Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, NJ

posted by nicole

Zoos in New Jersey

This year we decided to celebrate Father’s Day with a trip to the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, NJ.  On the day G was born, I gave John the board book, My Dad Loves Me by Marianne Richmond.  The book features daddy and baby animals together enjoying many daily activities. The book quickly became one of G’s favorites to read with her dad.  I thought a trip to the zoo would be a great Father’s Day way to make that book come alive for both of them!

Turtle Back Zoo West Orange NJ

It was a busy, sunny day filled with excitement and it was an extra special day because we had “Pop” come along, too.  Back in the day, Pop took me to the Turtle Back Zoo and now he was thrilled to take his first granddaughter on her first trip to the zoo.

The Turtle Back Zoo is a medium-sized zoo great for toddlers and young children.  You won’t find lions, giraffes, or elephants, but you will find a large variety of other entertaining wildlife exhibits in a clean, family-friendly environment.  I definitely suggest going early and weekdays are likely better than weekends as far as crowds go.  We went on a Monday and got there just before 10 (opening time) and there were already groups waiting to go in.  The zoo is nicely spread out so it didn’t feel crowded, although there were definitely lines for the Touch Tank and the train ride.

Our day started with the Penguin Coast exhibit which recreated the South African coast line where the penguins were from. G walked right up to the glass and waved to the happy little swimmers.  I told John this adorable pair reminded me of the two of us!

Things to do with kids NJ

Next, we passed by the Butterfly Tent, a special exhibit featuring 700 live butterflies that flutter around as you walk through. I felt G was too young to go in -toddler + delicate butterflies=disaster- but we appreciated the exhibit from the outside seeing the lovely butterflies floating about.

Turtle Back Zoo NJ

Then, we were off to “Prairie Dog Hill.” This interactive exhibit was definitely one of the highlights of the day. The prairie dogs were so friendly and active. I swear these two were doing the DJ Shuffle!

prairie dogs zoo exhibit

We even had the chance to go into one of their underground tunnels. G loved crawling in and popping up to wave to Dad and Pop Pop. And, ok, I did too!

animal exhibits for kids

We continued on taking our time, walking through the next exhibits of hawks, bison, cattle, foxes, and ponies. We arrived right on time to catch this huge black bear wandering through the woods! Pop told us a great story about how he once outsmarted a black bear on a hiking trail in the Poconos with his Uncle Ralph.

Black bear zoo exhibit

A pair of majestic eagles watched us stroll by as we headed to the next exhibit. What a truly spectacular bird to represent our country.

zoos with bald eagles

The South American Exhibit was next featuring rheas, llamas, swans, and a capybara.  G really liked this exhibit, too.  She was impressed with the llamas strolling back and forth and meeting her at the fence.


She’s such a little daredevil.  Those llamas were 10 times the size of her, but if that fence wasn’t there she’d be running wild right along with them!

Zoos for kids

The Outback Aviary was our family favorite exhibit of the day! It was home to 500 Australian grass parakeets free to fly about as you wander through!

Turtle Back Zoo Aviary

Before going into the aviary, we purchased two seed sticks that were $2 each, and worth every cent.  The colorful parakeets flew to the sticks allowing you to see them close up and even pet them.  This was exciting for us as adults, but as you can imagine it was thrilling for my toddler!

zoo birds

Yes, the three of us certainly look alike!

Pop even decided to put a seed stick on his head and a bird flew right to him and started munching.

family day trip

John preferred watching the birds from the ground, not willing to risk a head full of “good luck.” Surprisingly enough, we were all spared! What a great interactive exhibit.

Adjacent to the aviary and next to the Prehistoric Playground is another interactive exhibit, the Essex Farm, where you can pet and feed goats and sheep.  We spent $1 on two handfuls of feed, again worth it.  The goats and sheep flocked to the side of the fence eager to eat.  G was so excited watching them gobble up the food right from her hand.

Farm animals NJ

When the food was done, we actually went into the animal pen.  I thought G would be a bit hesitant, but I was wrong.  If it was up to her we would have come home with a pet sheep named, Cotton. (Shouldn’t he have been called Wooly??) As for me, I’m content with my clean cotton-scented candles and was fine waving good-bye and heading over to the perfectly placed hand-washing station nearby.

Petting Zoo NJ

A few kangaroos, emus, owls, otters, turtles, alligators, red pandas, and leopards later, we shivered through the Reptile House, and made our way to the Sea Lion Sound and Touch Tank.

Touch Tank

G was so excited to touch and feel the sting rays swimming by in the Touch Tank we had to keep her from jumping in.  We laughed as her little hands splashed about in the water as the slippery sting rays sped by.

sting rays at the zoo

At this point we were exhausted! We headed to our final destination, the Turtle Back Junction, where we waited for the train ride.  We took a short ride through the South Mountain Reservation and enjoyed a brief rest and the refreshing breeze.

trains for kids

The hunt for the elusive “perfect” family picture…must be on the endangered species list…

What a memorable Father’s Day outing! The Turtle Back Zoo is even better than I remembered it as a kid.  John, Pop, and myself truly enjoyed seeing the exhibits through little G’s eyes. We felt like kids again right along with her. We will certainly visit again soon.

Plus, right next door to the zoo, I spied Safari Mini Golf, adorable swan paddle boats, and the yummy McLoone’s Boathouse Restaurant! Sounds like a date night to me! Now I just have to tell the hubby…

How did you celebrate Father’s Day? Have you taken a trip to the Turtle Back Zoo lately?


Posted in Family, Family Day Trips, Holidays, Travel. Tagged , , , , , .

Talk about it