Minnesota Zoo Expands Beyond Conservation to be a Family Entertainment Destination

Posted by Andrea Shockling on Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

Leopard at Minnesota Zoo

Visitors to Minnesota Zoo will soon be able to do a lot more than talk to the animals. An extensive master plan, approved by board members last fall, includes two multi-level playgrounds and adventure parks with rides, climbing structures, ropes courses, and zip lines. The zoo recently announced the first component will open in 2014: a carousel attraction designed and built by Carousel Works in a style similar to that of the Speedwell Foundation Conservation Carousel at the National Zoo. The expansion plan also includes up-close animal experiences, such as a giraffe feeding platform in the new African Trail exhibit. With these new rides and premium animal encounters, the zoo is blending the line between animal and amusement parks in hopes of attracting repeat visitation from younger audiences and families.

Giraffe feeding platform similar to what's planned for Minnesota Zoo

Minnesota Zoo set all-time attendance records and completed a multi-year capital campaign in 2012, but director Lee Ehmke is looking at the long-term future with this plan: “We inspire to become a world-leading zoo with the ultimate intention on saving wildlife and wild places. This is the next step in that evolution.” Certainly the expanded African and Asian Trails will help to do so by featuring species like the giraffe that are commonly found at contemporary zoos in the United States but have previously not been seen in Minnesota. But it is the two parks in the zoo’s interior that have everyone talking about the next phase of this zoo’s development.

Minnesota Zoo master plan

Zoos around the country have quietly started adding extra “adventure” experiences, often charging additional fees for guests to zip across the park or take a ride on a camel. Minnesota Zoo’s plan may be one of the most ambitious we’ve seen because it includes so many new features over a ten to fifteen year period: theme park attractions, playground components, animal rides, animal feedings, even potentially an interactive opportunity to dive amongst fish and stingrays. And of course, that’s all on top of the significant planned expansions to the animal habitats themselves. With the announcement about the new Conservation Carousel, it seems likely Minnesota Zoo will concentrate first on potential revenue-generating additions before attempting the more ambitious animal exhibits. The zoo has already requested proposals for the designs of Crossroads Park, where the carousel will be located, and the Adventure Park.

Crossroads Park at Minnesota Zoo

Ehmke isn’t concerned with critics who argue the new attractions are at odds with the zoo’s mission of conservation: “Part of the zoo’s purpose is to connect people to the animals, and we do that in a variety of ways. This will be a little more high energy.” And ultimately, any increased revenue will help support the animal research and educational programming Minnesota Zoo is known for. We’ll be watching closely as more elements of the master plan get under way in the coming months. If Minnesota Zoo is successful with this expansion, it will no doubt become a model for other zoos and aquariums around the country looking to toe that line between conservation and entertainment.

Image sources: mnzoo.com, ics.uci.edu

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