Baltimore's New Bearings
By Donna Peremes
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 1, 2005
WILL A ZOO by any other name enchant the same?
Visitors to the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore -- nee the Baltimore Zoo -- can judge for themselves now that the attraction has come out of its self-described winter hibernation. The zoo was closed for most of January and February, and reopened in early March.
The name change is part of a $1.3 million investment that includes new propane-fueled trams, finishing touches on the Polar Bear Watch exhibit and updated displays in the zoo's African Journey and Maryland Wilderness sections.
As for the altered moniker, there are a couple of reasons, said zoo publicist Ben Gross, who left his post shortly before publication. For one, "I think there is a decided lack of just general public knowledge that we had such a great institution up here."
Also, the new name is "more representative of our guests. More than two-thirds come from outside the city or county. We get support from the state, obviously, and surrounding counties, but we're still true to our roots so we still have 'Baltimore' in there."
The physical changes are obvious from the get-go. You're now guided to two different routes into the heart of the zoo: a road traveled by trams or the Plaza Pathway, a paved six-minute walk to the attractions.
"The zoo layout is a lot more like a hub and spokes now as opposed to the sort of linear walk you had before," Gross explained. The Main Valley pathway of caged exhibits that immediately greeted zoogoers upon entering and that led to the bigger, themed sections is no more.
Karl Fox, a return visitor from Philadelphia who arrived on a sunny spring Saturday with partner April Bischoff and daughter Janice, 10, found the place "pretty much the same" and is sold on the zoo no matter what the name.
"I'd rather drive 100 miles" to visit the Maryland Zoo, he says, than the one in his home town, which he finds far too crowded.
"Which changes?" asked Paul Heiser of New Freedom, Pa., when asked his opinion. "Well, obviously they've got the main section, Main Valley, closed. . . . That's the only change that I noticed."
But that change is a sad one indeed for many longtime fans.
"You used to have the birds greet you," lamented Lisa Mallonee of Baltimore, a zoo member and mother of 2-year-old Charlie and 1-year-old Will. "For the kids, it was nice."
The financially struggling zoo trimmed the number of resident mammals and birds by 10 percent and 30 percent, respectively, and upgrades to the closed Main Valley will take at least six years, according to a recent article in the Baltimore Sun.
However one feels about the newly configured entrance, once inside the zoo, opinion was unanimous about the Polar Bear Watch, where a transparent tank allows zoogoers to view the bears diving and swimming in a natural environment.
"It's wonderful. It's a wonderful exhibit," said Mallonee's friend Pascale Thomas, who brought Etienne, 2, and 1-month-old Natalie.
"This is the first time we've seen them in the tank," said Heiser, who was accompanied by wife Nancy and daughters Katie, 5, and Emily, 3. "It's pretty exciting."
"Awesome," Fox says, surveying the sunbathing bears from the zoo's popular Tundra Buggy, a bus-size ATV in which visitors can tour the exhibit. Indeed, shrieks of glee from a day-trip contingent from Baltimore's Park School one weekday suggest the Polar Bear Watch is a big hit. The two stars of the show, Alaska and Magnet, seem to know there's an audience there, and these Esther Williamses of the ursine set dive and swirl with real charisma.
Other planned changes include updates to the Children's Zoo and a new small rock-climbing wall for younger tots who were envious of their older siblings' exploits. A picnic area will be fashioned near the old hippo house, which hasn't been home to a hippo since Peaches left for South Carolina in 1994, and new bathrooms will be installed in the Maryland Wilderness and Children's Zoo area.
Between Memorial and Labor days it will play host to Parakeet Landing, "a sort of traveling aviary of tropical birds," Gross explains, that allows for feeding and other interaction. "The birds are tame, and there's a good number of them. They rotate them out so you don't have 150 people feeding the same bird," he says.
It may not be very noticeable, but fans and critics alike can weigh in on the changes as they exit: A box between the ticket booths, surrounded by a lion's head, inquires, "Something to ROAR about? Comments Please."
THE MARYLAND ZOO IN BALTIMORE -- Druid Hill Park, Baltimore. 410-366-5466. www.marylandzoo.org. Open daily March 1-Dec. 31 from 10 to 4:30; last admission one hour before closing. $15 adults; $12 seniors 65 and older; $10 children 2 to 11. Children 1 and younger free. Free parking. Directions: From downtown Baltimore, take Pratt Street to President Street and turn left. President Street becomes Interstate 83 (also known as the JFX); take this highway north to Exit 7 West, Druid Park Lake Drive. Follow signs to zoo.