Trip Report: Cincinnati Zoo

Cincinnati, OH

April 30, 2010

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“More Animals. More Fun! sure makes more sense than More Flags, More Fun! as a slogan”

It’s almost amusement park season here in Ohio, but not quite, so to fill in the weekend I decided to visit the Cincinnati Zoo, which is a type of amusement park, albeit one that features animals instead of rides and games. Not only that but it looked like it would be a sunny day in the 70’s, a nice change from the cold winter months we just finished up.

When I was growing up, our family had a zoo membership and we were frequent visitors, but over time, we stopped going. In fact, the last time I had gone to the zoo during the summer season was 2004. So, you may be asking yourself why I got interested in a trip to the zoo, other than the promise of nice weather. Well, I went with the family to the Festival of Lights, which is a very nice event, but is really all about seeing lights and having a warm fuzzy holiday feeling, and yes they have some animal exhibits open but that’s really not the focus. However, while walking around the Festival of Lights, I saw that there have been a few changes since my last visit, which piqued my curiosity.

This report may sound like a walk down my memory lane, and I may spice this report up with some zoo history as I understand it. The first part of any amusement park or zoo visit is the parking lot and main gate. It just so happens that the Zoo recently totally redesigned the parking and gate. I know when most parks redo a front gate, its mainly a cosmetic change, along with updating of front gate amenities, but in this case it’s a major change.

The big change is that at one point when the zoo needed to start furnishing parking, they built parking lots along the perimeter of the zoo, and decided to put the perimeter fence outside the parking lot so you paid the parking and admission fees all at once as you went through the toll booth. Now, since the zoo is landlocked in an urban area, and they want to expand the zoo, the only place to expand is into the parking lots. To this end the zoo just completed construction of a huge off site parking facility. They decided to go for a nostalgic feel by reinforcing the fact the main gate is moving back near where it was when the zoo first opened. This gate never closed entirely but became known as the pedestrian gate, and was only open on busy days.

So, welcome to “Historic Vine Street Village” as the new entry way has been named, All persons must enter via the Vine Street parking lot, no matter if they walked to the zoo, took a bus, or parking in one of the other off site lots. The only exception to this is they sometimes open the remaining few on site parking lots on peak days and for those attending one of the zoo’s educational programs.

In the interest of safety, since the main parking lot is on the other side of Vine Street, a rather major street, they have built an entry building in the parking lot that leads to a nice bridge over the street. When you approach the entry building there is a sculpture of a rhino, one of the zoo’s signature animals, as well as the zoo’s flagpoles. The parking lot itself has been the subject of some ridicule in that when they first opened it they quickly realized that with only two toll lanes and a short driveway, causing traffic to back up for miles. The zoo quickly changed to a pay-as-you-leave model for parking, which means you still wait in a long line to pay the toll, but now you wait inside the parking lot. As my uncle said at Festival of Lights, “This means you leave the park 15-20 minutes before closing”

Okay, so now you have parked your car, you make your way up to the convenient entry building based in the center of the lot so all the parking aisles radiate from it. You pass, and probably take photos with the rhino statue and head into the building. The building is made so that the main walkways funnel you right to the escalators that lead up to the bridge. That’s all well and good, except for those families with strollers, wagons, wheelchairs or bulky items. They are accommodated through a doorway to the side which leads to two elevators. As I approached the entry, there was a medium length but steadily moving line towards the escalators, and over to the side a much longer line that only moves occasionally for the elevators.

Now, I am trying to live a healthier life, so I avoided the line for the escalators, and sheepishly excused my way past the long line for the elevators for a stairwell that wraps around the elevator shaft. What I noticed is all those people waiting for the various labor saving means of getting up to the bridge, and I had a nice wide stairway all to myself. It’s very much legal line jumping as I merged right back into the crowd crossing the bridge at the top of the stairs way ahead of where I would have been any other way. Remember, I climbed the Carew Tower in about 15 minutes, I could knock out one flight of stairs to the bridge in no time.

