By Billy Liggett

It’s a dilemma we’re all facing right now.

We’re tired of staying home. We’re tired of working from home. We’re tired of eating at home. Even those of us who are adamant about curbing the spread of COVID-19, wearing masks and keeping ourselves and those around us safe are longing for the day when we can head out and enjoy things again like a park, a movie theater, a beach, a restaurant or even a department store without a potentially deadly virus looming over our heads.

So there’s tepid joy when we hear news of attractions like theme parks and zoos reopening after several months of closure, because we want some of that normalcy back. And more importantly, we just want to get out of the house.

The North Carolina Zoo reopened on June 15 with several changes put in place to keep people socially distant and away from potentially contaminated areas. The biggest change is a staggered entry for 100 guests every 30 minutes — and those tickets must be reserved online in advance. The maximum capacity of the zoo is 2,000 people — far below the crowds the enormous attraction draws on a given day.


Other big changes:

  • Guests can only enter through North America and then follow a one-way path that takes them through every open exhibit, ending at the center Junction area where they can then take a tram back to the entrance.
  • All indoor habitats — the seabirds, underwater viewing areas, aviary and desert — are closed. Everything is outdoors.
  • The giraffe deck, carousel, butterfly garden, playgrounds ropes course and children’s treehouse area are all closed … as is indoor dining (food can still be purchased throughout in most areas).
  • Admission is $15 for adults, $13 for seniors and $11 for children 2-12.   

My family reserved the earliest slot (9 a.m.), and we arrived at 8:40 that morning and were first in line at the ticket booth. About 40-50 people filled in behind us over the next 20 minutes by the time the gates opened.


The pros

The one-way track through the zoo was surprisingly efficient (and it’s something I wish they’d keep when all this ends). It prevented bottlenecks of large groups of people in some of the more popular areas, and it ensured that we saw everything the zoo had to offer. We even walked through areas we’d never trekked before — like a path behind the lemur exhibit that led to the chimp enclosure.

Being early, we were the only people around some of the exhibits and got to enjoy watching a polar bear do multiple backward somersaults into the water, a cougar gnaw on a knuckle bone up close and zookeepers toss treats to a pair of lions.

Occasionally other small groups gathered around us, but never did we feel crowded or hurried. This was a day before Gov. Cooper’s mask mandate went into effect, but the majority of the people we saw were masked — we put ours on when close to others and walked without them when we were alone.

The park was cleaner than I’d ever seen it, overall, and it looks like they improved landscaping in several areas during their time off.


The cons

Not having the indoor exhibits open was understandable, but took away from the overall experience. There was a point between the polar bear and the bison when we walked a good 15 minutes without seeing a single animal (aside from a free-range squirrel). It took us about 50 minutes total to get through the North America exhibit — luckily, the Africa side of the zoo was much more populated and took more time to traverse.

Only a few times did our fellow zoo-goers decide to not follow the one-way path and muck it up for everyone else, but that’s to be expected.

In all, we saw everything in less than three hours, had a picnic lunch and went home.  At no time did we feel unsafe or compromised. And at no time did we regret the decision to drive an hour to go look at animals.

For zoo members, it’s a no-brainer if you’re looking to get out of the house. Admission is free, and there’s enough still available to make it worth your while.

For those paying admission, I’d still say it’s worth it, but understand you’re not getting the complete package if you go. No cute otters. No swimming sea lions. No snakes. And on the day we went, even the bison were off eating somewhere out of view.

To learn more about the North Carolina Zoo, visit Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.