Pressed against three-pane glass, excited school kids roar at the sight of a jaguar pair leaping up steep-faced artificial rock.
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. asks one of the children, who pour out of yellow buses by the thousands at Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, where they came from.
When DiVincenzo hears it’s schools in Jersey City, Newark or farther — he makes a similar show of excitement.
For him, it’s one of the many signs that Essex County has made the right investment with Turtle Back Zoo — an investment that includes the multimillion-dollar jaguar enclosure that left children gaping on a May afternoon.
Families from near and far in New Jersey amounted to 688,359 total visitors last year, a figure that toppled attendance records for the 10th consecutive year. But it’s not just Jerseyans, DiVincenzo says; Turtle Back Zoo is now a tourist destination that appeals to vacationers from states over.
It’s a much different scene than just two decades ago, when there was a fork in the road for the zoo, and one path would’ve led to this now-vibrant tourism hub never existing.
“This zoo was in rough shape in 1995, so there was (talk of) whether it should be closed down or not,” DiVincenzo said. “It was a very big concern.”
With stagnating attendance numbers, nowhere near enough revenue and a questionable level of care being provided to animals, shuttering the place seemed to be a reasonable solution.
“But people came out in number. … They wanted the zoo to stay open,” DiVincenzo said.
That’s a message he heard.
“And when I became the county (executive in 2003), I made this a priority,” he said. “This is my baby. I wanted this to be the best zoo in the state of New Jersey.”
The year before DiVincenzo took office, the zoo had 168,739 visitors, four times less than in 2014.
Those same people would hardly recognize the zoo today, given that every exhibit has been either added or renovated since then. All told, DiVincenzo has spearheaded an investment of more than $70 million into the zoo.
He believes it’s paying off in the record-breaking attendance figures the zoo has seen each year. And, now, it has revenue to show for it as well.
For its first 40 years, the most revenue the zoo had ever pulled in was $660,000. The gross revenue the zoo enjoyed in 2014 was $6.5 million.
As DiVincenzo, who said he always looks at this pet project of his from a business perspective, explained: That’s more than double the cost of operating the zoo, which makes it the state’s only self-sustained zoo.
“What we’ve done differently than other zoos — because you just can’t make it on zoo admission alone — is (create a) complex that supports Turtle Back Zoo,” he said.
The Essex County South Mountain Recreation Complex includes a new zip-line attraction, which channeled its revenue of more than $800,000 into the zoo last year.
Among other things, there’s mini-golfing, paddle boating and a restaurant at the new Essex County retreat — all of which are no more than 5 years old.
Something new is introduced to the zoo’s complex just about every year. The 2014 addition was a new 12,000-square-foot, $7.5 million facility with four classrooms for educational programming.
“That’s helped us as we change roles,” Zoo Director Brint Spencer said. “Rather than just having a collection of animals, we’re focusing on education and conservation programs.
“We have 558 kids that are going to coming to a summer camp in this new facility.”
Recent additions inside the zoo (and more potential revenue streams) include a new carousel and a 500-bird aviary. Next in line is a $6.7 million cafe renovation, plus a giraffe exhibit that DiVincenzo expects to draw another 60,000 visitors annually.