As I got to the other side of the bridge, I followed the signs for those already holding tickets to the main gate. When you approach the gate the ticketing plaza is off to the right, and they have gone with a lot of self service kiosks to try to make the process as fast as possible. The office is straight ahead, and the main gate is off to the left. I was worried when I saw a line up of people from the turnstile all the way to the ticket window. I started to grunt and get in line with the lemmings until I looked at the main gate and there were 4 turnstiles with far shorter lines. What was ironic about this, was the longest line was labeled “Members Express Entrance” Here we encounter yet another issue with the new main gate. There are 4 gates in the main gate area. The one to the far left is the exit, the middle two each have two entrance turnstiles, and the far right has one turnstile for members and a barrier free lane for wheelchairs, strollers and wagons. Remember all those people with wheeled items that were waiting in the slow moving elevator line, well now they are in that one barrier free lane to enter the park. And to think back when parking was on site, you would drive into the parking lot, get out the wheelchair or stroller, and walk into the park without any delay.

So I get to the turnstile, hold the barcode of my print at home ticket under the self service turnstile scanner and push through the turnstile into the park. I also observed numerous families who were hefting the strollers and wagons over the turnstile. And for those reading, yes this is page three of this trip report and I am just now pushing through the front gate turnstile. Yes, this is one of my diarrea of the keyboard trip reports.

The Victorian themed front gate area extends into the park, They followed the natural traffic flow ideas by having the stroller rental and services to the right hand side on the way in, and in contrast the brand new giant gift shop is on the right as you exit the park. It’s a classic way to take advantage of American’s natural tendency to keep right. Disney and Kings Island and several other parks have used this same idea. When you go into Kings Island, note the convenience corner, bakery and Starbucks are on the right on the way in, the Emporium and other big gift shops are on the right on the way out. Disney is an anomaly now since so many official and unofficial park hint guides have pointed out to keep left to avoid lines that now crowds at Disney tend to keep left.

So, the first thing I noticed in the plaza is a long line of little kids waiting for one of the Easter activities, such as egg hunts and treat tables spread throughout the zoo. Ignoring the throngs of people headed straight on the main path, I ducked into a smaller path located between the new main gift shop and a little hut that has served as a snack bar as long as I can remember. Well, now I think we can just call it a bar, I mean when it is named the Watering Hole and its claim to fame is the draft beer selection. Not that there is anything wrong with that, in fact I think its kind of refreshing that adults can have the privilege of walking around the zoo seeing the animals while enjoying a beer. The stand also has the traditional sausage sandwiches so the zoo is staying true to its German roots.

Anyway, if the path had a sign, I must have missed it because it looks like a service path, but is actually a U shaped walkway down to Wildlife Canyon. When the Vine Street entrance was at street level, this was a Y shape pathway with a branch leading down to the original gate and the street. A clue as to the age of the Wildlife Canyon addition can be had when you gaze at the retaining wall on the way down, engraved in the wall is a marking that it was built in the 1940’s as part of a WPA project. On the other side of the path is a row of animal exhibits. These were built in what was then the new “bar-less” design where they resemble outdoor grottos with the walls around the exhibit looking like rock formations and the animal pen is lower than the public walkway so you get a pretty nice view of the animal without fences or bars in the way. First up is one of the zoo’ signature exhibits, the Sumatran Rhino. In this area fabric sun screens have been built over the enclosure to protect the rhino from the sun. From what I understand this is a very rare animal for American zoos to have, which may be why it’s the only animal in the Wildlife Canyon to get its name on the park map. A row of other exhibits in the area include camels, gazelles and more, with the path dead ending into a emu exhibit (“If I had a $1,000,000 starts rolling around in my head for some reason) Opposite the Wildlife Canyon you can see into a huge bird flight cage, and on this side of it the signs indicate there is a condor to be seen, and luckily for me the condor was at rest on a branch quite near the sign. From what I recently discovered from old zoo maps, this path used to extend beyond where the emu is currently blocking it, but fortunately there is no need to turn around as there is a stairway from here up to the main path.

