Some of our fondest memories of our own children are taking them to the zoo for the very first time. There’s hardly a child whose eyes don’t light up seeing their favorite animal from picture books in real life for the first time, hearing the sound of the monkeys, or watching the sea lions underwater from behind glass.

[above: stuffed elephant via kaleidescope stitches]

Here are just a few tips to help make your first experience with your baby one of the most memorable. And for the right reasons.

1. Go first thing
Babies are usually more alert first thing in the morning, and the park will be less crowded. That not only means you can get more done, but less of it will be spent waiting on lines.

2. Go off-season
We looooove the zoo in the fall, when the crowds are lighter, the light is beautiful and obviously it’s not so hot and sticky. Even winter can be fun, if your zoo offers seasonal exhibits of cold-weather animals.

san diego zoo | cool mom picks

[san diego zoo, where kids go free in october!]

3. Be sure to pack layers 
This is a tip for all excursions with baby, but especially the zoo which can have you switching climates frequently as you go from indoor to outdoor exhibits, run around at a petting zoo, or speed along in a monorail or carousel.

BabyGap Wellies Collection for Boys | Cool Mom Picks

The new BabyGap Wellies Collection offers tons of great layering possibilties.
Clockwise from top right: Cap toe sneakers, striped sweater, knit waist terry pants, brim beanie, rain parka jacket

Also, leave the foo-foo clothes at home. No linen, no cashmere, no white frilly dresses. It’s the zoo, after all, and we find that sticking with denim or cords and washable cotton tops and sweaters serves us well.

4. Think color for photos
If you’re going to be photographing the day (of course you are!) a pop of color will stand out nicely against all the earth tones of the zoo environments when you’re photographing your child.

BabyGap Wellies Collection for Girls | Cool Mom Picks

BabyGap striped boatneck dress, rainy day graphic bodysuit, dark rinse jeggings, striped scallop flats

5. Pack a real camera.
Speaking of photographs, smartphone cameras can be tricky at zoos. You’re dealing with a lot of low-light conditions, and fast-moving subjects–beyond your own child. If you can bring a DSLR or even a point-and-shoot you’ll be way happier with the results.

6. Yes, you need a stroller.
Even if your toddler is a great walker–the very best walker ever!–bring (or rent) that stroller. Zoos are exhausting, even for adults. It gives you room to stash those layers, snacks and gifts, and keeps you from having to carry him for an hour. Hopefully.

7. Leave lots of time for hands-on fun
While you might think your toddler will love the dolphin show the best, she will probably be more excited to put her hand in the print of a bear, to make crafts in a kid zone, or to spend time with the baby alpaca in the petting zoo.

As with theme parks, it’s often the little things that are most fascinating to children, especially when they can touch and feel them.

Ella's Kitchen Organic Baby Food | Cool Mom Picks

[ella’s kitchen organic baby food]

8. Bring a ton of snacks 
Of course this is our tip for pretty much any excursion at all, but zoos rarely have a reputation for the most amazing gourmet food. Pack snacks so you won’t get stuck with something awful, or worse, something awful you had to wait 40 minutes to get.

9. Stop at the gift shop. Really.
While of course it’s not necessary, we love zoo gift shops which can be filled with so many educational toys and games and posters–all of which help keep the non-profit running and support their conservation programs.

cleveland zoo commemorative guidebook | cool mom picks

[commemorative guide book from cleveland metroparks zoo]

While you’re at it, pick up a family membership which also supports the zoo and is generally tax-deductible; it’s unlikely a young child will last more than a few hours, and it gives you a good excuse to go back again soon.

For more than 150 amazing baby gift ideas, see our 2013 Ultimate Baby Shower Gift Guide, including more of our favorites from this month’s new BabyGap Red Wellies collection.