As I head over to the zoo, the temperature vacillates between the low to mid-40s while the sky seems to be having an argument with itself: "Sunny! No! Completely overcast! No! Sunny!" But either way, it's a perfect blustery day for a visit to the zoo: The bears, at least, don't seem to be bothered by the wind bursts. They've been wearing their coats all summer waiting for this moment.
And since the zoo is open year-round (with the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day), it's the best place to take the kids on almost any given day.
The first hint that something spectacular awaits visitors is the ride up the outdoor, enclosed escalator -- with its dizzying 30-degree rise. Ascending the steep hillside builds a palpable sense of excitement, as a loud but warm voice welcomes you to the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, followed by young voices singing in jubilant refrain, "Hooray, hooray!"
Angel Cooper, of Garfield -- who is both a cashier supervisor at the zoo and mother of a 2-year-old son, Jaison -- says that one of the reasons she enjoys bringing her son to the zoo is because of its added value. "Not only are there the animal attractions, which are intriguing for a toddler, but we have Kids Kingdom, activities, the carousel and the train ride."
Kids Kingdom, of course, is that special place where mom, dad or caregiver can sit for a few minutes while the kiddos work off some energy on the giant metal tube slides before you head off to check out the kangaroo yard just around the corner.
Though these extras help make for a magical day, the animals are still where it's at. "The first thing Jaison always says when we come to visit is, 'I want to see the tigers,'" said Cooper.
That animal attraction applies to kids of all ages.
Justin Puhr, 17, ("no, make that 17-and-a-half") who is here today on a field trip with Montour School District, digs the giraffes. "I got to pet one -- and it had a blue tongue," he says. (Their tongues are actually blue-black, but still, how often do you see such things up close, let alone pet them?)
Depending on when you go, you might find Maggie, the 11-year-old sea lion making one of her one-of-a-kind paintings. Or you might have a chance to marvel at the volunteer SCUBA divers cleaning one of the acrylic panels on the inside of the giant "fish" tank that includes sharks and stingrays in the PPG Aquarium.
The Underwater Polar Bear Tunnel at the new Water's Edge instills a sense of awe. All that separates you from one of the zoo's 1,500-pound white bears is a few inches -- and a glass barrier. It's a little scary, but in a roller-coaster kind of way. As a mother, I can only think about how much Windex I would need to clean the handprints left by children reaching out to "touch" the polar bears. But it's the zoo: You can do stuff like that here.
No doubt partly because of this interactive environment, the number of yearly visitors is going to hit the one million mark for the first time in the zoo's 109-year-history. Tracy Gray, the zoo's PR manager, says she expects the magic number to hit sometime near mid-December, which is just about when this issue hits the streets. You can visit the zoo's Web site, www.pittsburghzoo.org, to keep track if you're interested in trying for the great prize package they're giving away: If you're the one-millionth visitor you will receive, among a host of other things, a lifetime zoo membership.
It's very possible the winner will be an out-of-stater. (But that's OK: The zoo passes give you free or half-off admission to zoos all over the country, and even in Quebec.) On my prior visit, my 7-year-old son and I had a jolly good time reading the license plates. For a good stretch of the parking lot, no two were alike. He is always my designated tour guide at the zoo. Not this time, though: This was the first time in my adult life that I had been to the zoo without a child.
Yet as I descended back down the escalator, with a giant Fireball candy stuffed in my left cheek, I felt like one.