Coming out of the stairs, I look on the other side of the flight cage, known as the Eagle Eyrie. There is a wooden carved eagle outside a little hut like building, and you are invited to enter the hut whereupon you are actually entering the flight cage. The hut has some interactive exhibits in it and a balcony from which to observe the eagle. Here progress is impeded by roll down grate blocking the balcony. A sign indicated the eagle is nursing and to please be quiet. Speaking of signage, I noticed a campaign is underway to standardize the interpretive signage for each animal exhibit. That way, once completed, the same type information is available about every animal in the same place on every sign.

Leaving the Eagle Eyrie, I found myself in what I refer to as a “Florida Theme Park” storm, this is when the winds and rain pick up from out of nowhere, wreck havoc for about 15 minutes, then go away. I overheard a staff member say “This will really clear the place out” and indeed I could see families who did not think ahead making a fast parade towards the exit. I deiced instead to make a fast dash towards the Reptile House.

The Reptile house is historically significant in that it dates back to 1875, making it the only original building left on the site. From the outside its an octagonal building with a bump out on one side. On the inside it’s a rotunda with domed ceiling and two vestibules on opposite sides. History indicates this was the monkey house until a big expansion project in the 1950’s rearranged a lot of the exhibits. The line was just backed up into the vestibule, so not a bad wait at all. Owing to that human behaviors thing again, I notice that without guidance, people tour the exhibits along the outside wall of the rotunda in a counter clockwise fashion, in other words keeping right. Here the outer walls have a bunch on enclosures with glass on one side, and walls painted up, and area decorated to either recreate the natural habitat, or for some other thematic purpose. Here is where you can see the snakes, including the King Cobra (I recall they made a big deal of this when Kings Island opened King Cobra, but I forgot to check and see if they had a Diamonback. They do have a python and a rattler, both well known in their coaster incarnations. The area also has turtles, frogs, lizards, geckos and more The centerpiece is an alligator pool.

Leaving the reptile house, the rain had subsided, and you could see the people who had just enough time to buy those rain ponchos. Heading further back I passed Monkey Island, where snow monkeys sit atop a big rock formation surrounded by a moat, hence Monkey Island Old photos show this as a big bird cage area, for those keeping score. At Monkey Island a couple volunteers were trying to decide if it was clear to set up their candy distribution station again, Across from Monkey Island is a station for the parks in-park transportation system, the Safari Shuttle. For those who can’t or don’t want to handle the large amount of walking the zoo requires, for $2 they can get a wristband entitling them to on and off privileges on the Safari Shuttle, with stops conveniently located around the zoo by key exhibits. Further signs at this stop indicate the shuttle service would not be running today. Just past that are two snack carts (closed) and some soft drink machines. ($3 for those keeping score) There is a seldom used path tucked behind the vending area that is great for cutting across the zoo as it takes you right to what was the African Veldt section and towards the Red Panda in a path that takes you to to the other side of the zoo. If you look at the general layout of our zoo a a Duell loop layout, which it essentially is, this is your cut across path.

Ignoring that I head to the next exhibit, the Cat House. Alongside the outer wall are cages with small cats like lynx and bobcats, on the other side of the path forming a barrier from a drop off are rock formations, and I can remember playing on those same rock formations when I was young, The Cat House also has the first restrooms if you missed the ones at the main gate, beyond here it seems like you pass a restroom building every five feet, It is worth noting they have signage in the restroom buildings giving interesting trivia about how animal waste is used in the world. Yes, kind of making the restroom buildings an exhibit, kind of like how when I visited a science museum, they had signs in the elevators explaining how elevators worked.

The cat house is from that big 1950’s expansion project, and when I was young it was your classic stereotypical example of a zoo exhibit building: a row of cinder block cages fronted by steel bars. The focal point of the building was a rotunda which had at either side entrances to a loop walkway that went around the perimieter of the building while the animal exhibits were along the inner wall. I also recall in the summertime the odors in this building made it to be not such a pleasant place to be. The rotunda used to have a big flower arrangement in the center with a sign to “Please pardon our perfume: Also the main entrance used to be through several roll up doors on the main walkway side of the building, with a back door along the path by the restrooms and outdoor cages. Now the former back door is the only entrance and they have gone from a free exploration model to a fixed tour path model. Once in the building which since the 1983 renovation has had carpet laid, the cinderblock walls covered over with drywall in earth tones, and the steel bars replaced with thick windows that also help to dampen the smell. The exhibits have the same treatment as the reptile house with the painted walls and decorations in the exhibit to simulate a natural habitat. They even kept the floral arrangement in the center of the rotunda. So now you enter and head right for the rotunda where the exit on the other side is now a service door, so you circle around the rotunda looking at small cats, then you head into the long loop path where you encounter some bigger cats. The outer wall houses the interactive exhibits, mostly to keep the little ones entertained, Theybig tenants here are leopards, ocelots and the like. At the other end of the loop path, an exit only door leads you to the main walkway.

