Essex County Turtle Back Zoo has added some new African animals to its collection Friday, but instead of fur and skin, they're made of plaster and cement. The zoo celebrated the grand opening of its newest attraction, an African-themed, 19-hole miniature golf course.
Jeremy Goodman, Turtle Back Zoo's director, said the roughly $800,000 miniGOLF Safari, the course's official name, is part of a new vision for the zoo.
"It provides another form of recreation for the residents and another source of revenue for the county," said Goodman. "It is all developed along the lines of Africa."
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. said the property adjacent to the zoo on Northfield Avenue was an eyesore for the people of the county.
"What we're doing is expanding the Essex County South Mountain Recreation Complex," he said. "We wanted to include things to increase the revenue at Turtle Back Zoo, and what better than to have a miniature golf course for the people of Essex County to come and enjoy."
DiVincenzo said the African-themed course includes notable sights such as Mount Kilimanjaro, the Sahara desert and the Congo. "The young people that go there will be educated and learn while also playing golf," he said.
Goodman said all the animals on the course are life size and accurate replicas, including elephants and crocodiles.
Mike Piga, of French and Parrello in Wall, the lead architects on the project, said the African theme was created to tie into the zoo's master plan. "We developed the concept of the three areas of Africa — the Sahara desert, the grasslands and the Congo," he said. "What we did was outline (the course) with boulders, so from far away, the entire course is shaped like the continent."
Sedra Schiffman, of Brielle, said her grandson brought her to the course. "I think it's great fun and it's nicely put together," she said. "The people are very nice and he (grandson) is having fun. That's the main thing."
DiVincenzo said the county opted for a 19-hole course instead of 18 because "we wanted to do something special."
"We wanted the people to have an extra feeling of what was going on there and it's absolutely beautiful," he said. He said it took about five months to complete.
Coby Shulman, 5, of West Orange, said he came to the course Friday with his mother and brother because he did not have school. "I don't know yet if I'm winning because my mommy didn't (record) the last hole," he said. "Once we do that, we'll know who won."
DiVincenzo said the mini golf course is part of the $4.8 million, 36-acre South Mountain Recreation Complex renovation, which includes Turtle Back Zoo, Richard J. Codey Arena, a three-story Park N Ride facility, a 300-space surface parking lot, which was built in conjunction with miniGOLF Safari, and a soon-to-be-built boathouse. He said the county will start construction on the boathouse and restaurant over the Orange reservoir in December or early January. He said the entire $4.8 million was paid for by the county's economic development funds.
Admission to miniGOLF Safari is $5 for children and $7 for adults. It is open Monday to Friday, 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.