As an advocate of extraordinary travel experiences, I booked the Panda Keeper for a Day program at Ocean Park in Hong Kong as soon as my daughter was old enough. Why? My husband and I participated in this program almost exactly a decade prior and my daughter inherited my love of these adorable animals.
Ocean Park is home to four Giant Pandas. An An and Jia Jia were given to the park in 1999 and now are the oldest two pandas in captivity. Le Le and Ying Ying arrived in 2007 in celebration of Hong Kong’s handover back to China. Through this special program, attendees learn what is involved in caring for pandas including what they eat and how health is monitored. The goal is to increase awareness about their shrinking habitat and my 8-year-old certainly walked away with a deeper appreciation for conservation. I would say it was time and money well-spent so consider it next time you’re in Hong Kong with kids.
Arriving to Ocean Park
It only takes about 15 minutes to reach Ocean Park from the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong by taxi. They will drop you off near the entrance to the park where you’ll stay until the escalators turn on at just a few minutes before 10:00 a.m. Our appointment was also at 10:00 a.m., so I was worried about being late, but it didn’t matter in the end. Miraculously, our guide found us and directed us to the window where our program vouchers needed to be recorded.
In to the theme park we went, passing the aquarium and other attractions we love until reaching the classroom where we’d ultimately change into uniform and learn about the pandas we were about to tend to.
Inside the Classroom
The education portion of the program is quite serious and covers who the resident pandas are, the challenges they face in the wild as well as how we can assist their survival by protecting the environment. All were presented in a way my daughter could understand.
Valuables are placed in a locker and while it was inconvenient to not have my camera in tow, it would have been bulky and prohibitive given the tasks at hand. Plus, a professional photographer followed us around documenting what felt like every single moment. One professional photo is included with the fee but you have an option to buy more, which of course we did because there are so many photo opps.
Preparing Panda Food
Next, we used bamboo to skewer fruit for the panda to eat. It felt awkward at first with the staff members watching but we managed to cut and stab apples without problem. It was an ice breaker of sorts as we weren’t sure to expect and not quite familiar with the people involved.
But it turned out that seconds later we’d be face-to-face—separated by just a thin layer of glass—with a big panda. Now, I’ve been to Wolong and played in a pen with about 16 baby pandas so am a firm believer that most people do not understand how big they are.
We tossed the apple skewer through a chute into his enclosure behind the glass where he normally comes to receive medical care. They do have a much larger enclosure outside.
So Much Medical Monitoring
As you might imagine there are video cameras everywhere and quite a bit of care is taken to sterilize equipment and even our shoes. We wore gloves and/or washed hands before each activity and it’s quite obvious that China’s national treasures receive the utmost care.
Experiencing the Enclosure
I can’t remember how much bamboo they said the pandas (including the red pandas) go through each day, but it’s a pretty epic amount that is stored in a gigantic refrigerated room. The older pandas have special diets to accommodate their aging digestive systems.
We were given the two young pandas’ breakfasts to lay out in the Ocean Park panda enclosure in a way that would cause them to still forward for it, while many inquisitive onlookers watched from the other side of the glass. After our exit from the enclosure the pandas were released into it and what a treat it was to watch them chow down.
We Even Scooped Poop
The highlight of our day, other than such close proximity to the panda, was when the keepers explained how they track panda health by the way their poop looks. Then they handed my daughter a shovel and broom to scoop for a bit.
To say she was thrilled is totally an understatement. I’m positive this memory is burned into her brain for the rest of her life.
Alone Time with Red Pandas
Somewhere along the line we visited one of the red pandas behind the scenes to learn a little more about them and to take a close-up look. I’m not sure if this is part of the regular programming or whether or not we were able to see them as a little bonus.
How to Book Ocean Park’s Honorary Panda Keeper Program
I filled out a form online and our reservation was confirmed by email at which time they took payment. (Tip: Make sure to notify your credit card company so they expect a charge coming from Hong Kong.) In addition to the reservation, you’ll also need to purchase general admission tickets to Ocean Park, which I was able to secure in advance through the Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong concierge desk.
The cost for the Honorary Panda Keeper Program at the time of this writing is $1380.00 HKD ($1104 for SmartFun annual pass holders). Kids between the ages of 8-15 must be accompanied by a paying adult.
If you have booked this experience, please let us know what you thought!
Photo credits: top – Flickr/scottylosophy, Creative Commons 2.0; red pandas – Flickr/iwantanimac, Creative Commons 2.0; bottom giant panda, Flickr/xiquinho, Creative Commons 2.0