The Oregon Zoo has reopened with COVID-19 precautions in place. Will your kids still like it? Our editor finds out.
In previous times, planning a trip to the Oregon Zoo would just be about taking sunscreen, water bottles and maybe some snacks. It would not involve a two-parent debate about the safety risks. But in this new age we are living in, that’s what had to happen before I took my two kids back to the zoo they had gone to all of their lives.
My husband and I talked about whether this would be a safe activity. We decided since masks were universally required for children older than 5 and it would be limited entry along a one-way route that was primarily outdoors, it was low-risk enough for us to feel comfortable.
Reserve tickets ahead
So I looked into how you visit the zoo now. Visitors, both members and non-members, must book tickets ahead of time for a specific time slot. When we chose to visit, the zoo had been open for a few weeks, so even though I waited until a Friday night to get tickets for the next day, plenty of spots were available. I couldn’t get my first choice, a morning slot, but I was able to get a 1:30 pm entry time. Pro tip: If you prefer to go at a specific time, don’t wait until the last minute to secure your tickets.
So much parking!
Plan to arrive a little before your entry time, because the zoo will not let you in until the next available time slot if you arrive 10 minutes after your ticketed time. The good news is that you will not be late because you’ve had to circle the lot desperately searching for a parking spot. When we arrived at the parking lot, I’d never seen it so empty before. I was practically giddy at the prospect of so many spots to choose from.
Follow the path
Things to know as you plan your trip: Masks are required for everyone older than 5 (except for those medically exempt), blue paw prints mark safe distances between parties; there’s a new route that visitors are asked to follow (so no darting back and forth between exhibits); and some favorites, like the penguin house, are temporarily closed. There are also hand-sanitizer and hand-washing stations set up. While waiting to be admitted to the zoo, my kids and I made a game of jumping to the next blue paw print. I really think the visual reminder was especially helpful for younger kids. Also, most kids and adults were very good about maintaining a safe distance from people outside their own households. And with only one exception of an older man who wore his mask under his chin, everyone we encountered followed the face-covering rules. In certain more enclosed areas, like the beaver and harbor seals habitats, a zoo employee at the entrance politely reminded everyone to keep masks on in the area. And I really appreciated it. Pro tip: You can take off masks when eating or drinking, or if you are in an outdoor space and a safe distance from others.
When we stopped at Pacific Shores to snack on an elephant ear and sip some lemonade, I asked my kids what they thought of this new zoo experience so far. “I think this is better,” said my 5-year-old son, Cruz. He said he liked being outside and how there were way fewer people than normal. My kids usually visit the zoo with their grandparents, who are members, and said it seemed like there were even fewer visitors than during the times they had visited on weekdays. I agreed it felt like the zoo was wide open. After we finished our elephant ear and were walking by Dozer the tortoise, a zookeeper came out to give him a snack. “Apples are like candy to a tortoise; he only gets them a couple times a week as a treat,” she told my kids, who were able to secure a primo viewing spot. That kind of interaction would have been harder to come by on a typical Saturday afternoon in the summer.
New art exhibits
Another new part of the Oregon Zoo experience that was a surprise hit with my kids was the Washed Ashore art installations. These giant statues of various animals dotted the paths and are made entirely of trash picked up from beaches worldwide. When I explained this to my kids it really hit home for them. They marveled at both how fluffy the penguin-chick sculpture looked despite being fabricated from hard plastic and at how much debris ends up in the ocean. “I’m surprised how many golf balls there are in the ocean,” said my 8-year-old daughter, Adela. It led to a great conversation about how we can reduce our consumption of plastic to keep it out of the ocean.
Even though we couldn’t see all the exhibits and we had to wear masks and keep our distance, we all had a really great afternoon at the zoo. And I think being so isolated the previous months gave all of us a new appreciation for simply being outside in the zoo’s open spaces and shady trails — and for an old favorite activity that we had started to take for granted.