This is a press release from Essex County. Press releases are official statements that have not been independently verified.

Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. announced that 88,652 people visited the Annual Essex County Holiday Lights Spectacular at Turtle Back Zoo and more than 15 tons of non-perishable food, clothing and toys were collected for those in need.

“It is humbling to see the large number of items dropped off at the Holiday Lights Spectacular to assist the less fortunate. 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 we thank our visitors for their extraordinary generosity to help the less fortunate,” he noted.

This past winter, 30,961 – more than 15 tons – of non-perishable food was collected for the Community FoodBank of NJ. In addition, 167 bags of new toys and 248 bags of winter coats and clothing were collected. These items were donated to the Essex County Sheriff’s Office Toy Drive, Catholic Charities in Newark, NJ Performing Arts Center’s winter coat drive in Newark, The Salvation Army in Montclair and Newark, Ukrainian American Youth Association in Passaic, TeamPAR, East Orange YMCA, Gabby’s Annual Holiday Toy Drive at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, Tainos Unidos LLC in Newark, Milagro’s Angels in Newark, Toni’s Kitchen in Montclair, Seton Hall University and Essex County Correctional Facility, which distributed toys to children who had a parent in the facility.

This was the 13th year that visitors were asked to make a donation to help the less fortunate. Donations collected over the years have amounted to over 145 tons of non-perishable food, 345,000 toys and 20,000 winter coats. The largest Holiday Lights Spectacular attendance was 131,594 people and the most donations collected was 24.5 tons, both coming in 2015.

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 one million lights illuminated figures of giraffes, 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, the Zoological Society of New Jersey and the Essex County Parks Foundation.

Turtle Back Zoo is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Winter admission rates are $12 for children and senior citizens, $14 for adults and free for children under 2 years. For additional information, please call 973-731-5800 or visit

Essex County Turtle Back Zoo has roared back to life from the verge of closure by a previous administration. Attendance reached an all-time high of 907,522 in 2017 and the zoo has operated as a self-sustaining facility with revenue collected exceeding operating expenses. In addition, Turtle Back is accredited by American Humane, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Zoological Association of American, a clear indication that an institution is committed to the highest standards in animal care, ethics, conservation and education. It also has been named the Best Zoo in New Jersey by NJ Monthly magazine four times and received a Certificate of Excellence from three times.

Revitalizing Essex County Turtle Back Zoo

Currently under construction is the new Island Giants Exhibit featuring alligators and Komodo dragons. Since taking office in 2003, DiVincenzo has spearheaded over $100 million in upgrades to Essex County Turtle Back Zoo, which have included updating the Turtle Back Junction Train Station to enhance public access; developing the African Adventure with four Masai giraffes, lions and hyenas, and South African Penguins; the Drill Family Flamingo Exhibit; Leopard Exhibit; a new Educational Building; the Carousel with 33 figures of endangered animals; the Sea Lion Sound Exhibit with sea lions, sharks and sting rays; the Big Cat Country Exhibit with jaguars and cougars; Tam-ring Gibbons Reserve with white cheeked 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 Investors Bank, Prudential Financial, Inc., Wells Fargo, PNC Bank, PSE&G, Verizon, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, Coca Cola, Capital One Bank, TD Bank, Aramark, Covanta Energy, Matrix Development Group, the family of Ronald Mount 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 23 parks, five reservations, an environmental center, a zoo, Treetop Adventure Course, ice skating rink, roller skating rink, three public golf courses, golf driving range, two miniature golf courses, five off-leash dog facilities, a castle and the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens. Turtle Back Zoo is located in Essex County’s South Mountain Reservation and was opened to the public in 1963.