I have been coming to the Turtle Back Zoo since I was in elementary school when we used to come here on field trips. I remember as a child having lunch on the lawn with my class and feeding the animals. That was back in the 1970’s with the old zoo set up. I had read that the zoo was falling apart by 1995 and they were ready to close it down. Like anything else, these zoos and parks need an update every few years to keep them relevant.
In 2000, as master plan was started in what direction the zoo wanted to go and in the next twenty years, I have seen the results of that hard work. You have many nicer displays, some still being too…
I know that this is not the traditional American holiday but somehow, I really enjoy Groundhog’s Day. It is a lot of fun to visit the zoos and if you ever can go out to Punxsutawney, PA to see the original festival try to do it. I went to Punxsutawney in 2016 and it really is an experience. It is one of those things you should do once in your life. I have been wanting to go back ever since but one thing after another has kept me from going. From the weather to my work schedule, it is tough to take the eight-and-a-half-hour hike down Route 80 but one day I will do it again.
COVID cancelled everything last year but since this is an outdoor event, it was nice to be celebrating the day being able to breathe again. I also wanted to do something different this year after going to the Staten Island Zoo for two years (2019 and 2020-see my write up on this blog). I had read about other Groundhog’s Day festivals and in 2019 I had heard about ‘Essex Ed’ at the Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, NJ.
The entrance of Turtle Back Zoo at 560 Northfield Avenue
The festival at the zoo had been cancelled last year because of the pandemic and when I looked at their website this year and nothing was mentioned. When I called, the woman on the phone said there would be a ceremony at the zoo at 10:00am so I prepared to go to the zoo the next day.
In 2022, I had planned for what I thought would be an hour trip with traffic going through Newark, NJ and then the turn to Route 280 West. I walked out the door at 8:15am and ended up at the zoo at 9:00am. There was just a bit of traffic when I got into Downtown Newark and it was smooth driving when I got to Exit 10 and then no traffic into West Orange, NJ. This is where Turtle Back Zoo is located.
What surprised me when I got to the zoo was there was no one waiting to get in, no massive number of cars in the parking lot and when I got to the gate at 9:15am, there was no one there. One of the park employees said that they would be opening the gate at 9:45am and then they would start the program at 10:00am.
The entrance of the South Mountain Reservation Park
Since I had almost 45 minutes before the gates would even open, I decided to take a walk around the reservoir that is part of the South Mountain Reservation Park. It was about a mile around the frozen watershed, and I walked about half before I headed back to buy my ticket. What a cool crisp morning. The sun started to peek out as I walked back to the zoo and the woods looked so beautiful with the snow on the ground and trees.
The park in the early afternoon at the bridge
The early morning at the park was rather gloomy
I got into the zoo at 9:45am and headed to the antitheater and there was a small handful of people. It ended up the only people at the ceremony were the volunteer docents, the staff of the zoo, the local politicians and the press. There were maybe six of us who had come for the event. I remembered that there was nothing on the zoo’s website two days before so how would the public know this would be taking place?
Unlike the pageantry of Punxsutawney with bands and comedians and even the children’s choir like at the Staten Island Zoo, the whole ceremony took ten minutes. The county parks commission said a few words, then the County Executive said a few words and then the zoo events commissioner spoke.
The ceremony was held inside in 2023 because it was so cold
Then they introduced “Edwina from Essex”, who had replaced “Essex Ed” this year upon his retirement. I was not sure if the other groundhog was just too old or something else, but the new groundhog came out and was so cute and innocent. She just walked around the small platform and then looked at all of us. The parks commission read a poem from the groundhog. Then it was announced that she predicted an early spring! Everyone applauded and then that was it. Everyone dispersed.
Edwina of Essex at the Turtle Back Zoo made her appearance today
I was a little surprised that there was not more to the ceremony but later I talked with one of the staff members of the zoo and she told me that there are never that many people who come to this ceremony. I told her that more people would come if they made a bigger deal out of it. There was nothing on the website or on the events calendar leading the to the event and that I had to call in. She just smiled.
