Whether you find yourself planning a corporate retreat for some folks who need to come out of their shells, or you’re organizing a celebration for some real party animals, Pennsylvania’s menagerie of zoos off er fantastic venue options for guests of all stripes. There are interactive animal encounters, lush exotic landscapes and behind-the-scenes tours that will have guests talking about the experience for weeks to come. These zoos have conservation-focused missions that align with many companies’ corporate values, while also providing an atmosphere that stirs feelings of nostalgia for guests. In many cases, events can be booked year-round and after hours when the crowds thin out. Each of these zoos boasts a selection of private function spaces, in addition to the option of booking the entire zoo for a true walk on the wild side.
Elmwood Park Zoo
The Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown refers to itself as a boutique zoo—a zootique, if you will. “When you walk around our zoo, which features more than 100 species, it feels more approachable, more intimate and less tiring at the end of the day,” says Gary Murray, director of sales. “It’s like going to the boutique shop that has those unique pieces that you like rather than going to the department store.”
Just as you might put together an outfit with clothing and accessories handpicked from your favorite shop, the Elmwood Park Zoo has an array of interactive activities and ten different function spaces to provide a range of indoor and outdoor backdrops and experiences for anywhere between five and 150 guests, or several thousand in the case of a full zoo rental.
“Team-building here can be an all-day thing,” says Murray. He imagines a full agenda starting with a Treetop Adventures session in the morning, taking guests through a course of more than 50 challenge games and zip lines that soar up to 50 feet above the zoo grounds. (Night owls can strap on a headlamp and traverse the treetops in the dark, as well.) Those who prefer to keep their feet on the ground can explore the zoo, which opened in 1924, on a scavenger hunt. After enjoying lunch together, groups can head to the bison or giraffe enclosures to feed the animals. “People connect through shared experiences, and you’re all going to remember the day when you fed a giraffe together,” says Murray.
After the afternoon feeding, guests can head to Zoo Brew, an open-air bar that serves craft beers created especially for Elmwood Park Zoo by local breweries. This venue can accommodate food stations and live entertainment. When night falls, groups can gather around a bonfire for s’mores and lawn games. “It’s a unique experience that can entertain a wide range of personality types,” Murray says of a day spent at the zoo.
Olivia’s Eagle Canyon Observation Deck near the entrance of Elmwood Park Zoo is a good place to roll out the red carpet for receptions or presentations, with the majestic bald and golden eagle exhibit as the backdrop. The Trail of the Jaguar exhibit opened in 2017, and is a great fit for meeting setups and intimate dinner experiences. As many as 50 people can be seated together at a long table, or 150 can mingle in a cocktail setting. It was designed by the same architect who created Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and it includes indoor and outdoor areas. The intricately painted décor invokes Mediterranean environments, and zoo keepers can demonstrate their jaguar training techniques for the group. Lizards, frogs, Montezuma quail, an ocelot and a jaguarundi are also showcased in the exhibit. For larger events, Canopy Gardens is an indoor space that seats as many as 150 with a dance floor and catering setup. The lodge-inspired pavilion has fully retractable, floor-to-ceiling windows along one side that open to a patio and gardens to expand the space to the great outdoors.
Lehigh Valley Zoo
The Lehigh Valley Zoo in Schnecksville is home to 340 creatures from 131 species from across the animal kingdom, and is nestled within the 1,100-acre Trexler Nature Preserve, which was founded in 1906 to protect endangered bison and elk. At the zoo there are several venue options that can accommodate groups ranging in size from 20 to 2,000 guests.
The Bison Auditorium is a rustic indoor meeting space option for up to 60 guests, and there are several covered outdoor pavilions and a dining terrace that can host catered events. Don’t forget to leave room on the guest list for a few feathered, furry or quilled visitors. The zoo’s animal ambassadors, which include cranes, sloths, porcupines and more, are available for educational appearances. The Jaindl Penguin Pavilion is another function space that allows guests to get up close and personal with the zoo’s African penguins. The zoo offers more interactive event enhancements, like animal feedings, educational zoo tours and guided nature trail hikes to discover animal habitats.
