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N.C., Jacksonville zoos worthy spring break destinations

The 2014 park map for the N.C. Zoological Park touted, “Something to roar about.” Those words speak volumes there and at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in Florida, both situated on streets named Zoo Parkway.

For families mapping out spring break road trips to destinations north and south, either zoo merits an easy escape on a to-do list, each with a great opportunity for leisurely, scenic strolls and visual and audible memories.

Wonderland in heart of N.C.

The N.C. Zoological Park, established in 1974 in Asheboro, south of Greensboro, just a few miles off Interstate 73/74, spans 550 acres of displays that could take anyone’s breath away for a whole day.

The zoo has two main entrances, by its North America section, with a parking lot open year-round, and by the Africa part, with parking there open April to October. Either way, trams run inside the zoo between both aformentioned halves and, in warmer months, between both parking lots.

A visit this past winter got off to a rocky start, as in the “Rocky Coast” area, where harbor seals showed they have a life of luxury, swimming laps upside down without a fear in the world from a polar bear napping around the corner in another portion. Look more closely, or through binoculars, and see how this bear, a species so deft at swimming in the wild, actually boasts black skin, which absorbs heat from the sun.

The hair on an Arctic fox, also in separate quarters, had not turned white yet, but this visit was before the string of cold snaps and snowfall that struck the interior of the Carolinas.

Anyone who passes on taking the tram across the zoo to Africa will be treated to a pleasant walk along the park prairie-themed fringe, including black and grizzly bears, and elk and bison.

A tram ride to the Junction Plaza, the center of the zoo, leads to a whole other world. For a break from sun or a chilly day, head inside the Forest Aviary, and don’t fret at whittling away at least an hour. A walk and several pauses to sit, look around and consume the sounds will make this stop alone worth the visit to this zoo.

Anyone who happens by when a zoo hand is restocking the feeding stations through this tropical paradise might get great shots with a camera as the birds turn out to munch, such as a blue-crowned hanging parrot, mousebird or red-capped cardinal. Bowls left on the floor inside exhibits will attract bigger ground dwellers, such as a Victoria crowned pigeon, looking so majestic with blue and purple plumage.

Nearby, walk along the expanse of the Watani Grasslands Reserve and scan for its star denizens, white rhinoceroses and a herd of African elephants. With the latter, see which of the two bull pachyerms, among the biggest land animals anyone will ever see, is out: C’sar or Artie, in a separate field from the females. Look for a weather-hardy binder along the walkway to recognize who is who, such as Rafiki, a cow transferred a decade ago from the Toledo Zoo in Ohio.

Continuing a loop, everyone stopping by the Forest Edge area will see ostriches, zebras and giraffes sharing a few acres. Seeing a giraffe use a tree for a back-scratching post would prove a bonus view.

In the pride of lions, look for a mother with four cubs, each doing his or her own thing, and maybe even catching the ear of an entertaining exhibit of chimpanzees on the other side, completely separate. A roster of the chimps lists each resident’s name and age, and they come in all sizes and temperaments, sometimes coming right up along the glass, making people jump, laugh or both.

Lots of loops in Jacksonville

Find the Jacksonville Zoo, off I-95, about 30 miles south of the Florida-Georgia line, full of large big-cat displays, especially Sumatran and Malayan tigers, up close, through glass — a perfect fit in a city where the NFL’s Jaguars play.

Anyone heading to or from Walt Disney World or other points in Orlando, or Daytona Beach and Tampa, can use a break to spend a half-day easily in exploring this zoo, which began its second century last year.

The visitor’s map details about 10 small loops — including those named “Wild Florida,” “Great Apes” and “Asia/Komodo Dragon/Land of the Tiger” — to take in making a grand loop overall. A train ride, for a small extra fee that covers access all day, does its own scenic loop as well.

The tiger exhibit, opened a year ago, truly takes the cake in experiencing this zoo. Besides seeing the big cats stroll catwalks above walkways, step into an enclosed pavilion with ceiling-to-floor glass viewing of tigers, and the possibility of touching your nose to a tiger whisker through the panes. The viewing there also works both ways.

The entry for this area leads through a stone arc into the Asian Bamboo Gardens, effusing elegance near the banks of the Trout River. Peering at the poetic footbridge over a koi pond could trigger thoughts of the paradise Claude Monet found in Giverny, France.

African elephants have their own range in this zoo, too, seen from the train or a walk-up deck.

The Great Apes exhibit commands its own appeal, with not only viewing of Western lowland gorillas through an atrium, but bonobos, which differ from chimps with their thinner, smaller frames and more black hue.

A play park will entertain more than just children. In warmer weather months from about mid-March through summer, bring a swimsuit to frolic in the splash ground. Letting a youngster into the petting farm, sit back and watch him or her befriend one of the pygmy goats, which enjoy being brushed.

Magellanic penguins make the most of their being celebrities in their Tuxedo Coast corner, where visitors can view them over and under water, even parking on a bench as the children sit alongside the underwater panes. With scheduled feedings at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., see if the handler makes sure every penguin gets a nibble, even calling particular ones, such as a molting bird, by name to ensure they get some fishy grub.

Anyone refueling on food in the Palm Plaza Cafe, on the river side of the zoo, in proximity to the play park, may see a jaguar walking on elevated walks in the Range of the Jaguar exhibit. A sign states the species once roamed across what is now Florida 10,000 years ago.

And for trivia’s sake, especially for fans of the Jacksonville pro football team, the other expansion NFL franchise when the Carolina Panthers began play in Charlotte in 1995: What are the largest cats in the Western Hemisphere and third in size worldwide, behind tigers and lions? Jaguars.

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