Coming to the Philadelphia Zoo this spring: a colorful key menagerie and enough nostalgia to fill Noah’s ark.

Zoo Keys, the animal-shape pieces of plastic synonymous for many with childhood trips to the zoo, will return on April 6, and will unlock book-shaped boxes throughout the park with prerecorded stories from zookeepers and “insider secrets” about the animals.

“They made such an impression on so many that came to the zoo, between the nostalgia and the memories,” said Dana Lombardo, the zoo’s director of communications. “We’ve always had people bring them up over the years, and this seemed like the perfect time to bring them back.”

Green Key added 2-21-17

Posted by Zoo Keys on Thursday, February 23, 2017

And, yes, Lombardo said, old keys from childhood trips will work in the new boxes. Although “vintage” keys cost upward of $30 on eBay, new ones can be purchased for $3 at the park.

Shaped like an elephant using its trunk to unlock the talking story box, the original novelty Zoo Key was patented by children’s television host and puppeteer Bruce Sedley in 1960, the year the keys made their debut in Philly. Other animals, such as lions, were also made into keys in past years.

For nearly half a century, the keys were available at the Philadelphia Zoo for purchase and were offered as educational prizes to schoolchildren until 2007, when the park cut the program to embark on “new initiatives,” Amy Shearer, chief marketing officer, said.

“What we realized was, wow, these Zoo Keys are so important to people’s memories and visits to the zoo, so we are thrilled to bring them back,” Shearer said.

Four or five other zoos in the country also use Zoo Keys, she said.

The resurgence of the keys coincides with the introduction of another plasticky piece of childhood at the Philadelphia Zoo: Legos.

On April 6, the zoo will also open “Creatures of Habitat,” an exhibit featuring 30 life-size animals and their habitats constructed from thousands of Lego bricks by Sean Kenney, one of the seven American Lego-certified professional artisans in the world.

Among the zoo’s newest still-life residents: a Lego golden lion tamarin and a 500-pound polar bear, the first of its kind at the zoo since Coldilocks the bear died at age 37 last year.

“Creatures of Habitat” will remain on exhibit until Sept. 30.

The zoo didn’t specify how many Zoo Key story boxes would be posted, but Lombardo said they’d be stationed at both Lego habitat and live animal exhibits.

A 500-pound Lego polar bear will make its debut at the Philadelphia Zoo on April 6.
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Zoo
A 500-pound Lego polar bear will make its debut at the Philadelphia Zoo on April 6.