Phoenix Zoo’s “Cruise The Zoo” – A Clever Alternative To Pacing Like A Caged Animal

A car full of visitors meander past a lion habitat. (Photo: Phoenix Zoo)
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“What did you do today, Pops?”, we ask our octogenarian father, who lives in a 700 square foot apartment in an independent living facility. “Paced back and forth, mostly” is his curt reply. This whole self-quarantining business is getting older than grandpa’s favorite La-Z-Boy recliner. And none feel it more stingingly than those of us whose lives depend on social interaction with others — the elderly and children.

If there was one place you could take the kids and grandparents, where would it be? Why, the zoo, of course! Here in Arizona, a trip to the zoo is a rite of Spring and a family tradition to more than a few. But the zoo is closed. Or is it?

Zoo employee doubles as a traffic coordinator. (Photo: Phoenix Zoo)

The Phoenix Zoo is modern proof that necessity is the mother of invention. Faced with a temporary closure and acres of animals to feed and landscape to tend, the Zoo staff donned its collective thinking cap and devised a way for people to practice safe social distancing while enjoying a day among the lions, zebras, and giraffes. 

For a limited time, the Phoenix Zoo has been offering a special program called “Cruise The Zoo”. Open only to vehicular traffic, a route through the zoo can be traversed by visitors from the safety and comfort of their own vehicles. The concept is simple — although the execution is anything but. The zoo has been closed to walking visitors, but many of the paths are super wide — wide enough for at least one lane of vehicular traffic.

A long and meandering path is traced by a single file of visiting cars (and other modes of transportation) at a slow, safe four miles per hour (tortoise speed). From the vantage point of the vehicles, animal enclosures are quite visible — perhaps even more so in the absence of throngs of school children vying for the best vantage points. Animals in their open-air habitats — acres of mountains, savannas, lakes and trees — appear unfazed by the line of slow-moving cars. It’s a perfect answer to our COVID-19 woes.

Cars proceed at a tortoise’s pace down roads made for walkers and strollers.
(Photo: Phoenix Zoo)

We spoke with Linda Hardwick. Director of Communications at the Phoenix Zoo. She offers us a bit of insight into “Cruise The Zoo”, which is available through May 28th as of this writing. Even if the program ends at that point, it’s worth learning about and looking out for, should they add more dates in the coming month.

Q: What prompted you to initiate Cruise The Zoo? Has it been done elsewhere (other than in the parks that already use the drive-thru model)? 

A: With the Zoo being closed since March 18, we needed to get creative on how to get our members and guests inside the Zoo to see the animals they love. Cruise the Zoo seemed like the perfect way to maintain social distancing practices and still have an enjoyable experience. 

Raptor demonstrations come right up to the car window. (Photo: Phoenix Zoo)

Q: What kind of preparation goes into this “retooling” for social distancing and auto traffic? 

A: This was an “all hands on deck” endeavor for us. We already have wide pathways, but the logistics were massive and it was brought together by sheer will and excitement! 

Q: You’re already adding new dates! Do you anticipate this being an ongoing program for the duration of the pandemic? Beyond? 

A: It has been hugely successful and for that, we are grateful and humbled. We are excited that it has been so widely supported. We are considering this concept for select days throughout the year, but nothing has been decided at this time. 

An unconventional mode of zoo transportation. A motorcycle with sidecar.
(Photo: Phoenix Zoo)

Q: Do the animals have to adjust to the different look/smell/sound of mobile visitors? 

A: The animals have been curious, yes! They adapted very quickly however and just go about their day. 

Q: What’s our best strategy for food and drink while touring the zoo? 

A: Food must be pre-purchased online when tickets are bought. It’s always a good idea to bring your own snacks and water for convenience. 

Cars line up and form a caravan that travels through almost the entire zoo.
(Photo: Phoenix Zoo)

The “Cruise The Zoo” rules are simple. Stay in your car and observe the speed limit along the designated path. It’s up to each carload to determine their own social distancing rules within the vehicle, as few cars are long or wide enough to maintain six feet between passengers. But you get the idea. Tickets are sold by the carload, so the cost is the same for a large family as it is for a couple on a unique and memorable first date. Not a bad deal when the alternative is to pace back and forth in a cage. Just ask Grandpa.

About Joe Gruberman 45 Articles
I'm a writer/producer/filmmaker/teacher based in Phoenix, AZ.


  1. Today we went on zoo cruise. Its waste of money. None of the animals were out. My kids were really disappointed. Just able to see 5 animals.

    • Oh, Sobia, that’s terrible! I’m sorry that happened. It’s kind of hit-or-miss when you’re forced to follow a caravan. I’m an avid zoo-goer and am often disappointed for the same reason. Unfortunately, it would be inhumane to coax the animals out. I’ve learned to pick my times of day carefully — something you probably could not do during the “Cruise” period. When the zoo finally opens under normal conditions, try going back when it’s cooler, like early in the morning, or during feeding times. You probably know that already, but I thought I’d mention it.

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