Celebrate 50 years of the North Carolina Zoo with a wild visit or two

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Chris Goldston, animal management supervisor at the North Carolina Zoo, started 40 years ago when his brother recommended him to help finish building the lion enclosure in the Africa section. He’s worked his way around the zoo, gaining knowledge about the different aspects of animal care and behavior. 

You may see Goldston talking in front of the gorilla habitat, explaining how well the five male gorillas get along. Mosuba or “Mo”, a silverback gorilla, is 40 years old and the oldest gorilla at the zoo, he says.

The zoo celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer with fun activities. Once a month, a visitor will receive a Golden Ticket (taking a page from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) which includes a gift bag, zoo membership, Zoofari pass for two, and food and gift shop coupons. 

Zoo staff expect the 30 millionth visitor to arrive in the coming months. They will receive a lifetime membership and a basket of goodies, and be featured on the zoo’s social media.

The North Carolina Zoo, in Randolph County’s Asheboro, is the largest natural habitat zoo in the world. Its 2,805 acres include 225 species and 1,700 animals in habitats simulating a natural environment. Animals live in a terrain similar to where they’d live in the wild. The habitats allow the animals to interact with their environment and choose how they engage with the viewing public.

Photo courtesy of North Carolina Zoo via Facebook.

What to expect at the North Carolina Zoo

A day at the zoo will get you to 10,000 steps and beyond. Wear comfy shoes and layers, and be sure to pack water. Pace yourself: stop for breaks, grab a snack from one of the concessions, and expect a meltdown from someone in your group.

Here are some other tips:

  • Watch live-stream educational talks on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. It’s a great way to prepare families for a trip to the zoo.
  • Bring a backpack with refillable water bottles and snacks. Guests may bring wagons and strollers into the zoo. The five miles of paths are paved but hilly. Small children may need a ride in between animal sitings.
  • Plan a visit early in the morning, when the zoo opens at 9 a.m. One million people visited the zoo in 2023, and sunny weekends from March through August were the busiest.
  • Let the zoo know it’s your birthday and receive a free birthday pin. (Who doesn’t like to announce their birthday with a button?)
  • Consider purchasing a membership to the North Carolina Zoological Society. A family membership starts at $109. It allows for quick entry (skip the line) into the zoo for 12 months and includes discounts on certain activities. It also takes the pressure off of seeing the zoo in one day.
  • Start at Africa or North America, based on what animals your group wants to see first. A stay overnight in Asheboro allows for one day spent in Africa and the next in North America — so you’ll have to purchase tickets for both days, unless you have a membership. It may be a lot to see both “continents” in one day.
  • Prepare for some animals to be hidden from view. All have the choice to be inside their enclosures.
  • Time your stop at habitats when the animal feedings are scheduled.
  • Take the tram to Junction Plaza to break up some of the walking. The tram is included in the admission fee.
  • Stop at the education stations at the animal habitats. Zoo staff or volunteers will answer questions about the animals. 
Photo courtesy of North Carolina Zoo via Facebook.

What’s new at the North Carolina Zoo

  • Grab the 50th Anniversary edition of the Zoo Trekker, a structured scavenger hunt through the zoo. Kids of all ages can complete the activities and earn a souvenir pin. Booklets are available in English and Spanish and free from kiosks in Africa’s Akiba Market or across from North America’s Cypress Swamp.
  • Check out the renovated Baboon Habitat, with 22 Hamadryas Baboons.
  • Canine Champions for Conservation, free with zoo admission, is open from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Watch dogs, rescued from shelters, show off their talents to raise awareness, and contribute to the zoo’s conservation efforts.
  • Asia is coming in 2026. King cobra, Komodo dragon, tigers, and more will be located in the newest section of the zoo.
Photo courtesy of North Carolina Zoo via Facebook.

Special assistance available

  • Quiet days: Once a month, the zoo turns off music and doesn’t schedule large groups for people with sensory differences. Look for sensory play activities in the Kidzone from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on these days.
  • Certified Sensory Inclusive through KultureCity: Zoo staff have been trained to recognize a guest with sensory needs.
  • Sensory Friendly Family Snorin’ Safaris: Camp with a small group and participate in structured activities. 
  • Sensory backpacks may be checked out for free at the Guest Services Office or Kidzone.
  • Wheelchair users: The buses and trams are wheelchair accessible, with weight limits. Wheelchairs may be rented at the gift shops on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Photo courtesy of North Carolina Zoo via Facebook.

Get the royal treatment during your visit

It’s possible to elevate your zoo experience with these experiences. All require an additional reservation or ticket.  

  • Add the Zoofari, a 45-minute narrated experience through the Watani Grasslands Habitat in an open-air safari truck. See rhinoceroses and six species of antelope close up.
  • Camp overnight with the animals at Adult Only Snorin’ Safaris.
  • Sign up for a Private Tour through the Zoo Society. Choose from various experiences including training and enrichment with certain animals and time with zookeepers learning about animal behavior.
  • Climb like chimps in Treehouse Trek, a high ropes course in the Africa section of the park.
Photo courtesy of Heart of North Carolina.

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  • Vanessa Infanzon

    Vanessa Infanzon moved from New York to North Carolina for college and never left. When she’s not writing, she’s paddle boarding on a river.

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