Zoo’s new entrance, train maintenance building complete

Photo Courtesy of Essex County
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., center, cuts a ceremonial ribbon to announce that the projects to modernize the public entrance and construct a new train maintenance building at Turtle Back Zoo have been completed. With the county executive are zoo employees, volunteer docents and contractors who worked on the projects.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. announced that the projects to modernize the public entrance and construct a new train maintenance building at Turtle Back Zoo have been completed. The two projects total approximately $8.6 million of improvements.

“We are always looking for ways to improve the experience our visitors have at Turtle Back. With the number of people increasing steadily each year, we wanted to reduce the wait time by creating additional admission points and enhance pedestrian safety by eliminating the lines that reached into the parking lot. Our new entrance accomplishes that as well as providing a dynamic statement about Turtle Back,” DiVincenzo said. “Our miniature train ride has been a favorite for generations, and the new maintenance building will improve operations and make it easier for us to maintain the ride.”

“Whenever someone goes on vacation or visits someplace, one of the things they remember the most is the entrance. Opening this new entrance is exciting because it really puts Turtle Back Zoo on the map,” zoo Director Michael Kerr said. “These improvements help us provide a positive experience for our visitors.”

The popularity of Turtle Back Zoo has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors annually and the four admission points at the main entrance were no longer able to accommodate the record number of visitors and resulted in lines of patrons extending into the parking lot.

The update of the entrance maintained the two iconic castle-like towers; however, the admission booths and roofline above the booths were removed. Five new stand-alone booths — increasing the number of admission lines to 13 — were erected in a semi-circle in front of the towers. To the left of the entranceway, new offices to provide expanded accommodations for group sales and group check-in was constructed.

The brick patio in front of the towers, where visitors typically line up while waiting to enter Turtle Back, was enlarged and extended into the parking area. The increased space enhances pedestrian safety because, instead of the lines extending into the parking area, there is now sufficient room for patrons to gather on the patio. As a result of the enlarged entrance patio, motorists will make a slight right turn when entering the surface parking area in front of the zoo.

A digital message board to promote events, animal education programs and other activities was installed near the entrance. The area is being extensively landscaped, there are benches for seating and the patio is accented with brick pavers.

Comito Associates from Newark was awarded a $295,000 contract to design the new entrance. The John O’Hara Company Inc. from East Orange was awarded a publicly bid contract for $5,324,000 to perform the construction work. The improvements were funded through the Essex County capital budget and with a grant from the NJ Green Acres program. Work started in September 2018 and was completed in seven months.

When plans were created to build a third parking deck at the complex, it became necessary to relocate a section of the path of the miniature train ride and construct a new train maintenance building. The new building provides a more efficient environment to work on the train engines and cars when they need to be repaired or require routine maintenance. A below-ground mechanics well allows employees to work underneath the train with the engine being lifted or removed and transported to another site. This feature will reduce the amount of time it takes to repair an engine and keep the trains running on schedule.

The exterior of the train maintenance building was designed to resemble the streetscape of an old western town. The mural features pictures of a sheriff’s office, feed store, stable and doctor’s office. Passengers will continue to board the train at its current station.

Comito Associates from Newark received a professional services contract for $498,725 to design the train upgrades and design the new parking deck currently under construction. APS Construction from Paterson was awarded a publicly bid contract for $2,590,000 to build the train facility. The upgrades were funded with a donation from the Errington Foundation and grants from the Zoological Society of New Jersey and the Essex County Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund. Work started in October 2018 and was completed in six months.