Oasis in the Desert

Everything in Phoenix is hot – the shopping, cultural events, fine dining, sporting events, the political climate and not to mention the weather.

Having never been that far west before, I didn’t really realize how different Arizona would be from the East Coast and Mid-Atlantic states.

The one thing I had been warned about was the weather. By West Virginia standards, Phoenix is always hot, but the heat there is very different than what we’re used to feeling. During my 10-day stay, the temperatures ranged from 101 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. With no humidity, it was fine and almost comparable to an 85-degree day here. What people don’t warn you about is to not touch anything metal that is outside in the sun for a prolonged period of time. I burned my arm three times while at the Phoenix Zoo because I kept leaning on metal railing. I guess Phoenix is called “The Valley of the Sun” for a reason.

The other difference is how easily maneuverable it is for a city of its size. Laid out in a traditional grid pattern, I got lost once getting on Interstate 10 and it was only because I wasn’t paying attention and missed my exit. There was traffic on the interstates, but for a city with more than a million people, I never experienced gridlock there like I had in Philadelphia or Nashville.

Phoenix, the fifth-largest city in the United States, is probably one of the most diverse cities I’ve ever visited. It truly, and pardon the cliche, springs out of the desert like an oasis. It’s not the Old West, cowboy and ranch-hand area I expected. It’s a very cosmopolitan city that has something for everyone – whether you are looking for family activities, professional sporting events, luxury spas, fine dining and upscale shopping or a place to which to retire.

My son Aidan and I went for family-oriented activities while we were there. Our first adventure was to the Phoenix Zoo, the nation’s largest, nonprofit zoological park that has more than 1.5 million visitors each year. Home to more than 1,300 animals and several endangered and threatened species, it is nationally known for being one of the most interactive zoos in the country for children.

We started our zoo adventure in the Savanna section of the zoo which featured a very up-close, natural habitat complete with giraffe and Watusi cattle. It’s very intimidating to be standing about three feet from four very tall giraffes.

The Arizona Trail highlights the wildlife and plant life of Arizona. It features several plant native to the Sonoran Desert including the saguaro cactus, and shows animals such as the coyote, mountain lion, bobcat, bald eagle, raven, turkey vulture, Andean condor, Sonoran pronghorn and Mexican wolf in a natural desert habitat.

The African Trail offers a view of many of the most popular animals in the world: foxes, rhinos, warthogs, meerkats, baboons, African wild dogs, African lions, Sumatran tigers, cheetahs, Mhorr’s gazelle, otters and flamingos. The trail also breaks off into a smaller portion called the Desert Lives trail which features bighorn sheep and Arabian oryx roaming among natural rock formations inside the park.

One of the highlights of the Africa Trail is the opportunity to ride on the back of a dromedary camel. Aidan could not quit talking about how cool it was that he got to ride “Abu” the camel and then promptly asked me if we could get one and take it home. I explained that they’re hard to house-train and that he would have to clean up after it. Needless to say, he wasn’t that interested in getting one after that.

The Tropics Trail offers several different types of monkeys, including a walk-through monkey village featuring small squirrel monkeys. They warn you that they may come down close to you at times as you walk through, but it was really hot the day that we were there and the monkeys were taking it easy. The elephant and orangutan habitats are also featured as part of this trail.

The Children’s Trail lets families get close to many small animals, such as wallaby, ocelots and a warty pig. The trail leads to Harmony Farm, which features many farm animals and a petting zoo.

The zoo features about 2.5 miles in walking trails, most of which are paved but some are a mix of sand and gravel. I advise wearing comfortable tennis shoes and taking lots of sunscreen and water.

The Arizona Science Center was next on our list of must-do, child-friendly activities in Phoenix. The science center, formerly known as the Arizona Museum of Science and Technology, was created in 1980 as a pilot science center by the Junior League of Phoenix.

The private, nonprofit facility opened its doors in 1984 as a small 10,000-square-foot storefront exhibition space located in the parking garage level of a downtown Phoenix hotel. After a bond levy and an aggressive capital campaign, $52.6 million was raised to help the science center expand to a 142,500-square-foot facility. The facility’s expansion continues today. It is currently spending $65.2 million to revitalize exhibits and gallery experiences during the next three years.

I really enjoyed the science center and its more than 300 hands-on exhibits. It was very interactive for both Aidan and me. The Many Hands Make a Home exhibit in the Freeman Gallery discussed the home-building industry around Phoenix and showed what a vital role it plays in the city’s economy. The Forces of Nature exhibit in the Sybil B. Harrington Gallery gives you the opportunity to experience hurricanes, wildfires and earthquakes while standing on a platform inside the gallery. Aidan enjoyed getting blasted by the hurricane, monsoon rains and earthquakes so much that we stood through the short multi-media presentation twice. He also enjoyed playing in the sand tables that demonstrated the effects of erosion and wind in the desert.

