Private and Public Policy Reviews for the Disabled

The Oregon Zoo

By Stephen Rex Goode, BSW


The Oregon Zoo is in Portland, Oregon in the hills over downtown in beautiful Washington Park. Washington Park is 130 acres of beautiful trees, valleys, streams, gardens, arboretums, and paths located withing walking distance of skyscrapers and the apartments. Due to the zoo’s location, the terrain inside the zoo is hilly.


After standing in line at the ticket booths, you move into an area where there are shops, lockers, restrooms, and the mountain goat exhibit. In one of the shops, you can rent a scooter for $25 for the day. You’ll need a credit card or leave your identification with them. The scooter is relatively powerful. I weigh nearly 400 pounds and rode it most of the way through the zoo without it slowing down much. They also have wheelchairs for $6, but you’ll need someone strong to push you.

I am partially ambulatory, which means that I’m fairly good at walking short distances. I usually don’t even rent a personal mobility device. It depends on how I’m feeling that day. There are enough places in the zoo for me to find a place to sit for a minute or two and let my pain subside. On busy days, the entrance can be a problem for me. There are two entrances—one where you buy your ticket and later when they take your ticket. At both of these places, when there is a long line, I can develop enough problems in my back that I can ruin the rest of the trip just standing in line.

On the day I took notes for this review, I rented a scooter. I was able to visit all of the exhibits, but there were four kinds of impediments:

  1. Narrow passages – Some parts of the trails were narrow, making it difficult to maneuver the kinds of scooters they rent.
  2. Unfinished passages – There were a couple of dirt and gravel sections. The scooter navigated them fine, but I imagined it would be more difficult for a wheelchair.
  3. Steepness – Well, you can’t expect them to excavate the entire zoo to be one level. Part of Oregon’s beauty is the unevenness of its terrain. Still, it is very difficult to push a wheelchair up some of the inclines. Scooters low on power will be hopeless.
  4. Clueless human obstacles – I don’t know if they’re clueless or just stubborn. Many people will stand right in front of you, even facing you, and expect you to go around. This is not, of course, the zoo’s fault, but on extremely crowded days it can be very discouraging. This is especially true when there are school field trips in the zoo.

The zoo provides a service known as The Zoomer. It’s a golf-cart-like, electrically-powered vehicle that can hold people and wheelchairs hung on the back. If you can’t get out of your wheelchair, this won’t help you much, but it’s a nice service. There are several stops around the zoo where you can sit and wait for one to come by, or with a cell phone you can call for it. The number is on the zoo map you get when you enter. They give people rides, no questions asked.

The zoomer can go everywhere in the zoo. As I said, some of the trails are barely wide enough for personal mobility devices. If you are like me and can walk a little, you can get down into one of the areas where the zoomer can’t go and then find yourself in pain and still have to get back to a place where the zoomer can reach you.

The Great Northwest

There are two entrances to this  section of the zoo. Go down below this entrance area and you pass through the ticket takers. After this, to the left through The Great Northwest you can see some of the northwest’s animals: river otters, beavers, eagles, fish, cougars, and some bears. The Great Northwest section is only recently opened for “through” traffic. Before, you had to go down to another section and come up that way. Many of the trails in this section are fairly narrow and difficult to navigate in the scooter and I imagine, a wheelchair. I went on a busy day and got crowded in around my scooter by people and didn’t know how I was going to get out. A lot of people seem to resent a person in a scooter or completely ignore them.

Pacific Shores

There are two ways to get to this exhibit from the entrance. One is to go through The Great Northwest and the other is to go down a long and laborious hill. Either way, it’s going to be difficult for a wheelchair returning back to the top. Take the Zoomer.

This exhibit is a beautiful aquarium-like structure that houses some kinds of fish, sea otters, and sea lions. You can see them from above the surface of the water or from below. They’ve accommodated for personal mobility devices for both.[display_podcast]

Trillium Creek Family Farm

This area has a family farm motif with chickens and various species of goat. There are rabbits and a tractor. The ground here is dirt with a bit of gravel, so some mobility devices may have trouble with it. You can go into a goat pen when invited to pet some of the goats, although the gate may be difficult to get some devices into.

Elk Meadows

This small area has elk and wolves, obviously not penned together. There is a ramp leading up to the observation deck, amply wide for most devices.


The bear exhibits are all ramped with places to park a chair or scooter.


