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We love the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro! It’s a great place to encourage a love of the outdoors in kids. Unfortunately, like many other places, the Zoo has been closed for the past few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of June 15, the Zoo reopened to the public during Phase 2 of the NC governor’s Safer at Home plan, with many safety precautions in place. We visited on August 11, and I wanted to share our experience to help others with visiting the NC Zoo in a pandemic.
Planning in a Pandemic
There are a lot of changes to be aware of before you plan your trip. I hope to help you decide if it’s the right time for your family.
You must reserve tickets for a specific date and entry time.
The park is at a limited capacity per day. When you book your tickets online or on the phone, you must choose a specific date and entry time. Also, you must arrive within up to 30 minutes after your time. The staggered entry times help reduce crowds at the front gate. For us, Asheboro is about a 3-hour drive, so plan your arrival time carefully. Tickets are not available for walk-up purchase. Regardless of your entry time, you can stay in the zoo until closing time.
Yes, face masks are required for all members of your group over age 11.
You are visiting the NC Zoo in a pandemic, after all! However, it’s okay to remove them when outside and you’re able to distance yourself at least six feet from other visitors not in your group. We just pulled them down for some breathing room while there weren’t other visitors around us on the trails between exhibits.
Reciprocal memberships are not currently accepted for admission.
As members of the NC Aquarium, we can usually get into the NC Zoo for free. However, during this initial reopening stage, they are not accepting any admission discount except for the NC Zoo membership. We decided to pay the regular admission price because the education, research and conservation programs that the zoo supports are causes that we believe in.
One thing to note, in the gift shop, I asked about their discount for NC Aquarium members and the cashier honored it. I don’t know if this is policy or if we got a cashier that was especially dedicated to customer service.
Not all exhibits are open at this time.
Some areas are impractical to maintain the limited capacity and social distancing required by law, so these exhibits and activities are temporarily closed. While we understood this ahead of time, it was still disappointing, because it includes some of our favorite areas. Generally, this includes all indoor habitats and dining areas, high-touch outdoor areas such as playgrounds, and most of their separately-ticketed activities. For a complete list, see the NC Zoo’s Visit page.
Entry is only at the North American entrance.
The NC Zoo consists of a North American side and an African side, each with their own entrance. In the middle is Junction Plaza, which acts as a transition between the two areas. To control visitor flow, they have temporarily closed the African entrance, and all visitors enter at North America. However, you are still able to view all open exhibits on both sides. The usual tram service is currently limited to only one-way from Junction Plaza to the North American entrance.
So, what was it like, visiting the NC Zoo in a pandemic?
Ticketing and Entry
The online ticket purchasing process was clear and smooth. I selected a date and entry time, entered how many tickets per adult and children, and paid with my card. We received the tickets as a pdf attachment with a receipt via email. Unfortunately, Hurricane Isaias interfered with our scheduled visit. However, I called the zoo ticketing office a few days before and they were very helpful in moving our tickets’ date and time to a week later. The ticket staff member instructed to delete the email with our old tickets and sent a new one with the updated entry date/time.
We arrived shortly after the start of our entry time slot of 9:30am. A (socially distanced) crowd waited for the 10am time slot to open, but we were able to walk right to the front of a separate line, show our tickets, and enter the park.
Much like in many stores lately, they have defined a specific walking path through the park, with directional arrows to reduce crowding. In the North America section, this path generally follows the usual route through the habitats and leads you to Junction Plaza. From there, the African side makes one big loop. There are a few detours from the usual path, but unless you’ve visited the zoo before, you may not even notice. Once we got back to Junction Plaza, we were able to take the tram back to the North American station.
If you have visited the NC Zoo before, one thing you’ll have noticed is the variety of bronze statues and other nature-related artwork. These usually make for great photo-ops of the kids riding on a bison or hugging a chimpanzee. However, for that very reason, all of the statues have been covered with plastic sheeting or surrounded by plastic fencing. (Even the tiny bronze snake hanging off the guard rail outside the path to the chimp habitat!)
Restaurants and Shops
When stopping for lunch, your only seating option is outside. They have arranged all of the tables to maintain a safe distance from each other. We got pizza from one of the restaurants at Junction Plaza. The ordering line was inside the building, with social distancing markings on the floor. I have to say, the pizza was expensive (about $4/slice) and not very good, but about what I’ve come to expect from restaurants at zoos, theme parks, etc.
When we returned to the North America entrance, the kids wanted to visit the gift shop (big surprise!). A staff member at the door kept track of how many people were in the store at a given time. She allowed more visitors in as others exited. Within the store, there were distancing markings at the check-out lines and plexiglass barriers in front of the cash registers.
It was somewhat disappointing that we couldn’t see everything that the NC Zoo normally offers, particularly the indoor exhibits, but I would still say it was worth the trip. The zoo staff have a good system to allow visitors to experience as much as possible while maintaining safe distancing. At some exhibits, there was occasional minor crowding, but generally this was due to other visitors not respecting personal space. Once or twice, I had to move away when others came uncomfortably close. However, at no point did I feel unsafe for myself or my family.
So, should you and your family visit while the pandemic restrictions are in place? You should carefully weigh the following two considerations:
- Am I or anyone in my family at high risk for COVID-19 infection? Like any other tourist attraction, the NC Zoo brings in people from all over, and this may increase the chances of exposure.
- Is it worth paying the full price of admission if several of the exhibits are currently closed? Also, are you willing to pay the full price if you could otherwise get a discount or free admission using a reciprocal membership, such as the NC Aquariums?
So that’s our experience with visiting the NC Zoo during a pandemic. Have you visited the NC Zoo during this crazy time? I’d love to hear your experience in the comments!