons of animal encounters — both with animals you can see in the park and exclusive experiences you can only get with a VIP ticket.

NAN What's Up on 05/20/2018

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