I should not have been surprised, but I was.

I pulled into the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo the other day to check out its new exhibit only to find its expansive parking lot full.

Mind you, this was not on a weekend but in the middle of the week.

There’s no question we love our zoos.

The Akron Zoo routinely sets attendance records. And the Cleveland Zoo’s full parking lot shows that it, too, is enjoying busy turnstiles.

All this success is for a good reason.

Our local zoos have stepped up their games in recent years.

Gone are the days of gawking at critters and creatures in steel cages.

The Akron and Cleveland zoos now offer immersive educational experiences.

Thanks to a Disney-like approach, you actually feel like you are visiting the exotic animals in their natural environment.

And the new Asian Highlands exhibit at the Cleveland Zoo, tucked in a back corner just a howl away from the wolf habitat, is no exception.

You are first greeted by Asian music and architecture.

Like other newer exhibits, large windows let you get nose to nose with animals such as the red panda.

It is also home to a newcomer to the zoo, the takin (pronounced tock-in) — described as a Dr. Seuss-looking goat-antelope critter — that is free to roam around a fenced area.

The main attraction has arched gates that lead to a colorful outdoor Asian street market.

But instead of vendors hawking wares, the area is home to animal interpreters quick to answer questions about the Amur and snow leopards who have free rein to walk about on elevated platforms over your head, or explore lushly landscaped areas below that are visible through large panes of glass.

There are also educational video boards and interactive things for guests to do like a traditional prayer wheel where guests can offer up their blessings for animal conservation.

Through the use of creative ramps and architecture, the animals have double the space to explore as opposed to the older zoo enclosures.

And there are some animal-friendly components hidden there, too.

What appear to be small cave-like openings are actually air-conditioned spaces for the leopards to relax in.

To celebrate the new digs, the Cleveland Zoo is hosting an Asian Lantern Festival that will run in the evenings for five weeks starting July 19.

The summer festival will feature some 40 colorful lanterns that will light up the zoo and also boast live performances along with chances to visit the zoo’s collection in the evening.

The Cleveland Zoo hasn’t tipped its hat as to what is next up as it continues to revamp its exhibits, but the Akron Zoo has big plans in the works to improve the animal enclosures around its carousel.

The zoos might want to consider bigger parking lots and perhaps a monorail to the far reaches as they attract Disney-like crowds.

The Cleveland Zoo is at 3900 Wildlife Way. Admission is $14.95 for adults, and $10.95 for kids ages 2 to 11. For more, visit clevelandmetroparks.com/zoo.

The Akron Zoo is at 500 Edgewood Ave. Admission is $12 for adults; $10 for senior citizens; $9 for children ages 2-14. Children under 2 are free and parking is $3. For more, visit www.akronzoo.org or call 330-375-2550.

Craig Webb can be reached at 330-996-3547 or cwebb@thebeaconjournal.com