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Turtle Back Zoo's Prehistoric Park Playground

Landscape Architecture and Engineering by Suburban Consulting Engineers

The "prehistoric portal" to Turtle Back Zoo in West Orange, N.J. is a 13-ft. tall by 10-ft. wide entry with cedar posts, atop which flies a pterodactyl with a 13-foot wingspan (well, it's actually laser-cut metal). Metal supports attach the bird to the poles. The hanging sign is 3-inch thick white oak with 3/4 -inch thick steel letters. The portal was all custom designed by Joseph Perello, LLA, RLA, PP, and manufactured by Custom Fabrication, Inc. The entry gate has cedar slats with steel powder-coated gateposts. Suburban Consulting Engineers designed a bridge boardwalk connection to the existing boardwalk, specifying synthetic lumber with southern yellow pine beams and side railings. The contractor for the bridge was Shauger Group, Inc.

Essex County's Turtle Back Zoo, home to 100 different species of native and exotic animals from five continents in West Orange, N.J. (pop. 46,207), is committed to providing an enriching recreational experience that fosters excellence in wildlife education and wildlife conservation. The aim is to inspire present and future generations to appreciate, understand and protect the fragile interdependence of all living things. As part of the zoo's commitment to these goals, the Turtle Back Zoo management emphasizes children's outreach programs, camps and activities.

In 2013 the Essex County contracted with a team of landscape architects to accomplish the design intent of providing a custom, unique playground facility with a prehistoric theme that enhances Turtle Back Zoo's education and outreach programs, while providing an added amenity for zoo enthusiasts and families to enjoy during their regular visits.

The project team was lead and managed by a landscape architect Joseph Perello, LLA, RLA, PP, vice president of Suburban Consulting Engineers of Mt. Arlington, New Jersey, who was involved in every aspect of design, permitting, approvals and construction. The LA provided the landscape architectural, site planning, and custom playground equipment design and graphics, plus managed the civil and structural engineers throughout the project from conceptual designs, construction document preparation, bidding and construction administration.


The forest slopes by the playground were an erosion control issue. An existing retaining wall was visually unappealing. The new structural retaining wall uses 41-inch Redi-Rock blocks in a Ledgestone texture. A single block weighs in at 2,351 pounds, about the weight of a Clydesdale. This kind of weight holds back the earth and allows taller walls without needing geogrids or tiebacks. Massings of vegetation on the slopes behind the retaining walls also help mitigate erosion. The new trees by the playground are 'Autumn Gold' Ginkgo bilobas (left) and 'Red Sunset' maples (right).

The LA worked in every aspect of the project, in conjunction with the county, the zoo director, managerial staff and educators to design unique and innovative playground structures with a prehistoric theme.

The 8,000 square foot area designated for construction was located below an aging and visually unappealing retaining wall, on a steep slope with erosion damage, with limited pedestrian and construction access. Numerous concept plans, sketches, renderings and design themes were developed. Brainstorming sessions and meetings with programming, educational and maintenance staff, as well as ideas from children that attended the Zoo Camp.
Using the information from these project stakeholders, all instrumental in the development of the final design, the team went on to develop a custom sculpted prehistoric-themed playground equipment with site amenities. Erosion issues were resolved by carving level play areas into the slope, basically fitting the playground into the side of the hill. A new heavy-duty retaining wall holds back the hill, and the slope behind the wall is vegetated.

The playground's custom designed structures were based on conceptual ideas and sketches of the landscape architect, then elaborated upon through the development of additional sketches, digital renderings and clay models.


A 25' x 25' 'Wave' beige shade canopy with brown powder-coated posts shades the children in the 'Fossil Dig' zone as they experience the thrill of unearthing "ancient bones." The mechanical "backhoe" diggers, one of which is wheelchair accessible, assists kids in their explorations. There is also a fossil wall/chalkboard and bench seating for parents.

Prehistoric Portal
The playground facility offers a unique approach that creates excitement and interest from the get-go. The approach to the playground entrance is an accessible boardwalk that leads to a "prehistoric portal." Overhead is the 13-ft. outstretched wing spread of a pterodactyl.

As kids and parents enter the portal they wander past the landscaped sitting area with custom benches and amenities; then, there before them, is the large skull and gapping jaws and sharp teeth of a carnivorous dinosaur resting on a pebble-strewn surface (buff colored poured-in-place rubberized surfacing). The kids immediately run over to examine the jaws and teeth, then venture to climb onto the back bones of the prehistoric beast.


The centerpiece of the playground is the prehistoric-themed "Tree 4 Life" Treehouse. This glass-fiber reinforced concrete cave structure with a double slide is from PlayWorx, a theme-play division of GameTime.

The large centerpiece of the playground is the awesome custom prehistoric Tree 4 Life Treehouse, a glass-fiber reinforced concrete cave-themed structure with a double slide from PlayWorx, a theme-play division of GameTime. This is a challenging and engaging play structure for the 5-12 year olds.

Archeological Dig
To the immediate left of the entrance is a large rectangular archeological inspired "fossil dig" site that let's kids get the feeling for fossil exploration. A shaded fabric canopy allows the kids to keep cool while digging for hidden treasures. For those who don't want to get their hands dirty, there are two backhoes to help dig; one of them is wheelchair accessible. There is also a fossil dig table that is wheelchair accessible at the entrance to the playground.

As with other well-designed playgrounds, some of the play structures are geared for the 2-5 year old set. Behind the dinosaur climber, for instance, is a little climbing/slide structure suited more for toddlers.


Prehistoric Park at Turtle Back Zoo is 8,000 square feet.

Key    Description
A        Boardwalk access
B        Portal entry with pterodactyl theme
C        Stroller parking
D        Signage & sponsor recognition
E        Landscape boulders in planted islands
F        Fossil dig with shade canopy
G        Fossil dig table
H        Backhoe diggers in sand aggregate
I        Grassland theme bench
J        Grassland theme trash receptacle
K        Landscape island with low maintenance plants
L        Sabre-tooth climber (5-12)
M        Prehistoric Tree of Life structure (5-12)
N        Rumble & Roll structure (tots)
O        Dinosaur climber
P        Maintenance access in fence with 12-ft. wide gate
Q        Safety surfacing
R        Colored conditioned concrete
S        Cave art chalkboard
T        Upper modular block retaining wall
U        Lower modular block retaining wall with rail above
V        Existing tree

The play areas are accessible and provide educational elements at ground level and on the elevated portions of each structure.

The playground provides an area to exercise and explore the custom equipment and fossils, to climb, to slide, to dig for prehistoric bones...before wandering back through the fascinating world of present day animal, aviary and reptile life exhibits at the zoo.

Design Team
Landscape Architecture and Engineering
Suburban Consulting Engineers, Inc.
Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., Essex County executive
Daniel Salvante, Director of Parks, Recreation & Cultural Affairs
Sanjeev Varghese, PE, county engineer

Backhoe Diggers: GameTime
Benches: SiteScapes, Inc.
Fossil Steppers, Fossil Wall & Chalkboard: PlayWorx
Play Structures: GameTime / PlayWorx
Portal (entry): Custom Fabrication, Inc.
Retaining Walls: Redi-Rock "41" Series"
Rubberized Playground Surfacing: East Coast Surfacing, Inc.
Shade Structure: GameTime
Trash Receptacles: SiteScapes, Inc.

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June 18, 2019, 6:31 pm PDT

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