We also attended the center’s special exhibit, Goosebumps! The Science of Fear. The 6,000-square-foot exhibit includes immersive environments and full-body interactive experiences that allow guests to test their own fears and rate their physiological responses. The exhibit also features leading scientists and their current research on the neurobiology, physiology and psychology of fear.

GooseBumps! has a Fear Challenge Course, where visitors can face four common fears in a safe environment. I will admit, Aidan and I chickened out on sticking our hands in a container near some scorpions or quickly falling backwards in a controlled environment. However, it was a lot of fun to watch other people do it and see their reactions.

The Arizona Science Center also offers a giant screen, five-story IMAX theater with shows such as “Under the Sea 3D” and Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees. The center is also home to the Dorrance Planetarium, which is only one of five planetariums in the world to have a cutting-edge NanoSeam dome.

Our next stop was geared more toward me. The Desert Botanical Gardens, located among the red buttes of Papago Park, has one of the world’s finest collections of desert plants. A veritable living museum which opened in 1939, the garden showcases more than 50,000 desert plants. The garden has five themed trails that exhibit cacti and succulent species from around the world. Exhibits located along the trails highlight desert wildflowers and conservation efforts.

Visitors are reminded not to pick flowers or plants while doing the self-guided tour. You are also urged to remain on the trails at all times and not to climb the rocks or trees. Aidan had a little trouble abiding by those rules, but the promise of going swimming later got him back on to the Desert Wildflower Loop Trail. The .33-mile trail shows the beauty and diversity of wildflowers in North America’s deserts. The individual gardens show how wildflowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies in the desert’s ecosystem.

We also got to take in an Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game at Chase Field in Phoenix. The Diamondbacks actually beat the Colorado Rockies the night we were there. Our seats were in a perfect location – a little to the left behind home plate with a bird’s-eye view of the batters and down the third-base line.

We had several exciting experiences that evening. First, the woman sitting directly behind me got hit in the head with a foul ball. After 20 minutes with a medic, she was deemed OK, but I was still on high alert all night for fouls. Second, the Diamondback girls (cheering squad) asked Aidan if he wanted to stand on top of the dugout during the seventh inning stretch and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” to the 27,000-plus people in attendance that night. Being 4 years old, he was a little nervous and said no, but I think he kind of regretted it.

Last, a guard asked us if we wanted to come down on to the field and take pictures inside the dugout after the game. While we were down on the field, former Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzales came out and asked if Aidan wanted to have his picture taken with him.

For those of you who don’t follow baseball, Gonzalez hit 57 home runs in 2001, his personal best for one season and almost twice as many as he hit in any other season. The total is the third most in National League history for a left-handed batter (behind Barry Bonds’s record 73, which also came in 2001, and Ryan Howard, who hit 58 in 2006). Gonzalez also won the Home Run Derby that year. In 2001, the Diamondbacks reached the World Series against the New York Yankees. In the climactic moment, Gonzalez came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning of game 7, with the score even at 2-2, the bases loaded and one out. The Yankee pitcher was Mariano Rivera, one of the game’s most feared closers with an especially good record in the postseason. Gonzalez swung at Rivera’s 0-1 pitch and hit a single into left field that won the World Series for Arizona.

From what I’m told, it was a pretty big deal to meet Gonzales. The best part was when he asked Aidan who his favorite baseball team was. “I like the Pittsburgh Pirates,” Aidan replied. My child does bleed black and gold for his Pittsburgh sports teams.

One of the most unique features at Chase Field is the swimming pool located behind the right field fence. Aidan was ready to jump in by the end of the eighth inning.

Our last stop during our trip was to the Sea Life Aquarium that just opened this summer at the Arizona Mills Mall in Tempe.

The 26,000-square-foot indoor aquarium offers more than 5,000 sea creatures that visitors can observe or even touch in some instances. Sharks, Manta rays, tropical fish, sea horses, starfish and coral are all on display in 30 different tanks. The main tank in the aquarium has a tunnel that offers a 360-degree view of the tank as you walk through it. We could see sharks and stingrays swim above and beneath us at the same time.

The aquarium also offers an interactive quiz trail to learn about sea creatures, touch tanks where guests can interact with creatures from the tidal areas, educational programs, a conservation room and a children’s play area.

It is a beautiful facility and offers many activities for children. It gets very busy, very quickly so I would advise trying to go early during the week. I would also buy my tickets online instead of having to wait at the admission gate outside.