As the country’s only independent, indoor nonprofit zoo dedicated to birds, the National Aviary in Pittsburgh is home to more than 500 birds representing more than 150 species from around the world. The Aviary’s indoor and open-air spaces can be combined to accommodate groups of all sizes. “We can do intimate parties for 20 people in Penguin Point, or we can have cocktails for as many as 500 in the entire facility,” says Laura Daversa, events manager. “It’s a really fun time to visit when the Aviary is bustling with our visitors during the daytime, and in the evening you can have it all to yourself.”
Groups of up to 50 can really get away from it all on the SkyDeck Rooftop for an evening cocktail hour or dinner among the treetops of West Park in the historic North Side of Pittsburgh. The Aviary’s Victorian-inspired, glass-domed Atrium can host between 150 and 180 seated guests in an indoor space, and it combines seamlessly with the outdoor Rose Garden Tent, surrounded by blooms and ivycovered walls. Guests can stroll through the Aviary’s exhibits until 9 p.m., including the three free-flight habitats that showcase birds in lush environments and allow for up-close avian encounters and incredible photo ops. Special appearances from some of the Aviary’s birds can also be arranged.
Groups who meet at the Aviary during the day can visit the Helen M. Schmidt FliteZone Theater to enjoy a free-flight bird show; the space transforms to host after-hours functions, as well. “For evening events, it’s a really great spot for hosting an awards dinner, recognition ceremony or annual meeting,” says Daversa. It has built-in audio-visual capabilities, and realistic-looking faux trees and rock formations in the venue add a layer of décor. Daversa says that groups often opt to start the evening with cocktails in nearby Penguin Point, which is an immersive, open-air exhibit that mimics the rocky shores of South Africa. It’s home to more than 20 African Penguins, who know a neat party trick—they love to make masterpieces by marching through colorful paints and then walking across canvases. Groups can watch these creative penguins at work and take home a unique painting as a memento of their visit. “You can’t beat a penguin at your party,” says Daversa.
To get the full avian experience, guests can take virtual flight on Birdly, a flight simulator with the sights, sounds and headwinds of soaring like a bird through New York City. “You literally are up there flapping your wings,” says Daversa. Birdly is one of only three simulators like it in the United States. “You get a really good view of what it’s like to take flight, and we’re using it as an opportunity to raise awareness of how humans are impacting bird habitats.”
The Philadelphia Zoo was the first zoo in the nation when it opened in 1859, and today it remains on the vanguard with more than 1,300 animals and a first-in-the-world animal exploration trail experience called Zoo360, which allows animals more space to roam and visitors more opportunities to see eye-to-eye with gorillas, orangutans, meerkats, tigers, lions, lemurs and more. These trails, the Zoo’s historic setting and the 42 acres of Victorian gardens filled with sculpture and art are a beautiful backdrop for fundraiser 5Ks and fun runs. They also provide a fantastic conversation starter at a daytime company picnic, and an elegant atmosphere for an evening event.
“The Philadelphia Zoo is right in the middle of a metropolitan center, but with all of the horticulture and art here it’s such an oasis from the hustle and bustle of the city,” says Dana Lombardo, director of communications. “Though we do have a wonderful and rich history, we’re very much about innovation and being groundbreakers and trendsetters in caring for animals. It’s a very engaging environment all the way around.”
Meeting and event spaces are available to accommodate groups of all sizes, and venues can be combined to expand the capacity and the scenery. Full buyouts of the zoo can host as many as 6,000 guests. “The animals have such an important role in the event experience here,” says Mary Love, director of special events. “I like to help people choose settings where they can dine next to sloths, enjoy appetizers while looking at a beautiful giraffe or have a cocktail next to a gorilla.”
One of her favorite venues at the zoo is the PECO Primate Reserve for the proximity it offers to the animals. It has a versatile layout that can host up to 150 for a sit-down function or 200 for cocktails. After entering the Reserve via the boardwalk from Lemur Island, guests are surrounded by playful orangutans, white-handed gibbons and silverback gorillas, along with other primates in exhibits and roaming through two Zoo360 trails that traverse the Reserve.
Guests can also get to know African lions, snow leopards and Amur tigers amidst lush habitats and waterfalls at KeyBank Big Cat Falls. Love’s team can set up a strolling cocktail hour with appetizer stations throughout the outdoor area of the exhibit. Later on, guests can move inside for a 75-person seated dinner or meeting at the exhibit’s indoor theater. The Rare Animal Conservation Center and Impala Plaza are adjacent spaces that offer another indoor-outdoor experience. Groups of 200- 350 guests can meet some of the zoo’s most exotic and endangered animals at the Center, and the Plaza features a grand fountain overlooking the Impala Lawn and a performance stage, surrounded by trees and Zoo360 animal trails. For happy hours filled with fun and games, the Watering Hole is an open-air beer and wine garden with casual seating, bright umbrellas and terra-cotta mosaic décor. The Watering Hole can accommodate as many as 200 party animals, and a private booking also includes a live animal experience.