It also just happens to put you right next to Gorilla World, home of their famous western lowland gorilla exhibit. There is a big gorilla statue marking the entrance and you down and through a gate as if you are entering their world, You cross a bridge by a waterfall and then come along a BIG enclosure of the bar-less type employed by Wildlife Canyon, rock formations all around, with pools of water in the exhibit and other plant life. In the middle of the spectator area there is even two tiered walkways to allow more people to view the gorillas. Now, though it looks like the upper tier has become the interactive exhibit area. Its also the platform for the zookeeper when he gives his “Meet the Keeper” talk. You see, similar to how theme parks have show schedules, the zoo has “Meet the Keepers” as they have mostly done away with animal shows. Instead they hand you a meet the keeper schedule and you can go to those exhibits at the appointed time and a zoo keeper will stand by the exhibit and give a shot presentation on the featured animal and might even take questions. In a weird tie in, the Gorilla World is also sponsoring a used cell phone recycling project, and there is a bin in Gorilla World to recycle used cell phones

Leaving Gorilla World, the next exhibit is the Passenger Pigeon Memorial. It’s one of those off the beaten path exhibits that most people race right by without even looking at. It had become somewhat of a joke in our family as the pigeons name was Martha, and my grandmother’s name was Martha, so whenever we’d go to the oo, we’d say we saw Martha. Out on the main path is a sculpture of Martha the passenger pigeon, the back a short walkway is a small Asian themed building. Inside the small building there are a few displays, one is about passenger pigeons, another about Martha’s story (the last passenger pigeon on earth, which was promised to the Smithsonian and was returned to the Cincinnati Zoo in 1974), a bigger exhibit on animal conversation, extinction, and endangered spieces fills most of the building. The stuffed passenger pigeon sits in a centerpiece exhibit. Then the building itself is an exhibit, it along with the Reptile House and the Elephant House are all on the Historic buildings register. In this case the passenger pigeon memorial building is the last surviving example of what used to be a row of bird aviary buildings at the zoo,

Around the corner is a building called “World of the Insect” I know some people that get so weirded out at the thought of being in the same room as insects their reaction is “I’ll just chill on this park bench while you go through there” This building was on the forward edge when they were moving to exhibits that have an interactive component. From the scale up front that give you your weight in insects, to the science lab type thing at the end. In the middle there is some renovation going on. However, I like the ant exhibit where there are two or three of these exhibits connected with long plastic tubes so the ants can move from one area to the other. I quipped that they are seeing the exhibit along with you as the tubing goes right past a couple of the other exhibit areas. Another feature item is the butterfly room. You go into a room and walk down a narrow path in the same room as the butterflies. As you leave the butterfly room there are some sternly worded signs warning you about the laws you would be breaking if you attempt to remove a butterfly from the room on purpose.

Next door to that is the Nocturnal House, its not obvious anymore since its been mostly hidden by a special exhibits building they put right in front of it, then they put an outdoor lemur exhibit in front of that. You can tell there is nothing in the special exhibits building right now because they used the time honored theme park technique of making the building disappear on the park map. So I use a real tiny walkway from the World of Insects to the Nocturnal House, walked in the oversize front door. You enter through a building that looks like a barn inside complete with barn owls and past the barn owls exhibit is the start of a cave themed hallway. Very obscure purple lighting inside so its real dark. Remember the idea is these are animals that are most active at night, so during the day they make this exhibit area look like a darkened cave. Sure they have aardvarks and bearcats in here, (yes UC fans, if you are looking for the bearcat, you won’t find it in the Cat House, its over in the Nocturnal house) This is another “I’ll wait for you outside” type exhibit areas as they have a bunch of bats in the area complete with vampire bats whose exhibit features a bowl full of blood.