The primate exhibits are all level. The doors have buttons to open them.


The elephant exhibits are all accessible. The door to the indoor area has a button. At this writing, there is a dinosaur exhibit that blocks off the accessibility to the elephant overlook.


The penguin exhibit has a ramp down into it with a buttoned door, but the interior can be a little cramped.


There is an aviary with lots of birds to see and a concrete path through it. It can be a little narrow. The doors have buttons. There are two doors to pass through as a precaution to keep the birds from escaping.


A concrete path winds around through the Africa Savannah exhibits where you can see rhinos, hippos, giraffes, gazelles, and storks. The path is adequate. Near the giraffes is an exhibit where you can see naked mole rats and other rodents. There is a button on the door.

The part of the Africa exhibit that is difficult is where you can see bats, some kinds of primates, and reptiles. The path is narrow with sharp turns. On a busy day, it is almost not navigable.

Insert Zoo

This small building houses a lot of interesting insects, some you can get up close to. There’s a platform that you can’t get a scooter onto, but they will bring some of the insects to you.

Lorikeet Landing

This is a delightful exhibit. You can purchase a small paper cup full of nectar and enter the exhibit. Birds will land on you and eat from the cup. They’ll also leave droppings on you if you’re not careful. The entrance is adequate for mobility devices. The gates are doubled to prevent escaping birds.


There is an amphitheatre for shows of various kinds. You can park a device near the back of the area to watch or if you’re lucky, get up front on a concreate area. The rest of it is on the law.

Big Cats

The big cats seem like an afterthought. There are only leopards and lions right now. In the old days, the zoo had a lot more. There are signs indicating that the big cats will be back soon.


There is a cafe with lots of spendy food. You can get to it in a wheelchair or scooter, but as with most things here, it’s a daunting task on busy days.


A lasting tradition at the Oregon Zoo is the railway that goes from the zoo to beautiful Washington Park. Washington Park has several attractions that may be reviewed later. For now, suffice it to say that it is a beautiful place and worth a visit. Two trains are fitted with devices to allow the loading of wheelchairs. If you enter by the zoo, you’ll have no problem. It is also possible to visit the zoo by going to Washington Park and boarding the train, but not if you’re unable to walk up the steep flight of stairs from the park. Your only option is to enter at the zoo.


The Oregon Zoo has made a valiant effort at accessibility. A few problems remain that I would like to see addressed.

  1. Widen some of the trails. Have an employee navigate the whole place in a wheelchair and in a scooter. You can’t decide these things without putting yourself in the place of the disabled person.
  2. Make a concrete path through the Trillium Creek Family Farm.
  3. Nothing can be done about the steepness. It’s Oregon. The Zoomer is a good thing, but sometimes it has a hard time getting around all of the people. I was there just today. I knew I would not be able to get up to the top. The neuropathy in my feet was causing my problems and my arthritic back had been taxed to its limit. I waited a long time for the Zoomer to come to the stop just outside of the train station. I could have asked at the train ticket booth for someone to call for the zoomer, but there was a long line of people waiting to buy tickets. It would have been very difficult to get someone’s attention. Instead, I suggest that there be some kind of phone at the places where the Zoomer looks for people so I can call for it.
  4. For people like me, standing in line for tickets is a real problem. Make them available online like movie theatres now do.
  5. Add more disabled parking spaces. My wife has shown up there with clients who need to park close to the entrance and could not find a place. If more spaces were reserved, she would not have had to turn back with her client.

I want to thank the Oregon Zoo for decades of enjoyment. Despite a few things I think need to be tweaked, I feel they have done a great job trying to make things easier for disabled people.

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One Response to “The Oregon Zoo”

  1. barb said:

    I read your zoo review, and strongly agree with both the positive comments, and the things that could improve. I too have recently visited the zoo and rode a zoomer. I was assisting someone who had a walker. The zoomer was a lifesaver for us, especially going up the long hill by the frog pond. The one thing I wished the zoomer was equipped with is a rack to accommodate holding a folded walker. I had to hold on for safety, and hold the walker for the duration of the ride!

    I also have trouble standing in long lines. I’ve found many places that are basically accommodating for disabled, yet lack a place to sit for those unable to stand for long ]oeriods of time.

    From Coping with Hidden Disabilities, 2008/06/07 at 10:16 PM

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