Blank Park Zoo | A Sensory-Friendly Place in Des Moines

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Blank Park Zoo | A Sensory-Friendly Place in Des Moines

Blank Park Zoo is a bustling place, with a steady stream of different sights, sounds, and smells. To ensure all feel welcome and comfortable visiting this buzzing destination, Blank Park Zoo became one of five KultureCity-certified attractions in the Des Moines Metro and was the first to be certified in Iowa. Certification means staff receives annual training to help and recognize those with sensory needs and sensory-inclusive modifications are in place.

Blank Park Zoo is committed to making every aspect of your experience fun, safe, and accessible, and it is their belief that every individual should have the highest quality experience when visiting. 

Sensory Bags

The Zoo revamped and expanded its sensory backpack program, with the help of KultureCity and a team from the 2018 Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute Community Leadership Program.  These backpacks are specifically designed for children and adults with sensory processing needs.

The sensory bags contain noise-canceling headphones, squishy balls, fidget tools and I feel/I need cards.  A limited number of weighted lap pads are also available upon request. Both the sensory bags and weighted lap pads can be checked out at the Admissions area within the Zoo.  There is no charge, but the Zoo requires you to provide an ID and leave it with the admissions staff until the bag is returned.

Quiet Zones and Headphone Zones

In addition, Sensory Guide signage has been placed around the Zoo indicating Loud Zones, where headphones are highly recommended, and Quiet Zones, where guests can go if they need to take a break from a louder area. These zones are also marked on the Zoo maps.  

Visual Inclusion

Since 2011, the Zoo has collaborated with the Iowa Department for the Blind and Iowa Educational Services for the Blind & Visually Impaired to make several improvements to the visitor experience to help those with sight impairments explore the Zoo through touch. This includes imprints on exhibit signs depicting the size and shapes of animals as well as sound experiences, such as playing didgeridoo and doorbell in the David Kruidenier Australia Adventure. Other examples are improvements to the exhibit sight lines and access to signs that represent the full size of the animals. 

The Zoo also has a braille map, which was created by the Iowa Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and a couple of bags containing tactile objects that are labeled in braille, such as plastic animals, fur, feathers, skulls, and eggs.  In addition, these bags have a list of exhibit features around the Zoo for those with visual impairments to experience. Both the bags and braille map can be checked out at the Admissions area and like the sensory backpacks, require an ID.

Sensory Garden

The Sensory Garden opened in 2021, is wheelchair accessible, and is located near the Pollinator Garden. It is a place where visitors can go to relax, reduce stress, and reflect on their visit. It contains a path with beautiful landscaping, quiet life-sized chimes, and limestone blocks for seating. 


All restrooms are accessible and contain changing tables for children up to 50 pounds. There are multiple family restrooms available and the GoGo Plaza also has a Mother’s room and a family restroom with an adult-size changing table. Blank Park Zoo is only one of a handful of zoos in the United States to have an adjustable adult-size changing table. This means that visitors of all ages can have a comfortable, private place to change and as a result can enjoy a full day at the zoo without having to leave early to take care of bathroom needs.

Social Narrative (Social Story)

To read a social narrative to prepare you or your loved ones for a trip to the Zoo, visit  Blank Park Zoo hopes all guests will benefit from these inclusive features allowing each person to fully connect with nature and all that it has to offer.  

Whitney Alaniz, MOT OTR/L

Whitney Alaniz, MOT OTR/L

Whitney Alaniz, MOT OTR/L is an occupational therapist turned (mostly) stay-at-home mom. She has worked with adults to young toddlers and has a special interest in early childhood development targeting fine motor skills, feeding, sensory processing, and coordination. She loves incorporating this knowledge with her own two little boys through play. When she’s not running after her little ones she enjoys traveling, cooking new recipes and eating chocolate from her secret stash.

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