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NC Zoo adds attractions to lure people back

Riders aboard the "Zoofari" bus pass by a herd of Fringe-eared Oryx during their hour-long tour of the the 37-acre Watani Grassland exhibit at the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro, N.C. Thursday. Riders on the open-air vehicle get an exclusive tour for a fee of $20 per person. An experienced zookeeper is the tour guide and discusses facts about the zoo and the nine exhibited species including rhinoceroses, gazelles, greater kudus, ostriches and many exotic antelope.
Riders aboard the "Zoofari" bus pass by a herd of Fringe-eared Oryx during their hour-long tour of the the 37-acre Watani Grassland exhibit at the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro, N.C. Thursday. Riders on the open-air vehicle get an exclusive tour for a fee of $20 per person. An experienced zookeeper is the tour guide and discusses facts about the zoo and the nine exhibited species including rhinoceroses, gazelles, greater kudus, ostriches and many exotic antelope. cliddy@newsobserver.com

The N.C. Zoo hopes visitors will take a fresh look at the park this summer – from a safari-style ride through the Watani Grasslands Reserve, from a treetop adventure near Lemur Island, and through a window into a new ocelot exhibit that almost guarantees a glimpse of the elusive cats.

The three new attractions are designed to give people who think they have seen what the zoo has to offer a reason to come back, and to make a zoo visit a more engaging experience.

“We went into it asking, ‘How do we get people into the space, give them a different view from just walking the pathways?’” said Pat Simmons, who took over as zoo director in September. “This will actually give people a different perspective than they have ever had before.”

The new ocelot exhibit and Zoofari, the safari ride, opened to visitors this month. Air Hike, a ropes course with 23 activities, is scheduled to open Memorial Day.

All three, Simmons said, fit into the park’s goals of promoting conservation, animal welfare and education while providing entertainment for the more than 800,000 people who come through the gates each year.

They also are part of the zoo’s long-term efforts to try to increase attendance to more than a million people a year and make it more of an economic engine for the central part of the state by taking it from a one-day excursion to a two-day destination.

Taxpayers have agreed to invest in the long-range plan by approving a statewide bond package this year that eventually will provide the zoo with $25 million. Much of that money will go to add major exhibits on Asia, Australia and the Amazon.

The three attractions added this month come with a much smaller price tag, $1.4 million total. Air Hike, at $300,000, and the ocelot exhibit, at $850,000, were paid for by the N.C. Zoo Society, the nonprofit fundraising arm of the zoo. Zoofari’s $265,000 cost was paid for with zoo funds.

Though the zoo has long had ocelots, even repeat visitors may never have seen the sleek spotted couple – one male, one female – because the skittish creatures often were able to hide from pubic view in their exhibit. Their new space, more than twice as large as the original, allows the animals to go inside and out. It includes a rock structure and a tree sculpted by the zoo’s design staff on which the ocelots climb and play. It has a den to which the cats can retreat, but that has a thick glass window at just the right height for a first-grader to peer through.

“There’s the tiger! I see him!” a little girl said Thursday before being gently corrected by her father as to the feline species on display. The family stayed long enough to watch the ocelot leave the den, roam the exhibit for a few minutes and head back into her shelter. Satisfied, they headed on to the next exhibit.

Zoo developers have researched nearly every aspect of visitor experience, and they say the average guest will stay just three to five minutes at any one exhibit. Many guests are easily frustrated if an animal is not readily visible when they arrive or after a quick scan of the space, even at a natural habitat zoo such as North Carolina’s where the exhibits themselves are scenic.

By that measure, Zoofari is a leisurely, in-depth visit to Africa – or what looks as much like Africa as Piedmont North Carolina can. For $20 above the price of zoo admission, two tours per day, four days per week, visitors can venture over the fence and into the Watani Grasslands Reserve, populated by some 80 animals, including rhinoceroses, ostriches and several types of antelope.

Before, visitors could look into the 38-acre exhibit, where the animals are free to co-mingle, from several overlooks, and if the animals were congregating on the far side of the enclosure, guests had to drop a quarter into a scope to get a closer look.

Now, they pass through a new gate, board an open-air bus with a canvas roof and proceed slowly onto the rutted dirt road that before could only be used by zoo keepers, veterinarians and maintenance staff.

“They’re already getting used to our being here,” zookeeper Tiffiany Love told her Zoofari passengers on Thursday as they passed a group of Thomson’s gazelles. The first few times the bus ambled through, Love said, the gazelles scattered. This time, they sat on the grass and watched the bus as if the human passengers were on display instead of them.

The 45-minute ride takes advantage of one of the zoo’s great resources; besides its expansive animal and plant collection, the park has a stable of experienced employees envied by other zoos.

Love has worked for several years with the plains animals, long enough to recognize individual antelopes and rhinoceroses by the shape of their horns. She guided the tour with a conversational tone, offering glimpses into the animals’ personalities.

“That bird does not like me,” Love confessed about Pearl, the female ostrich that approached within a few feet of the bus during one of its stops. Ostriches are very curious, Love said, “but their eyeball is bigger than their brain,” she said, and so it’s difficult for Pearl to remember that she has seen the bus before, so she checks it out each time.

“Every day is a new day for an ostrich,” Love said.

On Zoofari, it’s possible to get close enough to see the grain of a gazelle’s fur, the wrinkles in a rhino’s shoulder, the twitch of a neck muscle on a fringe-eared oryx.

Guests who pay the extra $12 it will cost for the Air Hike once it opens on Memorial Day will get a closer look at the zoo’s treetops in an attraction that’s tethered to oaks and other hardwoods on top of what is known on local topo maps as Purgatory Mountain. On this high spot, Morganton-based Beanstalk Builders is installing platforms, ladders and slides that will provide about an hour’s worth of off-the-ground entertainment.

Christian Sanders, 11, of Harrells was at the park Thursday for his third visit. He watches the zoo’s Facebook page faithfully and knows when it adds a new attraction. He enjoyed the Zoofari excursion, he said, but he’s on a mission to persuade the park to add something else. He sent a letter about it recently.

“They need a badger,” he said. “And I don’t care if it’s an American badger or a Honey badger.”

Maybe in a future round of funding.

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin

Details

Where: The North Carolina Zoo, 4401 Zoo Parkway, Asheboro.

Hours: The zoo is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Zoofari makes two excusions – at 11 a.m. and noon – Thursday-Sunday, through Oct. 31. Tickets are sold in Junction Plaza, from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m.

Each trip holds 34 people and takes 45 minutes to an hour.

Cost: $11 for children age 2 to 12, $13 senior citizens, $15 other adults. The Zoofari costs an additional $20 (children 2 and under free on an adult’s lap).

Info: www.nczoo.org or 800-488-0444

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