“Couples who choose the zoo want their guests to be wowed by the entire wedding experience – from start to finish,” says Briana Merrill, a former sales manager at the Lincoln Park Zoo, who also was married there. “They want their wedding to be different.”
Different doesn’t necessarily mean informal. In fact, Dana Jussaume, Director of Sales and Events at the Lincoln Park Zoo, says the opposite is usually true. “The couples are usually sophisticated urbanites,” she says. “Even in the Lion House, weddings are elegant affairs.”
When Emily and Mark Trolley were dating, they spent many a day at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. When they decided to get married, their choice of wedding venue was a “no-brainer,” Emily says. “We always knew we would do it at the zoo.”
In May of 2009, they were married on the steps of the Primate House, enjoyed cocktails around the Endangered Species Carousel, and moved into the Lion House for dinner and dancing.
The highlight of the evening came when the steak was served – and the lioness emerged from her den. “She roared SO LOUD, every person in the room stopped talking!” says Emily, laughing. “The people sitting at the table next to her cage said they could feel the warmth of her breath. It was awesome!” “The lions have interrupted many a speech,” says Jussaume. “But people just love it. How often do you dine with a tiger sitting 20 feet away from you?”
Nearly 2,000 miles west of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, brides and grooms in San Francisco say their vows before families and friends, sharks and stingrays. The Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences is popular among couples who remember the Academy from their childhood, and also appeals to scientists, biologists, and others.
The Academy offers two wedding packages, one of which allows you to have the exclusive use of the entire museum.
The aquarium’s magnificent living coral reef, the world’s deepest, is the most popular place to exchange wedding vows. Guests sit in a small amphitheater facing the tank; the couple and the officiant stand on a small platform, against a living kaleidoscope of colorful reef fish.
After the ceremony, it’s time for the reception and guests are encouraged to enjoy the four-story rainforest (home to birds, butterflies, bats, reptiles and amphibians) and the Swamp, where Claude the albino alligator is dressed for the occasion. When the scent of dinner wafts over his home, Claude climbs up on his heated rock and gently opens and closes his jaw in appreciation.
The creatures at the California Academy of Sciences, just like those at most aquariums and zoos, are unfazed by wedding celebrations, and either go about their business or go to sleep – with one exception: the African penguins LOVE weddings.
For those who don’t necessarily want to celebrate in the direct company of creatures from both land and sea, zoos and aquariums often have lots of other options – both indoors and out. At the Lincoln Park Zoo, Café Brauer, a beautiful example of Prairie School architecture built in 1908, is the most popular venue.
Find a zoo or aquarium in your area that fits your style. Check your city's official website or your local board of tourism for suggestions.
Consider the needs for your event.
- How many guests will attend?
- Can you hire your own caterer?
- Is it available on your date?
- Do they have a liquor license?
- What are the accessible areas?
- Would you like docents or other staff?
Check the zoo’s or aquarium’s website for details on rental policies or give them a call and ask to speak to their event coordinator.
Couples often choose a zoo or aquarium for sentimental reasons. “Maybe they came here as a child, or had their first date here,” Jussaume says. “And they also want to give back to the community.” Instead of giving out gift bags, some couples make “Adopt an Animal” donations in their guests’ names.
Brides and grooms who share their celebrations with their animal friends benefit in more ways than one. Aside from being a truly unique and memorable venue, a zoo or aquarium is generally here to stay.
Says Briana Merrill, “We can take our children there, and our grandkids there, and it's never going to turn into condos or go out of business. I just love that we can create new memories at the zoo with our families.”
Patricia Kelly is a Minneapolis-based journalist and marketing communications writer.