A refreshing near-normal feeling may be emerging these days at Brookfield Zoo.
A series of restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic remain in place at the 86-year-old west suburban institution following a nearly four-month shutdown that ended in July.
But on a recent weekday visit, moms were spotted pushing strollers amid leafy environs while awestruck kids pointed up at giraffes, meowed at big cats and warily eyed some of the 40 large animatronic dinosaurs scattered through the 216-acre site.
One of Illinois’ most popular attractions, Brookfield Zoo typically draws more than 2 million annual visitors mostly from a 50-mile radius of Chicago, but also from other areas of Illinois, plus northwest Indiana and southern Wisconsin.
Officials say attendance has yet to hit 500,000 this year and that lower figure has affected the bottom line, forcing layoffs of 56 full-time equivalent positions in June.
The good news is that visitors are returning to the zoo, owned and operated by the nonprofit Chicago Zoological Society.
Attendance at a late September Oktoberfest had officials feeling more upbeat.
“Just for a moment if felt like everything was going to be OK and the world was getting back to normal,” said Leah Rippe, the Zoological Society’s vice president of marketing and communications. “It felt good to hear the music … (and) see the kids dancing with their families and having a good time.”
The state’s COVID-19 guidelines require indoor attractions to remain closed, which means no dolphin show, carousel, or up-close views of animals in Tropic World, home of primates from three continents and once the world’s largest indoor zoo.
Indoor play and dining areas and shops are also shuttered, although some gift shopping has moved outdoors. Walk-up food service is also available.
“We’re operating under the guidelines of Phase 4 (of Illinois’ reopening plan), most specifically for zoos,” Rippe said. “It indicates that we cannot have any buildings open whatsoever. (But) the guests can come and experience the animals in their outdoor habitat.”
Outdoor views of animals — including Ahava, the newest resident and a three-month old snow leopard cub — are just a portion of things to do.
Brookfield Zoo’s dual status as an arboretum — accreditation was awarded in 2013 — makes October a perfect time to view a variety of trees and woody plants as fall colors arrive.
The current Dinos Everywhere temporary exhibit, meanwhile, could arguably be worth the price of admission. The exhibit offers 40 lifelike animatronic dinosaurs in solo and group settings. The largest is the 110-foot long, three-story tall Argentinosaurus.
The exhibit, which runs through Nov. 1, was created by Don Lessum, an adviser to the “Jurassic Park” movie series and is on loan from Dino Don, Inc. and The Wildlife Conservation Society.
A series of holiday events begin in November. Work crews were already starting to put up lights last week.
COVID-19 REQUIREMENTS: All guests ages 2 and older must wear masks and observe social distancing (with the exception of families). All financial transactions inside the park are via debit or credit cards only. There are numerous hand sanitizer stations and high-use areas and restrooms are frequently cleaned.
HOURS, ADMISSION: The zoo is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. weekends. Admission is $24.95 for adults, $17.95 for children ages 3-11 and $19.95 for seniors 65 and older. All tickets must be purchased online in advance and include reserved timed entry along with pre-purchased parking (if required). Active, reserve and retired military personnel are offered free individual entry. A basic yearly zoo membership offers free admission for up to two adults and adults’ children or grandchildren, four one-time guest tickets plus free North Lot parking and start at $130 for an adult and $83 for seniors. Other membership plans are also available.
HOW TO GET THERE: The zoo is located on First Avenue between Ogden Avenue and 31st Street in Brookfield, just 14 miles west of downtown Chicago. Drivers can exit First Avenue from the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290) and from the Stevenson Expressway (I-55). Signs on First Avenue will direct drivers to the zoo’s main entrance and zoo parking. Parking, also payable in advance, is $15 per vehicle, $21 for buses. The zoo is also an easy reach from downtown Chicago or western suburbs as far away as Naperville and Aurora via Metra’s BNSF commuter rail line. The zoo’s south gate is about a four-block walk from the Hollywood/Zoo Stop. Pace Bus Route 331 also serves the zoo Monday-Saturday. Visit www.pacebus.com for fares, times and more information.
HELP THE ANIMALS: Care and feeding of more than 2,000 animals remains a priority and the zoo is seeking donations to help offset costs. Information is available at www.CZS.org/donate.
MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.czs.org/Brookfield-ZOO/Home for more information on attractions, directions and tickets.