In 2023, I called in advance as the website said it was now 8:00am. I confirmed that time with the zoo and arrived before 8:00am. I was able to enter the press area which was inside as the press conference was inside as well (it was really cold that morning). The ceremony again took about fifteen minutes and the handler, the Zoo Director and the Country Freeholder and Executive all said a few words as Edwina munched on a sweet potato, not really paying much attention to us as the sweet potato. Again it was a cute ceremony and when the zoo opened, I was able to tour it again and take better pictures.
Edwina with her trainer on the morning of the ceremony
I had not been to the zoo in about five years, and I just walked around for the next hour watching the animals. I started at the Reptile House and looked at all the lizards and snakes since they were in season right now. The staff was available to us if there were any questions. It was nicely set up and I have to say that those snakes and lizards really do look you over.
The Turtle Back Zoo is a nice walk in the winter
I made my way past the closed carousel and the restaurant, The Savanna Cafe and looked over the bison display. That was very interesting as it was feeding time for them, so they paid no attention to us. I then went to the flamingo pond and what elegant birds. They were talking to one another like we were not there watching them. They just walked around and talked amongst themselves.
The pink flamingos stood guard that afternoon
The wolves were not out, and the poor cougars looked so cold and bored. They just walked around in the snow. In the Petting Zoo, I watched the chickens and the goats.
The chickens were smart and stayed inside on this cold day
I have never had animals look me over the way the rams did. They just stared at me like I was an alien from Outer Space.
The animals just stared at me like I was a foreign being
The otters and seals were outside and were going through their feeding when I walked by, and they seemed very active. They just watched us as they were eating and then swam in the pools but again, I could see how cold they were outside, and they made their way into their burros.
The pelicans in the Penguin House swam around
I walked to the Penguin House and that was a lot of fun. They were also going through their feeding and when they were done, they just dove around the small group of us and looking us over with curiosity. They also looked bored and were so happy to have someone to interact with that afternoon. They just swam right up to me and stared at me through the water. I felt like they were trying to tell me something with the way they were splashing around.
The penguins were doing their own thing that day
My last stop in the zoo was the Sea Turtle Recovery building. It was so nice to see the outreach that the zoo makes to help these animals get better before they are released back into the wild. We have been affecting their habitat so much with over-fishing that they are getting tangled in nets and hit by boats.
The whole tour of the zoo took about an hour and it was a nice walk. The sun had come out by this point and the skies started to clear. After I finished at the zoo, I decided to take a full walk around the reservoir and took a left and walked all around it. What a nice day for a stroll.
This poor cow just looked at me and begged me for help
I started getting hungry and did not know what was around the zoo. I had not noticed the pizzeria or the McDonalds across the street from the zoo when I entered. In 2023, I was starved after the ceremony and I headed over to McDonalds (which I had remembered from the year before) and had a second breakfast. I love that Sausage Mcmuffin with Egg!
I’m sorry but breakfast at McDonalds is wonderful!
My review of McDonalds at 573 Northfield Avenue in West Orange, NJ:
With the restaurant being closed in the zoo, in 2022 though, I stopped at McLoone’s Boathouse at 9 Cherry Lane on the other side of the reservoir from the zoo. It looked closed to me from the walk, but I heard music and decided to investigate. What a nice lunch in both 2022 and 2023!
McLoone’s Boathouse is right on the reservoir path located in the park and the bar area has the nicest views of the park. The inside of the restaurant was rustic with a main dining room with a roaring fire going in the fireplace. The large bar area had high-tops where you had views of the reservoir.
My server, Nikki, could not have been nicer. We had such a wonderful conversation, and she was so on top of things. She made some good recommendations for lunch, and I had a Grilled Cheddar Cheese with Short Ribs and a Coke.
McLoone’s sandwich menu
McLoone’s makes a Coke look fancy
The sandwich really hit the spot on a cool afternoon. You could taste the red wine that the short ribs had marinated in. It accented the sharp cheese so well and the crisp buttery bread. The side salad was a nice substitute for French fries (I ordered the same lunch both years).
The Grilled Cheese with Short Ribs at McLoone’s Boathouse is excellent!
While I was eating it was a pleasure to watch the people walk by having a nice stroll in the park. I can tell between COVID and the snow, people needed to get out of the house. Smiling faces were the thing that I saw as people passed by.
The view of the park with McLoone’s in the background
After I finished lunch, it was home for me. Even though it was a smaller ceremony, it was nice to see the groundhog again. Maybe ‘Edwina from Essex’ will be right, and it will be an early spring. The next six weeks will tell.
