The elk at Elmwood Park Zoo are gaining neighbors. Not that they seem to care much.
While they quietly graze, the open area next to them buzzes with the whine of circular saws and huge augers. A crew works overhead, perched in the trees like a pack of monkeys with power tools. From the safety of their harnesses, the craftsmen are building platforms, decking and walkways and installing guidewires, swings and rope ladders.
The elk glance momentarily, blink and return to munching, ignoring the increased traffic. Their indifference is an asset, because coming this May, the pace of their neighborhood is going to increase. A lot.
The zoo, which turns an impressive 90 years old this year, remains as vibrant as ever. Its latest expansion project includes Treetop Adventure Park Philadelphia, a series of ziplines for children and adults. When completed, visitors will be able to zoom from tree to tree, scaling heights that rise as high as 80 feet in the air.
Zoo Marketing Director Shaun Rogers is all smiles as the park continues to come together. "The course for the younger kids was the first thing built," he says, referring to the ropes and platforms near the tree trunks and lower branches. "Work started in the late fall - maybe early December - and then stopped because the weather got to be horrible. They were supposed to be right back. But we had snow after snow after snow...."
With the onset of spring, however, construction started again in earnest, and the zip courses are on schedule for a May opening. "They're working on the second-level kids' course, now," Rogers says. The decks and support beams are taking shape for "games," the industry term for obstacles and challenges encountered between the trees.
Very soon, the focus will shift to the adult course, whose beginning point now is a mere strip of orange-red warning tape around three trees in the zoo's playground. "That course goes up the trees, over the playground, across a walkway and then over Stony Creek. It's full-fledged," Rogers promises. His estimate is that the course will be able to accommodate 25 adults at one time and engage them for upwards of three hours.
None of the zips will include interaction with the animals themselves, but they will constantly be in close proximity. In addition to the elk that live beside the kids' lines, the zoo's mighty bison are quite close. Despite the lack of direct animal contact, Rogers says: "There will be an educational component. When you're up on the platforms, there will be signage about the trees that you're attached to and the things that you can see."
The company behind the construction is Tree Top Concept of central Florida, which found the Elmwood Park site particularly advantageous. "We have available open space," Rogers says. "The flexibility is here that other zoos with closed in footprints may not be able to handle." The area across Stony Creek provides enough room to expand all the way westward to the border of Norristown Farm Park.
Given its commitment to conservation and environmental issues, the zoo and Tree Top Concept are making extensive expertise to ensure not only public safety but also natural preservation. "We have a horticulturists that check the trees and make sure that as we go up into them, they're all in good shape and suitable to the construction elements. They also make sure things are safe," Rogers says.
Treetop Adventure Park Philadelphia is only one of a number of new experiences coming to Elmwood Park Zoo this spring:
- An exotic bird encounter will allow close contact with fine feathered friends, including the ability to feed Sun Conures, medium-sized colorful parrots from northeastern South America. Housing these yellow-and-orange beauties is the former butterfly house, which has been completely transformed by a running waterfall, a pool of tropical fish and beautiful, Brazilian-themed murals.
- In conjunction, trained bird shows are being added to the schedule of events.
- A carousel and kiddie train are being installed near the present playground.
Last, the zoo's biggest stars - well, certainly its tallest - are indeed returning for summer 2014. "Our giraffes, Jukuu and Dhoruba, are coming in time for Memorial Day Weekend," Rogers promises, "along with the opportunity again to hand-feed them."
The habitats of the animals at Elmwood Park Zoo have been created with an eye toward making them feel natural and right at home. The staffs associated with the hotels throughout Montgomery County, Pa., are experts at doing the same for humans, crafting cozy nests or luxurious lairs. Check out the options listed on our website. And if your stomach starts to growl, zip over to one of our fine restaurants for a bite. Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery, for example, is one of our better watering holes.