I’ll confess that I wasn’t expecting much from Flamingo Land. Rollercoasters and holiday resorts are not in my top 5 things I look for at a zoo. They don’t even make my top 50. However, Flamingo Land was running a reduced ticket price with only the zoo open. Sounds perfect for me.
It is fair to say Flamingo Land was far better than my expectations. It is unashamedly a crowd pleaser with tigers, lions, cheetahs and rhinos with very few of your rare (and often boring) endangered animals. Despite the obvious animal collection, the staff seemed friendly, the talks were good, the enclosures were spacious, and it wasn’t too expensive. What more could you want?
Flamingo Land History
Flamingo Land was first established in 1959 by a Mr Edwin Pentland Hick. It was initially only intended to be a zoo and was opened as ‘The Yorkshire Zoological Gardens’. You can probably guess what their first animals were … flamingos!
The Yorkshire Zoological Gardens was the first and last place in the UK to have captive dolphins with dolphin shows spanning from 1963 to 1993. Keeping dolphins in captivity is a very contentious subject, although perhaps not as contentious as keeping killer whales. Flamingo Land was also the first place in the UK to try this too with an orca named Cuddles being resident from 1968 to 1971.
It was around this time, 1968 to be exact, that the park was renamed to Flamingo Park Zoo. A small funfair had been held on the site from the mid-1960s and this grew to be a permanent addition in the 1970s. At this point we should stop calling Flamingo Park Zoo a zoo and instead call it an ‘animal theme park’. The only others in the UK are Chessington World of Adventures (very big) and Drusillas Park (very small).
The mid-1970s saw it renamed Flamingo Land and the attraction started to grow on the national stage. The holiday resort was added and Flamingo Land became a destination for a weekend away with the kids. The animal collection has developed over that time and, perhaps unexpectedly, Flamingo Land has been an active member of BIAZA and EAZA (the British and European Zoo Associations). A good example of this are the Cheetahs which arrived in 2019 as part of the European Breeding Programme, or the recent addition of Black Rhinos.
When it comes to conservation, Flamingo Land has its hand in a few pots. One example is the Udzungwa Forest Project based on conserving forest in Tanzania, another is the link with the CIRCLE team based at the University of York and a third is the breeding of the scimitar-horned oryx which is now extinct in the wild. It might not be ground-breaking, but it is certainly pulling its weight.
Flamingo Land Visitor Experience
Flamingo Land is about a 40-minute drive from York or a 10-minute drive from Malton. Both are lovely places to spend a weekend and I’d probably recommend getting a B&B in one of these two places if you were travelling from a long way away.
When it comes to prices you are looking at £30 a ticket at the weekend or £20 in the week, providing you book a week in advance. Note that these are the reduced prices and children pay the same as adults. Yep – Flamingo Land is expensive!
This begs the question is Flamingo Land good value for money? The closest large zoo is Yorkshire wildlife park which charges about £20 a ticket. For theme parks we can look to Alton Towers who charge £35 a ticket. For me Flamingo Land, while good, isn’t as good a zoo as Yorkshire Wildlife Park and isn’t as good a theme park as Alton Towers so I’d say it is a bit pricey. Not eye-wateringly bad value but not great either.
While in the park there are a number of food outlets but I would suggest you check online before you go to see which are going to be open. I went for the fish and chips and found it to be tasty enough, if a little expensive. If that doesn’t take your fancy, then the main café does the usual sandwiches and there is a pub on site for a more substantial meal. I couldn’t find a quinoa salad or a falafel wrap though so if you wanted something a little healthier then I’d recommend taking your own.
Another plus point for Flamingo Land was that the toilets were spotless. I think they may be the cleanest toilets I’ve ever seen in a zoo. In fact, the whole zoo was exceptionally clean… bravo to the cleaning staff!
The signage in the Flamingo Land was very well done. Every animal on display had a sign (top marks!) and all the signs were the same clear layout. Largely I thought the information included was interesting and my only gripe was that there were a couple of duplicate fact boards which seems like a missed opportunity to put out some more information. In fact, I would have like a few more dense information boards with some of the key exhibits with things like identifying individual tigers or what are the differences between the grey and red kangaroos.
The online map (found here) is easy enough to use but there are a couple of ways it could be improved. Firstly, the visible labels on the map largely point out the rides which are all shut at the moment. Secondly, there are no visible labels for the animals. Thirdly, I’d like to be able to toggle the different categories such as food, toilets, shops, animals.
Flamingo Land seems to be split into a number of areas: Splosh, Flamingo 1, The Lost Kingdom, Metropolis and so on. None of the areas are actively themed and I’m not sure it really adds anything except to make the map index a little more confusing. Can you tell I care about my zoo maps?
One of the things I do recommend is checking the feeding timetable and trying to organise your day around the keeper talks and feedings. The main reason is that it allows you to see some animals which are usually a little difficult to spot…
As an example take the hippo. It is actually a nocturnal animal and, if you were to miss the feeding, all you would see is the head at the far side of a lake. Come feeding time however, they swim over to the closest bank, get out on land and open up their mouths. You’d completely miss this appreciation of their sheer bulk if you only saw the tips of their heads.
