Real Estate

African Adventure at Turtle Back Zoo – A West Orange Wonder

“Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!” Even Dorothy would be astounded by what she would see at Essex County’s Turtle Back Zoo today. The new African Adventure Wing is the zoo’s latest wildlife habitat featuring animals from the far reaches of the globe. Creating this 21st century experience called for attention to details and creativity in a zoo setting never imagined in Oz.

Set on a higher elevation than the visitors, the design of the Lion and Hyena exhibits resembles castle ruins. The visitor paths were designed to represent dirt pathways in the wild. The Northern Yard reflects a traditional castle pool in ruins; the Southern Yard features a traditional seating area with crumbling Roman-style columns. Visitors have three viewing stations: The north and south stations provide visitors with a eucalyptus shade structure, where they can view the animals up close through an inch-thick glass barrier. The main viewing station allows visitors to see a panoramic view of the entire exhibit.

The Penguin Exhibit was designed to educate the public on how African penguins live. A backdrop captures the South African coast by showing different horizons of rock typically associated with that area. The floor surface needed to be rough and irregular, so the penguins wouldn’t develop foot problems. Burrows were installed for nesting and the building includes an incubation room to raise new penguins.

An overarching design consideration was that the African Adventure Wing walkways and viewing areas had to be ADA compliant, which was a challenge because of the zoo’s naturally steep topography. A thoughtful grading design addressed this issue, as well as inherent stormwater drainage issues resulting from the hilly terrain.

The $5.9-million African Adventure Wing has become a major attraction at the Turtle Back Zoo and has been largely credited for increased attendance at this ever-popular attraction.


Essex County


Di Cara | Rubino Architects


Terminal Construction Corporation


Michael Piga, LLA, RLA
Discipline Manager, Landscape Architecture
French & Parrello Assoc.

Related Articles: