Essex County Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, N.J. is a quaint day trip for New Jerseyans or visitors to the area. The kids had a blast running through fountains that were turned on to help people cool off, gawking at the sea lions (see above), and feeding the birds. Discover what you’ll experience should you make the journey to TBZ:
In the above sign, you’ll notice Family Fun Nights in the summer and ads for the Zoological Society of New Jersey. Encouraging guests to “have a wild day” was perfect for me and mine.The Turtle Back Zoo offers locals many opportunities to connect with nature. We were braving the zoo with three kids 5 and under. Indeed, it was wild. Frankly, the kids might have been wilder than the animals they were seeing.
The Charm of Turtle Back Zoo
Appropriately, the first animals we saw upon our visit to the Turtle Back Zoo were turtles. Actually, they were tortoises, but close enough. What fascinated the kids? The baby pooping right before their eyes. They found it downright hilarious. And we adults had the chance to sing, “Everybodyyyyy poopssss,” ala Dinosaur Train. My son was really looking forward to seeing the stars of Happy Feet, but there was a long penguin in the habitat, which had my sister the professional zookeeper concerned. Still, despite that disappointment, we charged on.
One of the unique aspects of the zoo is the interactive aviary. Guests are not allowed to touch the birds, which include parakeets (see photo below), but they can feed them. You can purchase sticks with birdseed on them and hold them out for the birds to come to you. The kids went wild. The birds were chirping directly in their ears and munching the food off the sticks that they held in their hands. My son and niece had grins as wide as the Hudson. My mom was another story. She had birds sitting on her feet and trying to fly up her leg because much of the bird seed lands on the ground. My sister-in-law and I had to maneuver the strollers with bird seeds on the wheels without rolling over an unsuspecting parakeet.
Sea lions and monkeys are always entertaining. A small petting zoo with all the usual suspects, including goats, rounded out the highlights. As we walked out of the gift shop on our way out of the zoo, a lovely peacock walked up to us and displayed his plumage despite the rain storm. The promise of giraffes existed when we went to the zoo, but they had not arrived yet. As of 2016, you can find them in the African Adventure.
What’s lovely about these little zoos is that they are not so overwhelming. The three kids actually amused themselves by observing the animals and taking in the details of the zoo. There was an elephant statue that they all climbed on to take a picture. Running through the fountains (see below) was not just for cooling off. It was also a memory in the making. They were dancing around without a care in the world, and it brought us all back to our own childhood. Isn’t that, in part, what a day at the zoo is all about?
Liberty Science Center (LSC) just might be the definition of cool. As soon as you walk into the place, you will see the Hoberman Sphere, which is made up of what has been described as scissor-like connectors that expand and contract dozens of times per day and hangs overhead heralding in visitors. It mesmerizes the kids, especially the little ones. It sets the stage for the awesomeness you will be experiencing all day long.
Once you get inside, you might not know where to start. There’s just so much to explore. This interactive museum/laboratory in Jersey City, N.J. (near the boats that take you to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island) aims to educate guests about science and technology. My mother, sister-in-law, and I were visiting with my nearly 5-year-old son, 4-year-old nephew, and 6-year-old niece. Our main purpose was to see the traveling Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle exhibit that will be leaving LSC Sept. 5, 2016. Beyond that, we weren’t sure what to expect. Our kids are young, and some of the concepts hyped in the literature seemed over their head. But we had nothing to worry about. There was more than enough age-appropriate activities for them to enjoy. Here are the highlights:
Dino Dig – This exhibit was a close second to TMNT as the kids’ favorite part of the day. With the view of NYC in the background (see photo above), the kids get down in the sand and search for dinosaur bones. While they are finding these fossils, the nerdy chic staffers came around and explained exactly what they were seeing and told them about the dinos that once roamed the Earth. (Anyone who read about Field Station Dinosaurs on this site knows our affinity for dinosaurs.) As I understand it, this is open until Labor Day. I don’t think you’d want to be out there in the cold winter. Still, it was the perfect summer activity, and our kids are still talking about it. And they saved the little book that told them about the dino bones they were finding as a keepsake (but they also refer to it often).
I Explore – An area designed for preschoolers to stretch their minds. Here, my son put together a little wooden car and drove it down rails to see if it worked. Then, he changed the wheels or body to make it faster or slower. Here, all three kids put together a 3-D dinosaur puzzle and created different scenes with magnetic shapes and pegs in a board that lit up. They had the most fun putting colorful plastic balls in a tube and cranking them out into other tubes and ultimately back into the bin for those who were next in line. The littlest of children were busy playing sensory games, including running their fingers through rice and shoveling it into buckets as if it was sand.
Honey Bees – I was amazed at this exhibit, which really is unobtrusive and easily overlooked. But the working hive builds a honeycomb right in front of you. There is a tube outside the building that allows the bees to come in and out and ushers them into the hive, which is behind thick glass (so the bees can’t reach or sting you). You really get the meaning of worker bees. You see them on the job. We missed it, but there are opportunities to watch beekeepers working with the bees, by the way.