Leaving the Nocturnal House, I past the empty special exhibits area that features a sign indicating a komodo dragon coming coon, then I looked though Lemur Lookout but failed to se a lemur. Leaving the area I came to an amphitheatre that features bird shows in the peak season, and puppet shows during Festival of Lights but otherwise sits mostly unused. Just beyond that is an area that must be the halftime rest spot. This is the area with the picnic grove and lots of food places. In other words, this is about where they figure you will want lunch. Recently, the zoo added a carousel in the center of the picnic grove. ($2 a ride) and it had a queue overflowing out into the picnic groves. Next to the carousel is a pathway that goes back to the area that used to be Playland when the zoo ha a full amusement park section. Now the area is a special events area, and the dark ride building has been converted into a safari lodge type special events building. Beyond that is the animal research, conservation, and animal hospital arms of the zoo.

After a quick walk through this area I came to what was once the Ape house and latey the animal nursery. Again it was one of those stereotypical buildings with the cinder block walls and steel bar cages. Now the original entrance shave been walled up and what was the side is now the front of the building. Inside the building has been converted into a 4D movie theatre, gift shop, atm and restroom building. I walked into to check out the movie theatre, and they have both films that appear to have a bit of animal educational content as well as some that are purely entertainment. I almost turned around when I saw one ofbthe movies was Funhouse Express, but the other was some African jungles themed show. I got in line to buy the movie ticket ($5) and after standing for a bit in a line that didn’t move one inch I bailed on that with the notion of coming back later. Well you know what they say about “be backs”, they hardly ever are. During Festival of Lights they show Polar Express in here.

The zoo is dinged in reviews for all the hidden charges and extra cost activities and as such have moved forth with what they call the “Ultimate Adventure” ticket, which runs about $11 above general admission but includes a wristband good for rides on the safari shuttle, carousel and train ride along with a voucher for one free 4D movie. What I noticed in the line is that most of the people had these vouchers were waiting in line to exchange for a real timed entry ticket. It should be noted the ride wristband itself is $8. So in effect the add on is the member pricing on everything ($7 ride pass and $4 movies for members) If you aren’t going to invest the time to wait in line to get a movie ticket, then spend the time to watch the movie the deluxe ticket option makes no sense for you, and today with the safari shuttle not operating you would have to take multiple train and carousel rides to get even on it. It’s an option, but to me not a very attractive option. So I’ll stick with just the general admission ticket I bought. Passing this area, its back to animal exhibits.

The next building on my tour is what was the Aquarium when I was growing up. It was a straight forward affair with a one way through path. You started with smaller fish in the front room and worked your way up to sharks by the time you got to the very back room. Also of interest was the tide pool which went through an entire day in a matter of minutes. Sometime in the 1990’s the building changed to Manatee Springs. About the same time, Newport on the Levee opened up with the Newport Aquarium as its first tenant. At about that time the zoo decided to get out of the full scale aquarium business and let the Newport attraction take care of that while they focused on just Manatees, which are highly restricted, so only a small number of zoos are allowed to show them. It’s still a one way path, but first you pass through a hot and humid room that shows off alligators and crocodiles, then you go into the air conditioned area. There are a few small fish areas up front, but to be brutally honest the only attraction that gets any attention is the manatees visible through two gigantic picture windows and a bubble window. It just so happened that the week of my visit the zoo received a new manatee or two, making this exhibit quite popular. After the manatees you go through an interactive exhibit room before exiting to the outside.

At that time I crossed over the main pathway into what I remember as the African Veldt which is now apparently called the Rhino Reserve. It’s a circle path around a number of anumal grottos. The guide says I can see Rhinos (Indian and black), bongos, zebras, okapi and flamingos, but I noted that most of the animals were “training their keepers” at least that’s what their signs said. Who knew flamingos made noise, though. Also in that area I went down the little side path into “Tiger Canyon” an area I remember as Big Cat Canyon. At least its residents were there, and I could see two kinds of tigers and cheetah. I exited the area just as a keeper was doing a “Meet the keeper” presentation on the rhino. I stopped to listed to it before continuing on.

