A pair of giraffes are seen Saturday, May 3, 2014, at Cameron Park Zoo in Waco.

When I shut the door to my car and buckled up, I wasn’t expecting great things.

After all, it was a zoo somewhere near downtown Waco.

I’m not sure why, but I’ve always thought of Waco as a dirty — or at least dusty — town. Every time I hear the word “Waco,” I think of David Koresh and his Branch Davidians, and the burning compound “near Waco.”

Honestly, though, I never even drove through Waco during my first 11 years in Texas (1986-1997). The first time was in 1998. It was 3 a.m., and I don’t even remember what I saw.

Fast forward 15 years, and the wife, the kids and I get a notion that it would be fun to visit a zoo.

“Where is the nearest zoo?” I asked my wife.

“It’s in Waco.”

Sure enough, with a Google search and a few clicks of the mouse, I learn the Cameron Park Zoo is 60 miles from Killeen.

“Well, shall we try it?”

“Sure,” my wife said.

We grab the kids and the bottles and the bags and the diapers and the food and the strollers and forget two other things before we hit the road.

We pulled into the Cameron Park Zoo parking lot, which seemed small. A rough-looking man in a green zoo shirt guided us toward an overflow parking lot that was nothing more than a grass field.

Approaching the red-brick gateway to the zoo, I thought, “This place looks old.”

Indeed, the 52-acre zoo first opened in 1955. It expanded and was updated in the early 1990s.

The wife and I paid for tickets ($9 each). Children under 3 get in free. Yes!

Multiple paths opened on the other side of the gate. We veered right, seeing monkeys, then birds, then giant turtles and other things.

My 2-year-old daughter, Daisy, got really excited. She had never been to a zoo before. I began to get excited, too.

“Look, Daisy, a bear!”

After the indoor, walk-through aquarium — which really impressed Daisy and me — we saw alligators, snakes, apes, tigers, giraffes, elephants, bison, deer and more.

For me, the highlight was probably the lion’s den, where a majestic male lion sat in the middle of his grassland sanctuary lined with gray stone walls.

Sadly, that lion, Sam Jack, had to be put down not long after our visit. I’ve heard the zoo is getting a new male lion this year.

All in all, it was a fun little trip. The zoo is really good for small children, and a family can easily walk through it in two or three hours. Of course, you can take your time and spend four or five hours there.

There was a snack bar in the zoo, but it was closed by the time we got to it.

I guess Waco is not too bad after all.

The zoo is pretty fun, anyway. We plan to go back this summer.

If you go

  • What: Cameron Park Zoo
  • Where: 1701 N. Fourth St., Waco
  • Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
  • Prices: Adults, $9; children ages 4 to 12, $6; senior citizens, $8; children 3 and younger, free. Military discount available.
  • Information: 254-750-8400

Contact Jacob Brooks jbrooks@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7468

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