Our Hudson Home – Granted, much of the history was lost on the preschoolers in our gang. But this exhibit gave us a chance to show them the wonders of the river that we see everyday. The fish, like that big guy in the photo above, and plant life on display was a treat. The chance to pull sand out of the “river” was the cherry on top. Just when we thought the exhibit couldn’t get any better, one of the senior staffers had the three kids conduct an experiment with water bottles to show how strong water pressure can be. Any chance to play scientist is welcome in our house.
Eat and Be Eaten – In this area, you will spy all different little creatures, including small monkeys, giant cockroaches, land turtles, and a lizard or two. We happened to spot Pokemon there, too. The kids can’t get enough of looking at animals, so this was a winner.
Physical Activities – There was a wall for the kids to climb, a giant soccer net to kick a ball into, and a bar for hanging as long as you could (my niece was awesome at this one). And there was all sorts of other stuff that we didn’t get a chance to do. Perhaps, the most impressive (not to mention scariest for us) was the Infinity Climber. It was like a series of randomly placed steps, connected to one another, and covered in a heavy-duty net. The whole thing hung in the air almost as if it was magic. While we observed a staffer creating a giant bubble wall, we got a chance to see the kids climbing. My mother, who has a severe fear of heights, could not even look, so we didn’t bother letting our kids do it. But it looked like a lot of fun if you had the courage.
These exhibits are a fraction of what you’ll find, and there are all sorts of special events and activities, so check the Website before your visit. You might also like the IMAX and RealD 3-D theaters or the laser shows. Admission costs $21.75 for adults, $17.75 for children ages 2 to 12, and $18.75 for seniors (age 62 and over). The shows and special exhibits cost extra. You can see prices on the Website. The extras weren’t necessary for us considering the ages of the kids. None of them were going to sit through an IMAX show. I guarantee it.
I remember a rush of water slapping my face and preventing me from breathing as I stared down the huge backside of a hefty grown-up man. For a moment, my 10-year-old self believed she would die a horrifying death by drowning because of a rather plump father, who had gotten stuck inside a tube in a maze at a water park. In his defense, this poor dad was just trying to keep up with his toddler who had scampered down the chute. But now we were all facing the possibility of a cruel and unusual death. God only knew where the kid was, and dad was reduced to a pig trying to squeeze through a pinhole while water with firehose-like might pummeled our little faces and baby bodies.
My younger brother and sister and cousins stood motionless and continued to take a beating from the forceful water pumps. Then, my littlest cousin dropped his water shoe down the holes in the maze, and it floated at the bottom of the pool beneath us. He began to wail, and as he opened his mouth, water rushed in. I thought, “This will be our end. The headlines will read, ‘Death By Fat Ass.'” Alas, it was not. Led by an older relative, we actually used our hands and the full force of our weight to squeeze Big Poppa through the tube. We raced to the end of the maze, got out, and called a guard for help getting back the lost shoe. This was my lasting impression of Sesame Place in Langhorn, Pa. Ok, that’s not completely true. I also remember loving the lazy river, and my brother peeing in the cooler on the ride home when we got stuck in traffic and nature called. True story. To his credit, he filled the thing with urine. Of course, it was garbage after that.
What Is Sesame Place?
Still, I longed to return to the land of Big Bird with my own son. Recently, I finally had the chance. While the park remains a Disney wannabe that doesn’t quite measure up, it is a lovely way to spend the day with young children, and I recommend it to anyone who can make it there and afford it. For full disclosure, Sesame Place is owned by SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, which also owns the SeaWorld parks, Bush Gardens, and a couple of water parks. As some of you know, SeaWorld has faced protest and criticism for its original means for capturing and training killer whales (think Shamu), which was explained in the CNN documentary Blackfish. The company is still trying to restore itself to its former glory and win back the trust of the public. Sesame Place, of course, is not an aquarium or zoo and should be seen as a separate entity.
Dating back to 1980, Sesame Place has grown from three to 14 acres of fun. The theme park features water rides, dry rides, shows, a parade, and restaurants. Kids have the chance to interact with the characters from the beloved educational show Sesame Street. Everywhere you look you will see a reminder of the show, including topiaries shaped like Mr. Snuffleupagus or Grover, the names of the restaurants (Elmo’s Eatery, for example), or Big Bird’s welcoming beak at the entrance. The place sure has changed since I was a kid. There is way more to do, including a character meet and greet lunch and dinner, special events for Halloween and Christmas, and a hopping parade.
How Much Is This Going to Cost You?
Tickets cost $55 for a summer single-day pass if you buy them online. (You’ll pay $65 at the gate.) Like SeaWorld of yesteryear, you can get what was once known as a fun pass, which means with your purchase of a one-day ticket, you can get into the park for a second day anytime until the end of the year free. We opted for this and plan to find a day to go again. If you live close enough or don’t mind staying until closing time at 9 p.m. on most nights, then you can get $15 off both weekend and weekday tickets by entering after 3 p.m. My sister-in-law has done this and felt it worked out well. We left around 4 p.m., and I noticed way more people traffic after 3, so if you don’t like crowds, the discount might not be worth it.
