GULF BREEZE — It’s been 30 years since the Gulf Breeze Zoo first opened and it’s still going strong.
With the summer season in swing and a No. 1 rating on Trip Advisor as the best attraction in Gulf Breeze, there should be no problem keeping the parking lot full.
“Since new management took over in 2010, we’ve had a more personal feel,” said Megan Heiden-reich, the zoo’s lead keeper. “There’s an understanding of a symbiosis with the community. One doesn’t exist without the other. We really try to make our guests a priority.”
The zoo has continued to expand its offerings with daily activities and special events held throughout the year.
>>> Click here to see photos from the Gulf Breeze Zoo
Later this month, the zoo will celebrate World Giraffe Day with a special Meet-a-Keeper talk where guests can learn more about giraffes and even see Gamba — the baby giraffe and one of the newest members of the zoo — get bottle fed.
Although the zoo has had to decrease it’s staff — there are now about a dozen zoo keepers compared to 38 in 2009 under the previous ownership — there hasn’t been a decrease in interaction with guests.
“I’ve been fortunate to visit a lot of different zoos throughout the county,” Heidenreich said. “I don’t think you get this level of attention anywhere else.”
It isn’t just another attraction for tourists. Locals regularly support the zoo throughout the year with record numbers at every event this past year, said Valerie Pennock, the zoo’s marketing director.
“It’s been years since I’ve been here,” said Gilton Bell of Pensacola. “It’s really impressive.”
Being a part of the zoo’s milestone is gratifying, Heidenreich said.
“We’ve had a lot of guests visit throughout their lives saying it’s the best it’s ever been,” she added. “Working here feeds the soul more than anything else.”
The zoo was originally opened in May 1984 by local busi-nessmen Pat Quinn, Bobby Switzer, Bill Pullum and Dr. Jim Potter. Virginia Safari Park of Natural Bridge, Va., bought it in December 2010.
Tour the zoo like a pro
First time at the zoo? Follow these tips to make your wild adventure a success
*Spring for the train ride — The 15-minute train ride might be extra, but it’s certainly worth it with a closer look at chimpanzees, gorillas and the huge Nile hippos.
*Schedule a be-hind the scenes tour — One of the Behind the Scenes Animals Tours you can get up close and personal with the animals with a personal animal care profes-sional.
*Read the signs — Check for the Meet-a-Keeper talks held throughout the day to learn more about the animals and get premier photoops. The times are posted in the train sta-tion.
*Stay for lunch — The Giraffeteria serves delicious amusement park fare such as burgers, hot dogs and chicken tenders. While you can’t bring food or drink in the zoo, there is a shaded picnic pavilion the zoo parking lot.
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Jennie McKeon at 850-315-4432 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JennyMnwfdn.