In 1923, the Central Florida Zoo (then called the Sanford Municipal Zoo) opened its gates for the first time with only a small collection of animals that were donated by the local fire department. In 1941, it was relocated to new facilities where Sanford City Hall now stands. It was moved to its current location on July 4, 1975.
On March 4, 2010, Mary the elephant died at age 63, leaving Maude as the lone elephant in Elephant Encounters. On February 21, 2011, Maude was moved to Zoo Miami. Once Maude had been moved to Miami, the zoo converted the elephant exhibit to house an Indian rhinoceros. With support from the FAIRWINDS Credit Union, the zoo will open its Rhinoceros Outpost exhibit in the near future. The zoo opened its otter exhibit in September 2012.
In February 2014, the zoo added a new giraffe exhibit which is now the home to three male giraffes, Rafiki, Emba, and Gage.
The zoo is now home to over 400 animals, visitors can take advantage of educational opportunities including keeper chats and animal encounters.
Mammals at the zoo include leopard, black-handed spider monkey, brown lemur, cheetah, clouded leopard, goat, Hoffmann's two-toed sloth, llama, alpaca, dromedary camel, lesser spot-nosed guenon, river otter, puma, red ruffed lemur, South African crested porcupine, warthog, Indian rhino, giraffe, and the newest fossa.
Birds at the zoo include African red-billed hornbill, bald eagle, black-throated magpie-jay, blue-bellied roller, green-winged macaw, guira cuckoo, king vulture, kookaburra, Palawan peacock-pheasant, Panama yellow-crowned amazon, silvery-cheeked hornbill, spotted thick-knee, tawny frogmouth, wreathed hornbill, violaceous turaco.
Reptiles at the zoo include Aldabra giant tortoise, Amazonian palm viper, American alligator, American crocodile, Aruba Island rattlesnake, black-breasted leaf turtle, black caiman, dusky pygmy rattlesnake, eastern green mamba, eastern coral snake, eastern diamondback rattlesnake, eastern hognose, Egyptian cobra, eyelash viper, Florida cottonmouth, Florida pine snake, Gila monster, Grand Cayman Island rock iguana, green tree python, jungle carpet python, king cobra, lance-headed rattlesnake, long-nosed viper, Madagascar tree boa, Neuwied's lancehead snake, New Caledonian giant gecko, New Guinea crocodile monitor, prehensile-tailed skink, red rat snake, red spitting cobra, scarlet kingsnake, southern copperhead, tiger viper, timber rattlesnake, and West African mamba.
Within the zoo, a small carousel can be found, as well as the Little Florida Coast Line, a 16 in (406 mm) gauge ridable miniature railway with a G-16 streamliner locomotive that was originally built in 1951. The Zoo also has a splash park within the Zoo. Giraffe feedings and rhino encounters are available for an extra cost.
The zoo hosts several annual events, including ZOO Boo Bash, Breakfast with Santa, and Hippity Hop Adventure. Brews Around the Zoo, a 21 & up only event occurs yearly in the spring. The zoo also hosts a birthday party every summer for their two Indian rhinos, Birthday with the Big Boys.
The Central Florida Zoo has teamed up with The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWC/FWRI) and the Florida Museum of Natural History to monitor the state's 68 species of amphibians and help save the 16 species considered to be at greatest risk due to habitat loss, invasive species, climate change, and new wildlife diseases. The zoo also participates in 14 AZA Species Survival Plans (SSP), including those for the cheetah, ruffed lemur, Aruba Island rattlesnake, guenon, spider monkey, cotton-top tamarin, rock iguana, and clouded leopard.
The zoo also operates an offsite conservation center, the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation. This facility helps to breed and release eastern indigo snakes into the wild where they have disappeared.