The Santa Ana Zoo at Prentice Park, nestled in the midst of an urban setting, is an oasis in Orange County. It was founded in 1952 by Joseph Prentice, who requested at least 50 monkeys be kept at all times. It has since expanded to nearly 20 acres with a rain forest exhibit, several rare and endangered species, a walk-through aviary, a train ride, and a carousel. Last weekend, we roamed the rainforest, trekked through the aviary, relaxed by the waterfall at Amazon’s Edge, and explored the grounds on the Zoofari Express. With a personal, behind-the-scenes tour from the Director, Kent Yamaguchi, we experienced an escape in Orange County without the price tag of a major attraction.
A park setting with clusters of trees and a picnic area led us from the parking lot to the main entrance. A modern playground adjoined it, from which started our informal path through the rest of the zoo. Roaming on the grounds were Indian blue peafowl and helmeted guineafowl.
The zoo’s major focus is the primate collection, especially Central and South American monkeys, and much of the rest of the collection features animals from Central and South America. The layout is a visual treat blurring the lines between animals and visitors.
Amazon’s Edge is the largest exhibit at the Santa Ana Zoo and features a waterfall that can be viewed from a wooden deck. The front of the habitat holds a water moat into which a large waterfall spills; behind it is a lushly planted land area with climbing branches and perches. The luscious habitat is home to howler monkeys, ducks, black-necked swans, and crested screamers. We viewed the exhibit from a rustic wood railing area with a viewing shelter buried within the shade of this tropical paradise. We were no longer stuck in the Orange County rush as we we transported to the Amazon.
Nearby is my favorite exhibit at this zoo, Colors of the Amazon. We mingled with a variety of exotic birds, who, free from cages and other enclosures, roamed about as if they were still in their native South America. Encompassing an expansive 9,000 square feet, the aviary features such colorful birds as the white-bellied caique, scarlet ibis, emerald toucanet, and blue-crowned mot-mot. In addition, the ponds feature red-eared slider turtles. Before leaving this exhibit, we relaxed at a small waterfall area that provided the perfect photo opportunity.
The Exploration Outpost fits in well with the Amazon-themed exhibits. Although it is primarily an education room in a themed peaked-roof thatched building surrounded by some play statues of a lizard and tortoise, it does have a small area with several glass terrariums for tropical insects inside and a famous bird-eating tarantula. The newest exhibit at the zoo, Tierra de las Pampas, is composed of two exhibits; the larger is for guanaco and greater rhea. The smaller exhibit is a nice one for giant anteater, a personal selection for the zoo’s Director.
The Tierra de las Pampas exhibit celebrates and preserves one of the most highly endangered habitats in the world, the Pampas Grasslands of South America. We were immersed into the environment and surrounded by native plants, grasses, and water as we explored this exhibit.
The Crean Family Farm, a large part of the zoo, offers a family farmyard adventure where you can pet some of the animals and learn about life on a farm. It is reached from a spur path from the main loop and at its entrance is the Conservation Carousel. The carrousel has a 33 animal line-up including the Giraffe, Giant Panda, African Elephant, Cheetah, Hummingbird, Lowland Gorilla, Eagle, Jaguar, Zebra, Bengal Tiger, Sea Otter, Panther, Seal, Sea Dragon, and a custom-made Anteater. Also at the entrance to the Crean Family Farm is the boarding station for the Zoofari Express Train Ride, a fun treat for both adults and kids.
If you work up an appetite while visiting the Santa Ana Zoo, there are picnic areas and Knowlwood restaurant. The most interesting feature of dining at the zoo is that you can bring your own food for enjoyment. If you don’t fancy paying high prices, like at most zoos, you can pack your own food and enjoy a simpler, family meal.
Santa Ana Zoo is definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for a fun, family-friendly day trip. Numerous events like Holiday with the Critters and Boo at the Zoo make the Santa Ana Zoo interesting all year round. Parking is free and admission to the zoo is very reasonably priced.