You can also plan your dining online. The only character meal is at Dine with Elmo & Friends restaurant, and it requires reservations. The prices ($28 for kids 10+ and $9 for kids under 10) are higher for this buffet meal than at the quick-service restaurants and food trucks and stands around the park, but your kid will get to meet the gang from Sesame Street, including Big Red himself. We might have done this but there was a special event on the day we went, so there were no reservations available. I found that there were openings in the days right after, so it might not be too hard to get a reservation. (In other words, you don’t have to be on the phone a la Disney Dining at midnight six months before your trip to score a reservation. Phew!)
Much like Disney, there is a dining plan from which you can choose even if but for one day. In fact, my family and I opted into this. Again, you must purchase this online ahead of your trip. The deal was good. For $13 each, my husband and I were able to get one meal, one side, one beverage, and one snack at Elmo’s Eatery, Cookie’s Cafe, or Captain Ernie’s Bistro. For $10, my son was able to get one meal, one side, one beverage, and one snack, all served on a souvenir plate and cup at those same quick-service restaurants. There is a Premium Dining Pass if you’re planning on eating lunch and dinner at Sesame Place. We were happy to have bought into this because the food isn’t very good. As my husband said, “You don’t feel as bad paying little for garbage.”
At Cookie’s Cafe, we ate burgers, which were standard and fine, and my son had chicken fingers, which were oily and a bit soggy, but he ate them anyway. The French fries had no taste at all; it was like eating air. Still, I’d recommend Cookie’s Cafe or Elmo’s Eatery next door if you go with the quick service dining plans. Captain Ernie’s was cramped and didn’t have as many options. We did, however, get snacks from Ernie’s later in the day. Despite looking like nothing special, the cupcake and cookie were super delicious. My son chose a Go-Gurt, which he devoured with pleasure. Don’t even try to use your snack at one of the food trucks. It’s an exercise in futility. Still, the Starbucks stand offers up some great soft-serve ice cream and a wannabe Disney Dole Whip, which I didn’t try but seemed popular with the regulars. There are a slew of other options, which you can check out at the Website before your visit.
Of course, you don’t go to Sesame Place for the food (or at least I hope, for your sake, you don’t). The appeal is in the rides and entertainment. We didn’t get to do as much as I would have liked because the lines were long on a hot summer Saturday. But we did hang out in Ernie’s Waterworks pools (which are short on waves and long on wading, perfect little kiddies), the Count’s Splash Castle (basically a series of mazes and slides like the one I went through and got stuck in all those years ago), Sesame Streak (a water slide for one or two), Big Bird’s Rambling River (which was as relaxing as I remembered), and the Sunny Day Carousel (my son’s first pick because he wanted to ride a blue horse). We stuck with the water rides – aside from the carousel, which was our first ride – because it was hot, hot, hot out there. Despite applying and re-applying sunblock, I did get a bit burned on my shoulders and my son ended up quite tan. Be prepared. We also used bug spray because of fears of Zica (which are nowhere near Pennsylvania at this time, but still).
All the rides seemed to be family friendly and appropriate for little guys. There were signs with measuring poles for some rides that required children under a certain height wear life vests, which were available. We did bring my son’s own vest, but he was tall enough to forego it on every ride on which we went. I was extra glad he had it, however, especially when he went down the blue slide in the Count’s play area by himself. It was great because he was so proud to go down on his own, and I met him on the bottom. My husband came – with a much bigger splash – right behind him.
Buy everything online, so you get all the discounts and know going into this what your day will be like and what you’ll be eating (more or less).
Bring towels and sunblock and bug spray – plenty of it.
Carry a bottles of water in a cooler bag.
Get a locker for your valuables (namely your wallet). It is a bit costly but it’s better than worrying about this stuff while you’re on the rides.
Bring a plastic fanny pack or bag (that you can wear like a chain around your neck) to carry a few dollars and a phone at all times. Lots of people had these, and I was jealous. I wasn’t able to take nearly as many photos as I would have liked because my phone was locked up in the locker for fear of breaking or losing it.
Invest in water shoes. We were all wearing flip flops, so we would have to leave them by our stroller in the stroller parking area. The flip-flops fall off upon impact of landing from the slides. The pavement was scorching hot. We ended up carrying around my 40-lb., barefoot son. And my feet felt as though they were on fire the entire time. Not fun.
No matter how hard you try, you will pass souvenir stores, especially on your way in and out of the park. I didn’t want to argue with my son, who was already disappointed that we hadn’t actually met Elmo. So, we agreed to get him a small gift. I ended up paying $12 for a small car driven by Cookie Monster. He loves the thing, and even brought it to bed one night. But I wish I would have picked up a Sesame Street item at the dollar store and had it ready to whip out when he asked for something. Of course, you can also always make this a lesson and just say no. I’ve done that before on other trips, and despite the crying, I think he is slowly learning he can’t get everything he wants. At least, I hope he’s learning.