The McNeil Avian Center’s feathered residents are happy to welcome between 40 and 75 guests to their neoclassical bird house. McNeil Plaza outside offers a larger capacity for 80 to 100 guests. “The plaza outside offers our guests the most beautiful vista, overlooking our Bird Lake and surrounded by old-growth trees and mature plantings. The birds are chirping and humming inside. It’s a beautiful spot,” says Lombardo.
To take in all of the zoo’s scenery, rides in the 6abc Zooballoon are a perfect addition to a group meeting or event. Reaching heights of 400 feet, guests peer through the treetops to see giraffes, zebras, polar bears and more. “It’s amazing. You can see practically the entire Philadelphia area, overlooking Fairmount Park and our rivers. You also get a bird’s-eye view of the entire zoo campus,” says Love.
For those who prefer to take a look behind the scenes, private small group tours explore areas not open to the general public for special encounters with animals like rhinos, penguins, or otters. It’s also a rich learning experience about the care and behaviors of animals, along with the zoo’s conservation efforts. “It’s a oneon-one experience with the zookeepers who take care of our animals every day, and they’re telling you everything that they know—which is a lot!” says Love.
Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium
The globally inspired settings at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium can transport guests around the world, and even under the sea. The Safari Adventure event rental package can accommodate up to 8,000 guests for evening functions, and includes nine different venues for guests to explore. “It’s a mix and match of different areas of the zoo, and there are food stations and bars all along the zoo pathways, so guests can stroll around and mingle and enjoy the animals until dusk,” says Gabby Boldizar, group sales and rentals manager. This blending of habitats and experiences reflects the zoo’s work to promote conservation by demonstrating the interconnectedness of the natural world.
The collection of venues in the Safari Adventure can each be booked individually for daytime meetings, picnics or evening events. They include the Garden Tent, an illuminated 7,200-square-foot outdoor space surrounded by botanical gardens that can host between 500 and 800 guests; the Lecture Hall in the Education Complex, an indoor meeting room for 120-250 guests equipped with audio-visual capabilities; The Forest Passage & African Savanna, two exhibits with red pandas, giraffes, Amur tigers, elephants, ostriches and other animals connected by a meandering “oasis” pathway; and Jambo Plaza, an Africaninspired open-air pavilion.
The PPG Aquarium and the Water’s Edge exhibit are both part of the Safari Adventure experience, and each offers a dynamic event venue on its own. The PPG Aquarium is a multilevel indoor space for 200 seated or 500 reception guests to explore aquatic life from around the world, a lush rainforest setting, waterfalls, a penguin habitat and a stingray petting area. “It’s breathtaking, to be honest,” says Boldizar. “You’re surrounded by different views of underwater exhibits with sea turtles, stingrays, jelly fish and sharks. You can walk through the aquarium before or after dinner, and then you’re surrounded by these beautiful exotic fish while you’re eating and dancing.”
Upon entering the Water’s Edge exhibit, guests are transported to Pier Town, a coastal village that is home to polar bears and sea otters. The indoor-outdoor space can host 140 for seated functions or 200 for receptions, and an underwater tunnel with polar bears swimming above guides guests into the spacious event room. Water’s Edge can easily combine with the adjacent outdoor PNC Pavilion near the sea lions exhibit.
A private conference room in Water’s Edge can seat up to 40 guests for meetings and events, complete with its own window into the polar bear exhibit. “You really get a noseto-nose experience with the polar bears,” says Boldizar. For an overhead view of pygmy hippopotamuses and giant anteaters, groups can adventure on a 150-foot zip line in the Jungle Odyssey exhibit, new in 2018.
“The zoo really gives you a little bit of everything,” says Boldizar. “You have the chance to get outdoors and see beautiful animals in naturalistic settings, and then you have all of those things that are helpful when having a staff meeting or retreat. It gives a little bit of fun and spontaneity to what could be a tedious all-day meeting.”