Flamingo Land Animal Collection
As mentioned at the top Flamingo Land has a very crowd pleasing set of animals. There aren’t lots and lots of exhibits but I reckon there are around 20-30 big enclosures holding around 50-60 species. This means there are a few mixed species exhibits which add a nice extra dimension.
I’m not sure if the entry location is different during the pandemic but I came in via the children’s play area in the south west corner. Kind of built into the children’s play area are some red river hog and banded mongoose enclosures. The red river hog was doing a great demonstration of how they move earth with their noses looking for food but I was more interested in the mongoose. Pretty much every zoo has meerkats, but I don’t often come across their cousins the mongoose. I think they look a little like dull versions of their famous cousins but they have just as much personality.
There is a bit of a petting zoo and ponies around the children’s area (which I skipped past) and then you get out into the zoo proper. There isn’t much rhyme or reason in the layout of the zoo. It feels like where they have space they stick an enclosure and so one minute you are looking at kangaroos and the next at penguins. To be fair this is the case at most zoos, but I do like the occasional regionally specific area to really embed you in an ecosystem – kind of like Chester Zoo’s islands exhibit.
I started off fairly methodically following a roughly anticlockwise circle around the animals. This meant I started off walking past the kangaroos to get to the penguins. Anyone who has read some of my other posts will know I’m not really into kangaroos or wallabies as they seem to lie very far away and take up a lot of room. Today though I had to bite my tongue as I saw a kanga hopping at gracefully across the enclosure. I’m still not made up on whether it is a good use of a lot of space but it was super cool!
The penguin enclosure is actually pretty good. After my disappointment with the penguins at Hardwick Hall I was pleased to see a much bigger pool with penguin caves built into the sides. You couldn’t see them under the water, but the high up perspective is very fun. Also, watching them waddle in and out of caves on narrow ledges just made it feel a bit more natural.
I had been keen to see the Saki monkey but I found that the enclosure was very difficult to get close to. I tried heading back out to the main track and through the wallaby walkthrough but still you couldn’t quite get close enough to get a decent view. The wallabies were like every other wallaby you’ve ever seen, asleep on the floor. That is except for the show-off by the entrance to the exhibit who very much enjoyed having their picture taken!
The wallaby enclosure also doubles as the place to view the scimitar-horned oryx. These are beautiful creatures and one of Flamingo Land’s big conservation stories. The species went extinct in the wild around 1999 due to people hunting them for their beautiful horns. This triggered a global conservation drive and there is currently a worldwide effort to keep a genetically diverse population in captivity. This has allowed a few reintroductions to occur in their native homeland of northern Africa but we are a long way off from seeing any self-sustaining populations.
Past the oryx you come to the first of Flamingo Land’s two species of rhino the black rhino. Another example of strong conservation efforts by Flamingo Land as one of the black rhinos (Chanua) to be released as part of the Udzungwa Forest Project. They appear to have a fairly sizable outside area but while I was visiting I did notice they were stuck inside and pacing a little – maybe there was cleaning going on perhaps?
I swiftly moved away from the growing crowd of people watching the rhino and continued my way round to the hippos for my first talk of the day – the hippo feed. On the way I passed Bactrian camels looking very shaggy as they moult into their summer coats as well as hamadryas baboons and meerkats. I’ll come onto baboons later, but I would like the opportunity to show off my meerkat picture…
The hippo talk was great. I hadn’t realised this but hippos are nocturnal and spend most of their day asleep floating in the massive lake. This makes them a very unrewarding zoo animal to visit however if you get them at feeding time it is a different story. A call from the keeper and they woke up from their doze and started swimming over. The keeper was just saying that they typically pefer to walk along the bottom than to swim and right on cue they both submerged to reappear a minute later on our side of the enclosure, right underneath the viewing platform.
The hippos have been trained to open their mounts for cabbages to be thrown in. This allows the keepers to check teeth for any health problems and it also makes a great show for paying guests. Once we’d had a good view of the teeth the hippos were tempted onto land where you could get a good sense of the sheer bulk of the animal. Did you know that hippos are the third largest animal in the world after elephants and rhinos and all of these are vegetarian!
I didn’t stick around for the giraffes and instead made my way around the back of the hippos and onto the cheetahs. I spent a little while trying to work out where they were and then realised they were resting up against the window on the bonnet of the themed land rover. I have never had such a good view of a cheetah and I doubt I will again. They were so close and really didn’t seem to care about my presence. Thankfully it was quiet and I had these guys pretty much to myself.
I went from one big cat to another and took a look at the lions. These were doing what lions do best… sleeping. In fact, I think it is almost a universal rule that if you see a big cat in a zoo it will be asleep. I was amused by a little boy counting lions while very confidently counted up to eleven. Both me and his mum could only see six so who knows what he was really counting. But to be fair to the little chap he confidently counted to eleven twice so he was clearly counting something!