Happy Groundhog’s Day!
The ceremony at the Turtle Back Zoo with the handlers
Edwina doing her thing at the Groundhog’s Day ceremony
Edwina getting a treat from her handler
Edwina eating away
My other Groundhog’s Day blogs from previous years and places:
Day Thirty-Seven: Happy Groundhog’s Day from Punxsutawney, PA
I had planned to go out to Punxsutawney, PA again for Groundhog’s Day but the weather really turned this year. There was an Arctic Vortex (or whatever they are calling it this week) and the weather plunged in Pennsylvania. It was going to be 20 degrees on Groundhog’s Day (that meant 0 degrees that night) and raining when I would drive home on Sunday and I thought that would be over doing it for me.
I later saw that it did go up to 38 degrees that day in Punxsutawney, higher than expected but the overnight Friday night into Saturday was 4 degrees and sorry but the thought of standing in Gobbler’s Knob for five and a half hours in that weather was too much. I did that in 2016 in 30 degrees and that was bad enough. I will wait until next year.
My blog on visiting Punxsutawney, PA in 2016 for Groundhog’s Day:
I then remembered that we have our own Groundhog Festival here in the New York City area at the Staten Island Zoo with ‘Groundhog Chuck’, an event I had heard of in the past. So when I knew that driving to PA was out (I was assisting with the Hasbrouck Heights Fire Department at the Marcal Paper Factory fire on Wednesday night January 30th, 2019-See The Brothers of Engine One Blog site on WordPress.com that I write), I went online and looked at the festival that they had at the Staten Island Zoo.
My blog on the Marcal Paper Fire right before Groundhog’s Day:
So on a cold morning, I got up at 3:30am in the morning to get ready to go to Staten Island. It was not too much better on an early Saturday morning here as well. It was 19 degrees (versus 4 in PA) in Staten Island but off I drove into the darkness. The trip to the Staten Island Zoo was not that bad. I got to the zoo in forty minutes and there was plenty of parking. I guess not as many people had the same idea that I had. There were only about six other cars in the lot when I arrived.
A group of about ten of us were waiting outside the back gate when someone finally came to the gate and told us we were at the wrong gate. It would have been nice if some zoo personal was directing people to the parking lot (which was dark with not a lot of signage to see) and had a sign to go to the front gate.
When the ten of us got to the front gate we were lucky in that the TV crews had already set up and there were only about ten other people there at the time so we got great views of the stage.
Trust me this is WAY smaller than the festival in Punxsutawney, PA. There were about a hundred and fifty people there that I could see and that included the staff, the politicians, the choir from P.S. 29 and their parents and the crowd of us but that made it more intimate. You were not elbow to elbow with people and did not have to camp out for the night. The Staten Island Zoo did a nice job. I still think they should move it to a bigger area of the zoo so that the kids could see it. Also, it would have been nice to put the choir and the dancing Groundhog (a staff member dressed in a Groundhog costume) on the stage so that more people could have seen them.
The Zoo staff introduced some of the local politicians to the event. Some of them kept it short and sweet and a few others had to make it about themselves and bring up things in Washington DC, which I think at an event like this has no place for it. It is a family event.
Still one of the local politicians made a good MC for the event and then introduced a student from P.S. 29, who played the “Star-Spangled Banner” for us on her violin and that was followed by the P.S. 29 choir, who sang a song about Groundhog’s Day. It was really cute and the kids did a nice job entertaining the crowd (See the video below).
Groundhog’s Day 2019
The Groundhog Ceremony at the Staten Island Zoo 2019 (that’s me in the Spartan knit hat)
Then the band, “Rock a Silly” played their song for Staten Chuck and it was quite clever. (See the band’s video on YouTube below).
The Rock-A-Silly Band with their original song for “Staten Island Chuck” (I give the band full credit for this video-very clever guys!)
The band got the crowd really moving on this cold morning.
After all the entertainment, it was time to hear the report from Chuck and the handlers took him out. There was a little of a commotion and then the report came. In the middle of this ‘deep freeze vortex’ Chuck’s prediction was SPRING IS COMING! Everyone cheered loudly at that. With that, there was a little more entertainment, then I was off to tour the zoo.
