West Orange, NJ – Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. announced that 37,173 people visited and over 3.5 tons of non-perishable food, clothing and toys were collected for the needy during the 6th Annual Essex County Holiday Lights Spectacular at Turtle Back Zoo. During the six-week period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, visitors to the Holiday Lights Spectacular were given free admission and asked to make a donation that would benefit several organizations dedicated to helping the less fortunate.

The 37,173 visitors at the Holiday Lights Spectacular this winter was the second highest attendance record for the winter attraction, coming in behind last year’s attendance of 52,878. In addition, there were 7,473 pounds of food – about 3.5 tons – of non-perishable food collected for the Community FoodBank of NJ, 460 toys collected for the Jersey Battered Women’s Services and 90 winter coats donated to the Montclair Red Cross. This was the third consecutive year that visitors were asked to make a donation to help the less fortunate, and donations over the past three years amount to over 16 tons of non-perishable food, 6,786 toys and 1,639 winter coats.

“I can honestly say that Essex County Turtle Back Zoo has the nicest, most charitable and generous patrons. What we collected surpasses all my expectations. These donations show the generous spirit and caring that exists in our community and certainly helped make a difference during the holiday season to those who need assistance,” DiVincenzo said. “We offered free admission to the Holiday Lights as a way to give back to our residents and make the event available to everyone, and our visitors responded with extraordinary generosity to help the less fortunate,” he noted.

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About 50 animal and holiday-themed figures lit up the winter night in Turtle Back Zoo and the surrounding Essex County South Mountain Recreation Complex. Over 100,000 lights illuminated figures of bears, tigers and elephants, along with holiday lights designed to look like wooden soldiers, stars and winter scenes. The Essex County Holiday Lights Spectacular was sponsored by Covanta Energy, PSE&G, McLoone’s Boathouse Restaurant, the Zoological Society of New Jersey and the Essex County Parks Foundation.

Essex County also had another record year at Turtle Back Zoo. In 2012, there were 560,402 visitors – the third consecutive year that attendance surpassed the half million mark and the eighth consecutive year that a new annual attendance record was set. In addition, the $4.3 million in revenue collected in 2012 was the ninth consecutive year that a new annual revenue record was set. In addition, it was the fifth consecutive year that Turtle Back Zoo operated as a self-sufficient facility, meaning the amount of revenue collected exceeded operating expenses. In 2011, there were 525,507 visitors and $3.5 million in revenue.

DiVincenzo has stressed that new attractions at Turtle Back Zoo produce revenue. These include nominal fees to ride the endangered species-themed carousel, to take a Pony Ride, purchase feed sticks for the Outback Adventure Aviary, purchase commemorative photographs by the Turtle Back Zoo miniature train ride, play at the miniGOLF Safari and climb through the trees in the Treetop Adventure Course. (Treetop Adventure was closed in October after being severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy.) Another revenue producer for the Zoo is McLoone’s Boathouse Restaurant.

2013 looks to be another exciting year as Turtle Back Zoo celebrates its 50thanniversary. A gala celebration is being planned for Wednesday, June 5th at the Pleasantdale Chateau. In addition, the opening of a new Sea Lion and Sting Ray Exhibit is scheduled to coincide with the anniversary and plans are underway to develop a new Education Building.

Revitalizing Essex County Turtle Back Zoo

In September 2011, Essex County Turtle Back Zoo received its second consecutive five-year accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and is among only 221 facilities worldwide that are accredited. Earning accreditation is a clear indication that an institution is committed to the highest standards in animal care, ethics, conservation and education.

Since taking office in 2003, DiVincenzo has spearheaded over $70 million in upgrades to Essex County Turtle Back Zoo, which have included developing the Treetop Adventure Course with 22 aerial obstacle features and two zip lines; the Carousel with 33 figures of endangered animals; building the Big Cat Country Exhibit with Jaguars and Cougars; Tam-ring Gibbons Reserve with Gibbons apes, Reeves muntjac and white naped cranes; Australian Exhibit that features kangaroos, wallabies, emus and over 500 birds in the Aviary; Reptile and Education Center, open air dining pavilion and playground, Penguin Exhibit, Otter Exhibit, Wolf Exhibit, Alligator Exhibit, North American Animal Exhibit, Black Bear Exhibit, Animal Hospital, Essex Farm Petting Zoo and South American Animal Exhibit; renovating the Food Pavilion for year-round use and making upgrades to the entrance as well as fencing and infrastructure to meet AZA requirements. Funding has been provided through Green Acres grants, existing capital improvement bonds, or donations from the Zoological Society, Essex County Parks Foundation, corporations or private foundations. Corporations that have provided support include Prudential Financial, Inc., Wachovia Bank (Wells Fargo), Covanta Energy-Essex, Investors Savings, PNC Bank, PSE&G, Verizon, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, Coca Cola, Capital One Bank, TD Bank, Aramark and OxyMagic carpet cleaning.

The Essex County Park System was created in 1895 and is the first county park system established in the United States. The Park System consists of more than 6,000 acres and has 22 parks, five reservations, an environmental center, a zoo, ice skating rink, roller skating rink, three public golf courses, golf driving range, miniature golf course, Treetop Adventure Course, three off-leash dog facilities, a castle and the Presby Iris Gardens. Turtle Back Zoo is located in Essex County’s South Mountain Reservation and was opened to the public in 1963.