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A new program at the Lincoln Park Zoo takes you inside the penguin exhibit.

The best family travel adventures are the ones that enable kids to make the leap from looking to doing.

That’s why my family is aflutter over the new Malott Family Penguin Encounter at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

The hour-long experience gives visitors the chance to go behind the scenes at the zoo’s African penguin exhibit and interact with some of its 15 birds. My penguin-obsessed older daughters, ages eight and six, and I were among the first non­–museum members to check it out when it opened to the general public last week.

At 3 p.m., we met Abi, a guest engagement specialist, outside the Robert and Mayari Pritzker Penguin Cove. She told us how penguins live in the wild, showed us pictures of huge colonies of them in southern Africa on her iPad, then explained what we could expect inside the exhibit. Rule no. 1: Don’t touch the penguins. Rule no. 2: No sudden movements.

We followed Abi through a secret doorway at the back of the exhibit that led to a staging area where the girls and I donned galoshes over our sneakers and strapped on gaiters to hide our shoelaces. “The penguins are super-curious,” Abi warned. “Cover your shoelaces or they’ll peck at them.”

Two trainers emerged from a back room and led us through a Plexiglas gate into a corner of the exhibit that had been designed for guests—the fake rock that stretched around the perimeter of the exhibit had been fashioned into a bench. We could see members of the general public looking in at the exhibit, and they could see us getting comfy for a face-to-face meet-up with our flightless friends.

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Within seconds, two penguins named Phil and Eric waddled toward us, giving us the bird side-eye as they tried to figure out who we were.

Over the 45 minutes that followed, my girls and I chilled with the penguins and their trainers. The birds pecked at our rubber booties. They chased down bubbles that one of the trainers blew. To the fascination of my six-year-old, they pooped—a lot. The trainers told us how the endangered penguins live on land and mate for life, let us smell and touch capelin and some of the other fish the penguins eat, and explained that our session will contribute to a research project about the way the birds interact with humans over time.

Eventually one of the trainers walked Phil and Eric back to their nest boxes. We walked back to the staging area, removed our galoshes and gaiters, and washed our hands. On our way out of the zoo, I bought each of my big girls a stuffed penguin as a souvenir. But I think their memories will stick around longer than the toys will. “We were, like, part of the penguin colony,” my eight-year-old said. “I think they liked us!” Her sister added, “They liked us even though we didn’t poop as much as they do.”

The Penguin Encounter is available from April through October. Tickets cost $60 per person and include professional photos you can take home. Admission to the zoo is free. For more information, visit http://www.lpzoo.org/penguinencounter.

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