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Orange County Itinerary

It's a Jungle Out There

Tropical nuts can monkey around at the zoo, then head for the wilds of the mall and the Rainforest Cafe.

September 18, 1997|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While the area of the planet covered by rain forest continues to shrink at catastrophic rates, it's expanding in Santa Ana and Costa Mesa. Several exhibits at Santa Ana Zoo focus on the equatorial phenomenon once better known as the jungle. Not far away, South Coast Plaza, often a zoo on weekends, is home to the Rainforest Cafe.

AFTERNOON 1

Santa Ana Zoo opened 45 years ago on land donated by citrus grower Joseph Prentice, who stipulated that a park be named for him and display at least 50 monkeys in perpetuity.

Today the Prentice Park facility's Monkey Row features 17 species of primates, and watching them monkey around can be a source of endless fascination.

Endangered tropical forest species include black-and-white ruffed lemurs and golden lion tamarins. With its beautiful long hair, the colobus can be thought of as the Afghan hound of monkeys. The white-handed gibbons' howling "oooooooh!" is mesmerizing.

Other mammals at the zoo include the swamp wallaby, rock hyrax and dik-dik. Among the more spectacular birds are a bald eagle, scarlet ibis, roseate spoonbill and green-winged macaw.

Amazon's Edge, the zoo's first phase of a master plan reflecting South American wildlife, opened in 1993, followed in 1994 by the Rain Forest Conservation Exhibit. Colors of the Amazon, a walk-through tropical aviary featuring birds such as the Montezuma oropendola, opened last year. A Treetops exhibit will feature fruit bats and other creatures of the forest canopy.

Elephant rides, offered weekends from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., are $2.50 per person. The gift shops sells lots of books for kids, and benches dotting the pleasant grounds are a perfect place to read them.

LATE AFTERNOON 2

At South Coast Plaza, Nature Co. offers a somewhat larger selection of titles, including "Rainforest in 3-D!" and "Scaly and Slimy in 3-D!," $4.99 each including 3-D glasses. There's also a "Tropical Jungle" compact disc ($4.99), an Amazing Frogs calendar ($11.99) and a "Spirits of the Rainforest" video ($19.95). Among nontropical books is "Wolves" by Candace Savage.

DINNER 3

Now here's a restaurant that makes no bones about its priorities. Rainforest Cafe, also at the mall, is billed as "a wild place to shop and eat," and activities often unfold in that order. (On the back of the menu is a list of the restaurant's environmentally sound policies.)

The place is usually packed. Diners awaiting a table will no doubt want to browse in the Retail Village, which carries rain forest-themed bath products, plush toys, salt and pepper shakers, clothing and Rainforest Crunch candy. Items include Bugs in a Nut ($2.95), a "Rhythms of the Tropics" CD ($12.95), fish ties that are actually attractive ($27.95) and sound-activated flopping fish ($29.95).

A rain forest environment is evoked with live macaws and parrots and large aquariums filled with vibrantly colored saltwater fish. Animatronic wildlife includes an alligator that snaps its jaws, an elephant that flaps its ears and trumpets, butterflies that flap their wings and a talking Tracy Tree; banyan trees and overgrown vegetation extend to the parking structure, and special effects include frequent outbursts of simulated thunder, lightning and rain showers.

Fruit and root juice concoctions at the Magic Mushroom bar include a Monte Python's Smoothie; the seats at the bar are inspired by giraffes, zebras and other animals.

Among menu highlights, the Rumble in the Jungle sandwich is oven-roasted turkey tossed with Caesar salad and stuffed into warm grilled pita bread and served with Roma tomatoes, cranberry relish and topped with crispy fried onions ($8.95). Rasta Pasta--bow tie pasta, grilled chicken, pesto, broccoli, red peppers and spinach tossed in garlic cream sauce ($10.95)--is another signature item. At journey's end are desserts including Monkey Business, an "Amazon portion" of coconut bread pudding ($4.95) that, according to the menu, will make you "go ape!"

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

1) Santa Ana Zoo

1801 E. Chestnut Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 835-7484.

Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. (Entry until 4 p.m.)

*

2) Nature Co.

3333 S. Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 557-0656.

Open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.- 7 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Sunday.

*

3) Rainforest Cafe

3333 S. Bristol St., Costa Mesa, (714) 424-9200.

Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, and 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. (Retail Village opens at 10 a.m. weekdays and 10:30 a.m. weekends.)

Parking: There is free parking in lots at each location.

Buses: OCTA Bus No. 65 runs along 1st Street with a stop at Lyon Street; Bus No. 61 serves the Santa Ana Zoo during peak hours. Bus No. 57 runs along Bristol Street with a stop at Sunflower Avenue.

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