Walking back toward the baboons for the feed and talk I trotted past the back side of the mixed savannah exhibit with the usual zebra, giraffe and ostrich. The ostrich was on eggs which I hadn’t seen before – at least not outside a farmers market. Interestingly there were three ostriches attending the nest and I’ll confess I don’t really know why – maybe I’ll look it up for a future blog post on unusual families.
This part of the zoo also holds the white rhino paddock. These are bigger than their black cousins and even bigger than the hippos. I personally though the enclosure was a little on the small side for such large creatures. If you see the rhino enclosures at Yorkshire Wildlife Park you’ll know how they should look!
I finally made it in time to the next talk and feed – the baboons. The keepers chucked pellets onto the baboon island and the baboons scrambled around picking up as many as possible and shoving them in their mouths. The most interesting bit was that a few of the older baboons seemed to skip out on this melee and instead bent down to the moat to fish out pellets from the water.
Feeling the monkey vibe I took a turn through the lemur walkthrough but found it a little disappointing. The path you had to stay on only cut through a small part of the exhibit and I ended up getting much better views from outside the enclosure than within it.
I’d planned to finish my visit with the tiger feed. This was actually the best bit of the whole day. They had chained two legs of venison – one for each tiger. The first was up in a tree right next to the walkway and we got to really see the athleticism of the tiger as it climbed through the branches to almost eye-level. The second was out in the open but very firmly chained up so we got a real appreciation of the strength of the tiger as it pulled and yanked in an attempt to free it.
Once the tigers had gone into their beds with their food I thought I would call it a day. This meant I missed out on the sea lion show but I’ve seen plenty of these in the past. It was a shame the aquarium was shut as that meant no views of the sea lions but this was Covid rather than Flamingo Land. Other things which I didn’t get a good look were the reptile house, tapirs, porcupines, coatis and some of the other African hoofstock so maybe you’ll have luck where I didn’t!
Flamingo Land Enclosure Quality
I think the best zoos are the ones that manage to combine big enclosures with innovative viewing experiences – for example the chimp enclosure as Edinburgh Zoo. Flamingo Land has taken a leaf out of this book for some of the exhibits and the tiger one is an obvious stand out where you can walk on a catwalk above the enclosures. The trouble is that this doesn’t feel uniform throughout the zoo. If you wanted to see the hippos and you missed the talk you would need binoculars. The same might be said of the giraffes, oryx and Saki monkeys …to name but a few.
This stems from the fact that a lot of the enclosures are big and that is a nice problem to solve. Aside from the white rhinos, I can’t think of another enclosure which felt a bit small. That’s a pretty good success rate! The other plus point is that most of the enclosures utilise natural planting and landscaping. The red pandas live in a huge willow tree which gives you a much better sense of how they would behave in the wild i.e., practically invisible unless being fed.
When you walk round a zoo one thing you should look out for is whether the animals have spaces away from the public. It can be very stressful for animals to be on show 24/7 and one of the big tensions in a zoo is balancing this need for privacy with allowing visitors good views. I’m pleased to say that this wasn’t an issue at Flamingo Land and most animals at least had a house the public couldn’t need into.
Like I say though, it is a balance and I found it a bit frustrating that so much space is given to tigers when they would spend most of their time in their dens out of public view. Similarly, the flamingos were a long way from any viewing space and the oryx could easily have been at the other end of a huge field.
I also wouldn’t necessarily say that any of the enclosures are ground-breaking. The most modern it gets is a funky looking aviary in a wooden criss-cross dome which actually just makes it difficult to see the birds. Then again, sometimes you don’t need to be at the cutting edge of enclosure design for your visitors to have a great time.
Flamingo Land Alternatives
What other zoo alternatives do you have in the region? You could have a look at my Zoo Map but to be honest, there aren’t that many other big local zoos.
The other obvious big zoo in Yorkshire would be the Yorkshire Wildlife Park. I’d say go here if you want a more typically ‘zoo-ey’ experience with some more modern enclosures and rarer animals. I have a review here and I really, really recommend a visit.
You have a Sea-life Centre at Scarborough and The Deep at Hull if you like fish but clearly these won’t show you a tiger.
In fact, Flamingo Land is actually well placed in the fact that there aren’t that many close by competitors!
Flamingo Land Summary
The animal choice of big cats and large mammals is clearly designed to pull in the visitors, but I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with this. We need many zoos of many different types, and this is the kind of zoo that could unexpectedly inspire a little kid to want to work with cheetahs.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Flamingo Land. I went on a mid-week morning when the rollercoasters were all shut so I might have gotten a different experience to the usual visitor. However, the rides were very clearly split from the zoo so maybe it isn’t actually so different.
The final thing I’ll pull out is that these guys really care for their animals. This is obvious from the amount of space they give them and the warmth in the voice of the keepers doing the talks. This is fundamentally what makes a zoo good or bad and it is very difficult to fake.
So, there you have it. A great day out for a family with some cracking animals that are well looked after. It gets a thumbs up from me!