NC Zoo hits new milestone for attendance

Visitors celebrate the 48th birthday of C’sar, an African elephant, on Monday morning at North Carolina Zoo, where officials have reported record attendance during the past year. (PJ Ward-Brown/Randolph Record)

ASHEBORO — The North Carolina Zoo has been busier than ever this past year.

The NC Zoo announced for the fiscal year ending June 30 that more than 1 million visitors entered the gates. The previous high for a fiscal year was 879,990 in 2018-19, based on numbers listed in the announcement.

“We’re thrilled to welcome so many guests from North Carolina and around the world,” NC Zoo director Pat Simmons said in a statement. “We are constantly striving to build upon our success through growing our programs and making our guest experience better than ever.”

It potentially could become even busier for NC Zoo.

“We’re super excited for the Zoo,” said Linda Brown, president of the Asheboro/Randolph Chamber of Commerce. “The city (of Asheboro) and the Zoo are doing so much to enhance and improve the facilities.”

Repeated inquiries to NC Zoo for additional information regarding the attendance didn’t receive responses, or NC Zoo officials reached were unwilling to provide more insight earlier this week. 

Amber Scarlett, executive director of the Asheboro-based Heart of North Carolina Visitors Bureau, said tourism practically doubled from 2020 to 2021 in the region. She called NC Zoo the key tourism attraction in Randolph County.

“Bringing new and return visitors to our area to not only explore the extraordinary habitats of animals and plants, but also allowing families to affordably create memories,” Scarlett said. “We look forward to even more economic impact from the Zoo’s expansion in upcoming years.”

There could be several factors in the soaring attendance that has been announced by NC Zoo.

It apparently was a fast rise for NC Zoo, which closed operations to the public on March 17, 2020, because of Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order based on the COVID-19 pandemic.

About two months later – June 15, 2020 – NC Zoo reopened to the public, but with new procedures in place. It wasn’t until July 1, 2021, that NC Zoo returned to normal operations with no capacity limits.

With a new Asia zone for NC Zoo in the works, that’s bound to increase traffic as a tourist attraction. Groundbreaking for that is expected later this summer, with that area opening in 2026.

“That makes the Zoo an overnight destination,” Brown said of the addition.

That Asia zone will be the first new continent added to NC Zoo since the North America continent opened in 1994.

On Monday, NC Zoo celebrated the 48th birthday of C’sar, an African elephant.

From April through October, entry to the zoo comes from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. The zoo closes at 5 p.m. From November through March, zoo entrance is permitted from 9 a.m.-3 p.m., with a 4 p.m. closing.

By Bob Sutton