I next went to see the lion exhibit, and I could swear the lions and tigers have changed places. The lion exhibit consists of a wooden walkway that runs above and along the perimeter of the lion area. One of the lions was walking through the grass land, the other was in full Lion King mode on a wooden platform posing all “Yeah, I’m the lion king, now take pictures”

A quick walk past another food area leas to the Lord of The Arctic. Here the zoo makes use of the topography of the land. From one side you look underwater in the polar bear exhibit through giant windows, walk around to the other side and you are up over the polar bear exhibit and can see the land area and the top of the pool. I also spotted the bald eagle in his cage right next to the polar bear.

Across from the Polar Bear is a 1990’s era expansion that is really neat. It’s called Jungle Trails and is meant to simulate a hike through the jungles, so much so that the path is cleverly made to look like a dirt trail and not a paved path. It was still too cold for many of these animals, according to the signs, but the orangautans were quite active, as were the bonobos. As you hike through the jungle you come to two builings where you see indoor animals, the first is the asian building, where you too can see a gibbon, and the second, larger building is the African building. During Festival of Lights, and maybe in the winter they cut this exhibit down to being only the African building by having you enter via the exhibit exit.

Finishing up Jungle Trails, its time for the dreaded walk up Bear Hill, which is an extremely steep hillside up by the bear grottos. Most wise zoo visitors plan to walk down this hill, or use the safari shuttle to ride up. But, there are three kinds of bears to be seen: Polar, spectacled and black.

Now I’ve gotten to the back of the zoo, I’ve walked across the back of the zoo, and now I’m starting my way back to the front. What is odd is that I am nearing the area that was the front of the zoo for many years. Next up is the Wings of the World building, yes, it’s the Bird House. History says the bird house was built in the 30’s as the Reptile House and became the Bird House during the 50’s expansion. It used to be just a hallway with glass cases built into the wall along both sides with doors near each end. A kiosk with interactive exhibits was later added in the center of the hall. Speaking on interactive exhibits, the Zoo Key program I grew up with is all but gone. I can remember every kid pestering their parents to buy them their own “Key to the Zoo” at the gift shop. Once you had that key you could insert it into machines all around the zoo to unlock secret recordings which explained the animals in a kid friendly fashion. Some cool things about the bird house were the penguins on one end, and the big bird exhibit on the other where birds could fly into an outdoor section as well.

This building must have been redesigned by the same people that did the aquarium as it has a similar look and fell. Now its strictly a one way only maze with two walk in bird aviarys, some more traditional bird exhibits, but still use penguins as the calling card exhibit at the very end.

After leaving Wings of he World, the bird theme continues next door. For as long as I can remember the Walk Through Flight Cage was next to the Bird House, and still is, in a different form. It’s now Lorikeet Landing, and as I approached it I noted a stand selling bird feed. This is unusual as I had though animal feeding, like camel and elephant rides, was a thing of the past. I, for one, am glad I got those elephant and camel rides in while I got a chance.

Getting closer to the exhibit, I noted the old entrance doors have been locked and blocked with benches, and the old exit is now the one and only door into the flight cage. What’s more is they have an attendant monitoring the door. They did reconfigure the walkway so that it forms a loop instead of just one path from one door to the other. I did note some guests who were sorely disappointed trying to feed lorikeets who didn’t want to fly up from the ground to the platform, let alone nibble on any of the feed products. That didn’t stop the guests from buying the feed products despite the pile of previously purchased, ad obviously uneaten from feed sticks. The keepers were vigilant in warning you that shoe laces, pant legs are commonly nibbled. I looked around the area, then headed out.

Crossing the main path by the train station, I noted some changes to the train station. This year the loading platform area was fenced in with proper entry and exit gates installed, and real queue areas. This means the old method of train stops, then there is a free for all for the train seats, then the operator walks down the trainside collecting tickets method of operation is no more. I addition to this, crossing gates have been installed wherever the train crosses park pathways. I swear none of these safety upgrades wer here as recently as Festival of Lights. What makes the crossing nearest the train station unusual is that the gates are manual instead of automatic, and by manual I mean not even motorized. Also for many years the zoo is known for a family of peacocks that seem to have free range to walk about the park as they see fit. You never know where you are going to see them, and I have seen them on the clear other side of the zoo. As the train was approaching the track the peacock was standing on the tracks, and remained standing until it got uncomfortably close as in, “I shouldn’t be watching this but…” But one blast from the train whistle and the peacock darted off to, well at least far enough away to be safe.