The Staten Island Zoo is very nice even in the cold weather. I was able to go into the main building and see the monkey, the reptile and the aquarium exhibits, which were nicely displayed and labeled so that you knew what animals were what. The only problem with the zoo is the space is very limited and surrounded by houses so there is no room to expand, so the living space for the animals is small. Still they look happy and content.
I stopped at the Zoo Cafe for a doughnut ($1.00) and to look at the gift shop. They had an interesting ‘Staten Island Chuck’ stuffed groundhog ($12.00) that I had to keep myself from buying (I bought it in 2020). The zoo gift shop is stocked with all sorts of ‘Chuck’ coloring books, tee shirts and little do-dads as well as plush animals, pencils, shirts and hats. The zoo cafe has the usual hamburgers, chicken fingers and fries on the menu that will appeal to any child.
The stuffed toy Staten Island Chuck I bought in 2020. It is a real must have from that day!
I walked around the zoo as it started to warm up (now 25 degrees) and went to the outside pens to see the pigs, donkey’s, kangaroos, emus, geese and ducks. The poor emus looked so cold that they were chasing after me with a look in their eyes like either I had food or was going to take them inside. I really felt for the animals in this cold.
By the time I left the zoo, it was 9:45am and the zoo still had not opened. There was myself and two other families left in the early hours zoo and by the time I got back to the parking lot, there were only six cars left.
Even though it was not the crowds of the event in Punxsutawney, PA, it was still a cute event that you should not miss on future Groundhog’s Day when you are visiting New York City. The Staten Island Zoo puts on a good show!
Groundhog’s Day 2020:
In 2020, the ceremony was much toned down from the year before. First, the weather was much nicer than last year. I got up this year at 5:00am and was out the door by 6:15am. The zoo I found out last year is only thirty-five minutes from my house and I did not need to rush. The zoo does not have the crowds of Punxsutawney. Again there were about a hundred or so people at the zoo this morning and when the sun rose, it was warm and sunny about 43 degrees.
The ceremony was only twenty minutes this year. There was no band and no kids choir at the service. Being Super Bowl Sunday, it seemed to me that everyone wanted to get out of there and rushed the whole thing. There were the same politicians with the same lame jokes and it seemed that Speaker Corey Johnson is running for Mayor of New York City (Good Choice!). At least he admitted the jokes were lame and just wished everyone a Happy Groundhog’s Day.
Then they could not even get Chuck out of his Plexiglas pen to hold him up (the Groundhog kept running away. He probably didn’t like the jokes either), so they just announced the weather prediction of an early Spring and then they played a recording of the children’s choir singing and that was the program. We were done in about thirty minutes. It was so quick that a woman walked in with her son at 7:45am and asked if this was the ceremony. The guy standing next to me said that it was already over and they were packing up. She was a little pissed because she said to the guy that she just got dropped off with her son and her husband was parking the car. So much for pomp and circumstance!
After the ceremony, I walked around the zoo again and visited with the monkey’s, kangaroos and sheep. The ostriches and Emu’s were rather friendly this year and seemed more chipper than last year, but it was because it was not as cold. In fact, most of the animals were out this year. So, I just enjoyed my time walking around the zoo and stopped into the Zoo Snack Shop and had another doughnut (Still $1.00) and just relaxes. This year I did buy the stuffed Chuck from the gift shop (he now sits prominently near my Dayton’s Santa Bear, Hamley’s Bear, Macy’s Snoopy and Brooks Brother’s Brooks Bear (I love retail stuffed animals).
After the zoo, it was such a nice morning that I once again walked along the retail stretch of Forest Avenue near the zoo and zig-zagged through some of the stores that were open. People were getting ready for the Super Bowl, so a lot of the food stores were busy with take-out orders. Most of the restaurants were quiet.
I did stop into an old-line Italian bakery, Moretti’s Bakery at 640 Forest Avenue (see review on TripAdvisor) and have another doughnut. This time a creme filled powered doughnut ($1.25) and God was that good. They have a very nice selection of baked goods at very fair prices and good service.
Admission: Adults (15 and over) $10.00/Seniors (60 and over) $7.00/Children (3-16) $6.00/Wednesdays after 2:00pm is free to everyone. Free with membership. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The Cafe and the Gift shop are open when the zoo is open.