Expanded amenities aim at enhancing Elmwood Park Zoo experience

Gabriel McGovern feeds Dhoruba during a visit to the Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown May 21. Dhoruba and Mshale, a pair of male giraffes, are on exhibit at the zoo.
Gabriel McGovern feeds Dhoruba during a visit to the Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown May 21. Dhoruba and Mshale, a pair of male giraffes, are on exhibit at the zoo. FILE PHOTO BY GENE WALSH — DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA
In this June 2009 file photo, two prairie dogs share a piece of straw in their exhibit at the Elmwood Park Zoo.
In this June 2009 file photo, two prairie dogs share a piece of straw in their exhibit at the Elmwood Park Zoo. FILE PHOTO

NORRISTOWN >> Sure, you’ll still come mainly for the world-class animals, but neither the cuddly red pandas nor the engaging giraffes will mind if you find the Jus’ Java coffee creations and the expanded variety of zoo grub compelling attractions in their own right.

“It’s always all about the animals, but it’s also about giving our guests a more enjoyable time while they’re here and extending the experience when they come in the gate,” explained Al Zone, executive director of Elmwood Park Zoo. “When guests get here it’s about how we can make it a more quality experience for them.”

With annual visitors to the 91-year-old, 16-acre jewel in the heart of Norristown closing in on the half-million mark, the zoo is poised to celebrate its best year ever.

And you can bet with all the extra enchantments that have come to the zoo recently, such as Treetop Adventure and the aforementioned, cute-as-a-button red panda triplets Clinger, Shredder and Slash, zoo zealots are pretty much camping out here all day and working up some hearty appetites.

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The good news is with half a dozen concession outlets now offering everything from a gourmet jolt of joe to corn dogs, ice cream and artisan tacos, there’s never a reason to climb into your car and drive somewhere else to chow down or quench your thirst.

“Guests are saying they can’t believe they’re getting food of this quality at a zoo, that’s how impressive the food is here now,” Zone noted.

Eric Donovan, guest services director, added: “It’s true, with all of the things we offer now, like the animal feedings (check elmwoodparkzoo.org for times) and the zip line, guests are staying here much longer, so we needed to provide them with more options.”

Beginning with Petrucci’s Ice Cream Parlor, which opened at the zoo last summer, Elmwood Park Zoo is earning a fine niche with discerning customers, Zone pointed out.

“Because the Elmwood Park Zoo is so unique we wanted to bring in experts in their fields, like the coffee shop, Treetop Café, Sarape’s On-the-Go, and bring in business owners to help step up the level of product that we offer at the zoo. We wanted to step it up a notch and have multiple stations where guests can get products and not have to wait in ridiculous lines and get different flavors.”

No, the caffeine cops won’t arrest you if you’re spotted holding a Dunkin’ Donuts cup, but with Jus’ Java now on site, why would you be drinking anything else?

“If you’re walking around the zoo and want coffee, Jus’ Java is in the zoo on a regular basis seven days a week. Dunkin’ Donuts is not outlawed, but at the same time it’s been eliminated significantly because Jus’ Java has so many great options,” Zone said.

Jus’ Java owner Maurice McCown launched the zoo offshoot to his popular Swede Street shop in April.

“Our customer base has been ramping up every month and we’ve been having a good time with it,” he said over cups of Jus’ Java’s unique nitrogen-infused cold-brewed iced coffee that boasts the silky texture of a craft beer.

“We get a lot of people who didn’t know what Jus’ Java was, but now they’re seeing it downtown and here, and it’s exciting,” McCown said. “We have everything here that we have at our shop on Swede Street. All our employees are happy to be here so they greet all the customers with a smile in the same type of environment that we provide downtown right here at the zoo, which is a relaxing environment.”

Jus’ Java also showcases edible offerings, such as paninis, fruit cups, veggies, yogurt and pastries.

Next door to Jus’ Java, hailing from Blue Bell, is Sarape’s-On-The-Go, a food truck version of the El Sarape restaurant on Skippack Pike, with a menu of authentic Mexican fare such as tacos, burritos and nachos.

“We provided a design theme to go with Sarape’s-On-The-Go with palm trees and bright colorful tables to create a nice fun, summery atmosphere,” Donovan said.

If a taste of Jus’ Java’s cold-brewed specialty stokes your thirst for a cold one of a different kind, Zoo Brew Beer Stand, situated across from the bison feeding deck, serves up a pair of brews created exclusively for the zoo by Prism Brewing in Upper Gwynedd: Tall Blonde, a traditional blonde ale, and the darker, earthier Bison Brown Ale.

Treetop Café offers burgers, corn dogs and other goodies and is operated by the same family business, Tons of Fun Shows, which transplanted a bona fide Atlantic City boardwalk carousel to the zoo recently.

“I found them a couple of years ago at the St. Sophia’s festival in West Norriton,” Zone said. “I have an 8-year-old son, and what I love about them is that they care a lot about the attendants that are operating the rides and care about the quality and the appearance and they really step it up. They started doing our carnivals here, and then we added the caterpillar train for the smaller kids and now the carousel, which is really a beautiful piece, with endangered species on it like a bobcat and a zebra. The carousel and train open up at 10:30 a.m. and close when the zoo closes at 5 o’clock.”

More than half of visitors these days are buying zoo memberships, Zone said.

“They see the value of the experience at the zoo and that is a huge credit to what’s happening inside the gates. Adding these little things is just adding to a great experience and it gives us one more way to make our zoo stand out,” he added.

“We have a lot up our sleeve in regards to what’s to come as far as education, entertainment, the whole nine yards, on how we can better (enhance) our guests experience while they’re here inside the zoo. It all cycles back to education and the importance of the animals and why we’re here.”