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Best Cheap Thrill

Reid Park Zoo
Country Club and 22nd Street

READERS' PICK: Reid Park Zoo is exemplary for its big heart and small size. The zoo staff is constantly looking to upgrade the habitats and make them correspond as closely as possible to the animals' natural environments. (In the zoo's earlier days, tigers and bears were housed in tiny cages with concrete floors; a trip to the zoo meant sadness instead of discovery for many children.) Reid Park Zoo's smallness is perfect for children: large enough to keep them interested, yet intimate enough not to overwhelm. Educational programs are offered daily. An informal and extremely unscientific survey among a random group of kids over a period of several years reveals six zoo hotbeds of preteen interest: the snack bar; the monkeys; the giant tortoises; the obsessive polar bear; the thousands of fish in the water-wheel pond; and, of course, the gift shop, where you can get some cool animal toys pretty cheap.

READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 2021 N. Kinney Road.

STAFF PICK: Valley Of The Moon, 2544 E. Allen Road

HIDDEN AWAY ON the north side of town, just off the banks of the Rillito River, is Tucson's own fantasyland, a twisting maze of tunnels and bridges that creates the Valley of the Moon. Home to magicians, trolls, fairies, goblins and other fanciful folk at various times of the year, the Valley of the Moon is a magical hideaway that delights the imagination of children and grown-ups alike.

This tiny spot, an island of enchantment surrounded by the stucco homes that have sprung up around it, first belonged to George Phar Legler, who began creating the Valley of the Moon back in the 1920s. Legler began digging caves and hauling rocks up from the riverbed to build hills and castles in what was then the middle of nowhere. Over the decades that followed, Legler began having magic shows for children, including the internationally known Bunnyland Theatre, which featured tricks by the rabbits Legler raised during World War II.

"This Bunnyland Theatre thing was really trippy," says Shari Murphy, a member of the George Phar Legler Society. "He had all these rabbits and he sort of discovered that some of them were smarter than others. He didn't really teach them tricks, he just observed them and set up situations that would make them do things naturally that would look like tricks."

Sadly, during the 1960s, Legler became disenchanted when the Valley of the Moon came under assault from vandals; he shut his doors and began living as a hermit. In 1972, a group of kids from Catalina High School, who remembered visiting the Valley of the Moon as small children, went out to the property and found Legler living on vitamins and condensed milk. They convinced him to re-open the wonderland and, with their help, the Valley of the Moon was restored for new shows.

Legler died at age 98 in the early 1980s, but his spirit lives on at the Valley of the Moon, which now belongs to the George Phar Legler Society, a group that oversees tours throughout the year. The biggest show of the year, a Halloween extravaganza, is coming up in just a few weeks. Find a few children to take along and rediscover for yourself the magic.

The Valley of the Moon will be open for its annual Halloween show, "Dead Moon Rising," on October 12-15, 19-22 and 26-30. Admission $5 for adults and $3 for kids 7 to 12, with free admission for kids 6 and under. Tours leave the gates every 30 minutes between 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. For more information call 323-1331.
--Jim Nintzel

CAT'S MEOW: If you've got kids and you don't save your outgoing mail for the drive-up U.S. Postal Service box, you're really cheating those future letter carriers out of a whole bunch of fun. For the uninitiated: After dinner, casually announce you're going to the post office and you wonder if anyone wants to go and mail letters. When the dust from the stampede has settled, load them in the car and head to the nearest drive-up box. On the way tell them a scary story about the creature who lives in the box who needs to be fed at least three times a day, or how the hand that comes up and grabs the letters is especially fond of children named Jimmy or Deena or Harry. The real fun starts when they start screaming they want to "feed" the box as soon as you get there. Give a few stamped bills to each one and let them send 'em through. If your postal pips love it, let them have a go at the stamp machine next time out.

Case History

1998 Winner: The Municipal Pools
1997 Winner: Reid Park Zoo
1996 Winner: Reid Park

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