For as long as I can remember its been a tradition to ride the train ride whenever visiting the zoo, I mean to not ride the train is not to see the zoo. So, even though I was touring the zoo alone, I headed to the ticket booth in the center of the train station to pick up a $3 train ticket. Remember what I was saying about natural human behavior? The queue area to the right of the ticket booth was packed full, the one on the left, not even a quarter full. Yes, I picked the one on the left. Soon I was on the CP Huntington train for a quick overview of the zoo, and I do mean quick as in some parts the train seems to travel at mach 5. Of course the uninteresting parts like behind the sea lion pool and bear caves and wolf woods is taken nice and slow. When you start to go over the trestle over Rhino Reserve is when the train goes in to hyperdrive, and remains there as it goes past the children’s petting zoo, monkey island, and reptile house. It then slows down as it does its graceful signature element as it glides along a trestle that runs the perimeter of swan lake, before returning to the station. As I say, now it’s a CP Huntington, but sources say it used to be a NAD train, and I do remember a completely different looking train with zebra stripes along its sides. Then again I also remember when the safari shuttle also had the zebra motif and only had one station, next to the train station. We did have an interesting time leaving the train as guests had parked so many strollers right in front of the next exit gates that we could not get the gates open until they came and removed them. Perhaps going out of your way to make the gate blend in to the fence was not such a great idea. After riding the train, I had a Dave Althoff moment, it seemed like the train ride was over in 2 minutes when you are riding it, but I timed it to learn it actually takes 5:30, which by sheer coincidence was also about the time it took them to unload and reload it,

After the train I headed for the children’s zoo. I remember when the children’s zoo was little more than a big rectangular area with animal pens along the border. Oh sure, it had a barn, and a pond with a bridge over it, and one or two of the pens would let you enter the pen with the animals, and there was an animal meet and greet show area. That all changed in the late 80’, early 90’s At that time the children’s zoo was greatly expanded and it incorporated the nursery, two special activities buildings, a playground, some interactive exhibits, and the current sea lion pool (walrus then) and more were incorporated into the much expanded children’s zoo, What didn’t change was the charging of an extra fee to get into the area. I guess the idea was to really make the thing like a little zoo with a main gate and all. Perhaps even get the children used to the idea of having to pay to see the zoo. I suspect what really happened was the extra fee agitated the parents who were already getting agitated at the rising general admission fee and all the add on fees inside the zoo, this was one that just made sense to eliminate. Doing so also means that’s a ticket booth and ‘main gate’ they don’t have to staff, and they were able to remove a couple fences and open up the area so it now has an entrance by gibbon islands, tiger canyon, and the sea lion pool, as well as the original entrance by the train station. I start to enter the area but the entrance by the train station is blocked off by substantial barriers and cute MAN-ATEES AT WORK signs. I cruised through the gift shop that used to serve as the children’s zoo exit through retail so I could both see what they had, and also so I could look out the back windows to discover the children’s zoo is pretty much gutted right now. It is a major renovation going on, and to be fair the park map did make it clear the area was closed.

I went around past the funnel cake stand to both look at the sea lions above and below the water, as well as to get another glimpse into the massive construction zone. I past what appears to be an underutilized activity building that was in Children’s zoo but owing to the way the park has been redrawn is now between the sea lion pool and wolf woods. I followed the arrows to enter Wolf Woods via the river otters exhibit. There is a walk through cage where you get to walk with the turkeys, then I passed the otter exhibit which was being cleaned by a keeper, to eventually hit a big deck that overlooks Wolf Woods. I paused to look at the wolves before heading into a cabin looking building that offered more viewing opportunities. Right after that was a strange bird aviary, it looks like another walk through flight cage, but once inside they have an inner fence, which seems to totally nullify the whole walk in concept.

