Riverbanks Zoo and Garden
500 Wildlife Parkway, Columbia. 803-779-8717; www.riverbanks.org.
People, especially kids, love to watch penguin: The cold-weather birds that look dressed in tuxedos and waddle upright on their webbed back feet look surprisingly like humans. Penguins connected with moviegoers in the blockbuster nature film "March of the Penguins" and in two "Happy Feet" movies, where Hollywood stars provided the voices of computer-cartoon penguins acting like we do.
Go see the real thing - gentoo penguins - at Columbia's Riverbanks Zoo.
It's an urban zoo: There are no wide-open spaces between exhibits, a plus when you're traveling with kids or seniors who can get tuckered out, or can't handle iffy winter weather.
The park has seven gentoo penguins, the type featured in "March of the Penguins." Gentoos, with a bright orange bill and a white stripe across the tops of their heads, are the third-largest variety in the world of penguins, weighing as much as 19 pounds each. They're natives of the Antarctic Peninsula and the Falkland Islands off the coast of southern South America. Gentoo families are quite close-knit. In the water, they're extremely agile and fast swimmers.
Penguin feedings at Riverbanks are at 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. daily, inside the birdhouse.
Through Dec. 30, the zoo is also open evenings for "Lights Before Christmas," a separate-admission event with more than 1 million lights, many worked into animated images (including penguins). On those nights, you can buy some hot cocoa and marshmallows that you can roast on a fire.
Zoo/gardens hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. "Lights Before Christmas" hours: 6-9 p.m. daily (closed Dec. 24-25).December daytime hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and New Year's).
Regular admission: $11.75; $9.25 for ages 3-12; 2 and younger, free.
"Lights Before Christmas" admission: $10; $8 for ages 3-12 ($8 and $6 in advance); 2 and younger, free.
Target audience: Families.
Travel time from Charlotte: 90 minutes.
Directions: Interstate 77 South to Exit 18, and follow S.C. 177 West for about a mile; take I-20 West; from one of three left lanes, take I-126 East (Columbia/downtown). Exit at Greystone Boulevard, turn left and follow signs.