After being closed for four months, Como Park Zoo and Conservatory’s doors are open again for reservation-only visits
On March 16, Como Park Zoo and Conservatory closed its doors as part of the statewide effort to contain the novel coronavirus. “And by March 17, we were already having our first meeting to figure out how to prepare for the day we reopened,” says Laura Wake Wiesner, Como’s Visitor Services & Interpretive Programs Manager.
That day finally arrived a few weeks ago, when Como Zoo joined the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in welcoming back a limited number of daily visitors who register for entry time slots through Como’s online portal. While the routed, one-way experience through the zoo grounds and gardens is a change, reservations have been filling nearly as fast as they’re made available.
“Our visitors are really excited to reconnect with Como again, and we’re thrilled to have them,” says Michelle Furrer, Como’s Campus Director.
Here’s a look at some of the planning that went into Como’s safe and socially-distanced reopening, and a preview of what to expect on your next Como visit.
Safety First: Throughout the shut-down, a task force from Como Zoo, the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory and Como Friends met virtually to plan ahead for Como’s eventual reopening, which is following the best practice safety standards recommended by Governor Tim Walz, the Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We also reached out to other zoos across the country that opened earlier to learn from them about what worked best, and what we should be thinking about as we planned our own reopening strategy,” says Furrer.
Make A Reservation: “One thing I’d strongly recommend is if you’re thinking of making a visit, make your reservation right away,” says Furrer. “With our open door policy, we’ve never had any barriers to admission, so we are having to retrain the public that they have to plan ahead for their visits right now.” Como’s online reservation system is simple to use, and allows you to register for a time slot for up to four guests. (If you’re planning to bring a larger group, you’ll need an additional reservation.) Como’s free admission policy is still in place, but you’re always invited to pay it forward with a donation at the door or a contribution to Como Friends. Reservations
Contact-Free Care: Face coverings are required during your visit, to protect people and animals alike. That’s been the standard of care at Como for months, as keepers have been providing contact-free care for Como’s large cats, primates, and other animals that typically receive daily enrichment training. “The Bronx Zoo had several large cats with confirmed cases of COVID-19, so we’ve been following safe social distancing practices, and limiting the number of keepers on duty to help cut down on that risk,” says Furrer.
Online Education: Until it’s safe to gather in larger groups, Como’s free daily education programs have gone virtual with a daily Facebook LIVE feed every weekday at 1:30 p.m. that’s been connecting with more than 10,000 followers every day. Made possible with funding from Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment, these engaging videos have taken viewers on a wide variety of virtual garden tours, animal ambassador meet-ups and history lessons around Como’s campus. (If you missed one, check out the archive at ComoZooConservatory.org/como-live.) Como’s education department also found a way to work some animal facts into the new signage you’ll see around the grounds. “To help keep groups staggered we’ve made fun signs to show people how to stay one giant fern apart, or one tiger’s length apart,” says Wake Wiesner. “It is a brand new world out there, and we’re finding new ways to retrain people about safe ways to be out in public.”
A Change of Direction: One of the simplest ways Como is working to ensure safe social-distancing is with a one-way walking path that leads visitors from a new entry-point at Cleveland Court, past the primates, hoofstock, large cats and Polar Bear Odyssey, inside the Aquatics building to see “Sparky,” shopping at Garden Safari Gifts and past the new Pier 56 restaurant in the Como Harbor habitat now under construction. From there, visitors can continue on past the flamingos and toward Tropical Encounters, to Garden Safari Gifts in the Visitor Center and the interior gardens of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, exiting after the Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden. With a limited capacity of just 250 visitors on campus at any given time, it’s less people than a typical summer day with thousands of Como visitors. In fact, if you give the groups around you a little extra space, you may even feel like you have the grounds all to yourself.
Plant People: If you’re way more into gardens than gorillas, you can bypass the Como Zoo portion of the one-way route and head straight for the second half of the walk through the gardens of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory, and outdoors to the Bonsai terrace and the Charlotte Partridge Ordway Japanese Garden where you’ll exit the grounds. Just let the check-in attendant know that’s your plan, and they’ll show you the safest route.
Gleaming Grounds: You’ll notice that Como’s staff took advantage of the quarantine period to cross a few big jobs off the to-do list, from removing overgrown vines from the Tropical Encounters habitat, to giving benches and other guest amenities a fresh coat of paint. Stepped up cleaning and maintenance continues with frequent sanitizing of high-touch surfaces, and a deep clean team dispatched around campus every two hours.
Hit the Highlights: So much has happened at Como since you’ve been away! Be sure to say hello to the orangutans, seriously social animals who’ve really missed their public this spring and summer. “Even animals like the giraffes, which aren’t typically as interested in people,” have taken notice of the return of families, says Furrer, who recommends coming before noon for best animal viewing. You’ll also notice two new faces, Nimbus and Skywalker, two brand new Dall’s sheep born this spring. You’ll see that Como’s made major progress on Como Harbor, the new seals and sea lions habitat set to open later this year. And don’t miss your chance to see the Sunken Garden’s Summer Flower Show, in full bloom and heavenly fragrance until the end of September. Remember to stop by Garden Safari Gifts before you leave as another way to support Como Park Zoo & Conservatory. Proceeds benefit all the plants and animals you love at Como.