After this I backtracked some and headed to the area that for at least 30 years has served as the de facto entrance plaza. The cafeteria, now named the Rhino Café (I remember Safari Room) and the main restrooms are still open, but the gift shops, stroller rental, guest relations and all that has been abandoned for now, It also looks like the big parking lot right outside this entrance is torn up pretty bad,

Before continuing on, I took a slight walk out of my way to look at the often missed Red Panda exhibit and Gibbon Islands. Can a zoo visit by complete without a walk out on the bridge past Gibbon Islands. Imagine two islands with big jungle gym looking things on them, monkey bars quite literally. In the heyday they would seem to have two opposing tribes of gibbon monkeys on the two islands that seemed to be in a constant war to outperform and outyell the other island. I mean at times you could not hear yourself think in this area. Unfortunately only one island was in use today, and the two gibbons on display, while active to be sure, were also quiet.

Next I passed the old education building which seems to be a special event space now before heading towards one of the newest exhibits, Giraffe Ridge. Down a short path behind the old education building sits Giraffe Ridge. Here, depending on the weather and all that you can either look at the giraffe through windows in their building or out in a clearing behind the building. I got both as they were inside when I first arrived, but soon moved to the outdoor clearing. I spent some time looking at the giraffes and noted another feeding opportunity exists here in certain hours. I also noted a big ramp down to the lower level of the education building and parking lot which looks like it will lead to the cheetah run they are rumored to be building in the old parking lot area. I also failed to go up the steps to look at the green roof on the giraffe building.

From there, I walked around the elephant building, and noted the show venue where I watched the cat show in 2004 is gone. The elephant building is the third historical building and has been painted up in an African theme. But that can wait, I noted a very interesting glass building behind it. I mean glass dome looking thing. “Discovery Forest” I walked inside to discover its really the new education building and theatre but in the grand foyer is a multi story simulated rain forest under glass, even the stairs look like they are hewn out of the rock. On the lower level, I also noted a sign explaining the animals that are usually in this area are off display today. It’s a real neat lobby for what looks to be a big upgrade for the educational arm of the zoo.

I continued to walk around the back of the elephant house where I notice the door on this side has been sealed off. You get to gaze at a little lot where they park their distinctive company cars, and then walk along a long dull walkway back to Historic Vine sStreet Village, Right before you get back to the front they do have a going green display in a little garden. Near there you can enter the elephant reserve and gaze upon the elephant with lots of your fellow park guests, or you can do what I did which was to look into the outside enclosure from the end nearest Discovery Forest and have a ring side place to yourself.

After that I had finished a lap around the park, and again trying to be health conscious headed to the “Natural Selections Café” sounds like the best odds of a healthy snack, right? Might have been at one time, but now it’s a Skyline Chili. This backs up my earlier statement as to why Wonders of Life at Disney failed, and that’s simply people don’t want to be reminded about their own health while at an entertainment attraction, I mean I get it, “I’m at the zoo, I can live a little bit, particularly since I just walked around this hilly place all day” I’ve noticed healthy fare options don’t tend to last long at amusement parks which must be the chagrin on food service directors that get beat up by guest complaints to offer such healthier fare.

So, just for grins and giggles, I set a stopwatch and did one lap around the grand circuit of the zoo for time, not jogging or running mind you, just a brisk pace. 12 minutes. Then it was time to browse the gigantic main gift shop, and his the restrooms before departing. In the going green restroom, they have the waterless urinals, but I noticed a sign indicating how much water was saved using motion sensor sink faucets, then I noted the electric faucets have been replaced with more traditional manual models.

After that, it was time to head out the main exit, where I didn’t notice any readmission options available to me, despite over an hour left until closing. If you do want to take advantage of the zoo’s policy as stated in the website FAQ’s of coolers and carry in food being allowed, I’d go for the remaining on site parking lots if at all possible so you have access to your car during the day. Just outside the gate, I noticed the cleverly placed stuffed animal vendor right by the exit bridge, meaning every child who is heading to the vine street area lots or the bus has to pass right by them. It was then just across the bridge and down the stairs.


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