The N.C. Zoo is dubbed the largest natural habitat zoo in the United States. In the Watani Grasslands Reserve, for instance, rhinos, antelope and more roam about 40 acres.
The exhibit offers a habitat similar to what they mind find in the wild, but, for visitors, it means you can't always see the animals as they move across the property. Now, with the zoo's new Zoofari ride, visitors can get even closer to these beautiful animals.
"It was a long-term goal to bring our visitors closer to our animals," said Lane Ragsdale, the zoo's travel industry manager. "And this is as close as you can get."
Zoofari opened in April. The open-air ride on board a middle school bus takes you around the grasslands exhibit to see those rhinos, various kinds of antelopes and ostriches up close. Elephants also might be on view, though they are separated by a moat for everybody's safety.
We saw them all, including the exhibit's five rhinos as close as 20 or 30 feet away. An ostrich walked right up to the bus to greet us. The antelope lingered in herds or ran across the rolling hills.
Throughout the entire hour-long ride, a keeper shared all kinds of information about the animals we were seeing and how they were cared for. As one teen on our tour said: I've been to the zoo so many times, but I've never learned so much about the animals I was seeing.
We learned that the youngest hippo among the five was actually the biggest, weighing in at a whopping 5,300 pounds at nine years old. We learned that an elephant's trunk can pick up a dime or hurl a giant tree stump a great distance (thus that moat for protection). We learned about the Addra gazelles. The zoo recently introduced three females to the exhibit. There only are about 200 left in the wild.
The bus moved slowly along the path around the exhibit, stopping as we neared animals or something the keeper wanted to talk about. Riders are encouraged to stand up so they can get a good view. It was a fascinating way to see the zoo from a new angle and a great opportunity to learn more about all of the animals.
Zoofari tours run at 11 a.m. and noon, Thursday through Sunday, only, through Oct. 31. Tickets, which are only sold in Junction Plaza, starting at 9:30 a.m., are $20 (free for kids under 2 if they sit on their adult's lap). Riders also must pay for zoo admission.
Seating is first come, first served and they often sell out - sometimes within less than 30 minutes. It's best to be at the ticket booth by 9:30 a.m. if you want to make sure to get a seat.
I highly recommend Zoofari! It was a great experience. In the summer, be prepared for warm weather and be sure to bring some water with you. There's only a portable toilet at the Zoofari station, so it might be best to take care of that before you hop on the shuttle bus at Junction Plaza to get to the station.