Travel Story Family friendly Singapore: Little kids in the big city

Photo of Angie Tomlinson

There's plenty to keep all members of the family entertained in Singapore. 

“There. Right there,” I say to my six-year- old. We have only walked a few steps through the entry of Singapore Zoo and already it is showing us what makes it one of the world’s best. 

Four cotton-top tamarins sit atop a gate, free-range.

Removing barriers where possible, or making them barely visible, gives the open-concept zoo that tantalising up-close interaction between animal and visitor. Close to the wild, without actually being in the wild. 

We are making our way to a 9am appointment at Ah Meng Restaurant, past the flocks of flamingos and pungent otters. Our appointment is of the orange and furry kind — breakfast with five of the zoo’s resident orang-utans.

We’re going under the pretence that it’s for my freshly turned four-year-old’s birthday but, really, I also want to have breakfast with the orang-utans. And that’s the thing about Singapore: its sites and attractions appeal to all members of the family.

After the 9am buffet (the real feeding frenzy at the zoo), the orang-utans make their 9.30am entrance. They swing across the rope “treeway”, waiting for the trunk drawbridge to be lowered.

 As it is, one grabs hold, sliding down. The others are more patient, securing it in place before making their way to their own seed and sugarcane breakfast, metres from the human guests.

Visitors can have their photo taken with the orang-utans and simply watch their antics. A 30-odd-year-old mother cradles her baby just like her human relatives.

The orang-utan breakfast is one of many shows and feeding times, including the Splash Safari Show by the super-sized California sea lion. He is, well, a performing seal, complete with clapping, barking, catching and splashing. The kids love it.

Each of the zoo’s 11 zones are connected by guided trams. They may rest weary feet, but you miss out on seeing many of the animals such as Inuka, the first polar bear to be born in the tropics. His disconcerting green tinge is apparently harmless algae. Inuka is one of the 2800-plus animals from 300 species that call the 26ha wildlife park home.

While the Singapore Zoo is for me still the best, Wildlife Reserves Singapore has over the years extended its offerings with the neighbouring River Safari and popular Night Safari.

The first of its kind when opened in 1994, Night Safari offers kids the thrill of being out at night and the scary buzz of seeing wild animals under the cover of darkness. The queue starts early and while waiting in line being prodded along does give the feeling of herded livestock rather than wild animals, once the guided tram departs queues are soon forgotten.

The tour takes visitors through a mix of enclosed and free-range sections based around six geographical zones, from the Himalayan Foothills to the Asian Riverine Forest.

Nocturnal animals, or those simply tucking into dinner, are surprisingly active. Asiatic lions prowl, black bears watch us pass, axis deer cross the track and my favourite, the striking black-and-white Malayan tapir, roams freely.

While it may be tempting to try to jam all three parks into a single day, the Singaporean humidity and the walking will be too much for little legs. 

We visited the zoo one day, and then returned another day in the late afternoon for the River Safari, followed by the Night Safari. 

River Safari is just three years old, and bases itself on the world’s iconic rivers, with more than 6000 aquatic and land animals. The Upper Seletar Reservoir, surrounded by forest, provides a spectacular backdrop for the aquariums and habitats based on the Mississippi, Congo, Nile, Ganges, Mekong and Yangtze.

With just glass between you and the aquatic delights it’s easy to make direct eye contact with a passing African dwarf crocodile or an alligator gar. 

In their climate-controlled bio dome, giant pandas Kai Kai and Jia Jia are doing what they do best — eating. We wait expectantly while Jia Jia stares into space for 20 seconds before rolling on to her back to resume her bamboo-leaf feast.

Although the cruise on the reservoir bores the children, the Amazon River Quest delights our six-year-old (to her disgust, the four-year-old does not meet the height restriction). The river quest passes a giant anteater, Brazilian tapir and jaguar, mixing in the thrill of some very tame whitewater rafting.

Rounding out the WRS offering is the Jurong Bird Park, on the opposite side of the city, another 30-minute taxi ride from the city centre. WRS is in the middle of building a new home for the bird park alongside its other offerings at Mandai, set to open by 2020.

With 5000 birds and 400 species, the Jurong Bird Park isn’t as slick as its successors but the kids still enjoyed the Kings of Skies show with marauding vultures, low-flying kites and an impressive American bald eagle.

With many of the city’s animal encounters ticked off, we turned the kids’ attention to the plant kind. 

The Singapore Botanic Gardens are rightfully a national treasure. Founded in 1859, the 82ha gardens are a UNESCO World Heritage site, a mixture of grass, lakes and the lush tropical greenness Singapore excels at.

The kids play hide and seek behind the behemoth trees and feed the seething slithery mess of catfish in Swan Lake. There is a vending machine for fish food at the Tanglin Gate entrance.

While the National Orchid Garden doesn’t sound like a kids’ paradise, the range and vivid colours of the orchids, green arches and hanging bromeliads enthralled them.

For high-tech nature, futuristic trees up to 50m tall in Supertree Grove at Gardens by the Bay have become a symbol of the city, representing modernistic technology and the country’s commitment to the natural elements. Twice nightly, the trees come alive with a free music and light show. We catch the end of the Garden Waltz Edition as it builds to crescendo.

Gardens by the Bay has plenty for families. That same day we dodge the rain by taking the $3 shuttle across to the Cloud Forest, an 8000sqm climate-controlled glass dome enclosing a 35m-tall mountain covered in vegetation and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall. The kids are delighted by the waterfall and love navigating the elevated walkways.

A family holiday to Singapore wouldn’t be complete without at least one day at Sentosa Island. With big-name attractions such as Universal Studios, S.E.A. Aquarium, and Adventure Cove Waterpark beckoning, we instead opt for the Skyline Luge. Chairlifts give us a bird’s-eye view over the island before we race toboggans down the dragon and jungle trails with the kids tucked in front, making short work of the tight corners.

I recommend staying centrally on the Singapore mainland and using the walkway, monorail or cable car to visit Sentosa for a day or two.

Singapore is a great option for Australian families. It’s clean, safe and easy to get around, with plenty to keep everyone busy and happy.

Singapore with young children

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