Minnesota Zoo

April 5, 2013 by  

Minnesota Zoo, The Minnesota Zoo is quietly preparing to launch a massive expansion campaign costing hundreds of millions of dollars, continuing the zoo’s shift from its original focus on conservation and education toward a future as a family entertainment destination.

The master plan approved by the zoo’s governing board late last year calls for a sprawling new Africa trail with lions, giraffes and hippos, as well as a high-end events center overlooking a domed orangutan forest. It would be phased in over the course of years as funding becomes available, with the first phase costing an estimated $50 million.

The plans, some of them still not sharply defined, also include features and activities ranging from camel rides to elevated zip lines to a high-end destination restaurant.

The zoo expects to pay for these new features through an unspecified mix of private donations, additional state aid, an increase in admissions fees that are already steep by industry standards, and additional fees charged for many of the new offerings.

Zoo director Lee Ehmke cautions that some elements of the plan are years away and could change, but he says the zoo is aiming to build on its recent success by finally adding some of the bread-and-butter species of a major zoo.

“This plan delivers that — something dreamed of by the founders some 40 years ago, but never realized,” Ehmke said.

“When this is done, you will be definitely competing for top five in the country,” said Allen Nyhuis, co-author of “America’s Best Zoos.” “It will be an alternative for Minnesotans to the big theme parks, the Disney Worlds, but without being a flight away, without the hotel stay, and it won’t be $100 a day just to get in.”

But some of the pay-to-play features contemplated for the Apple Valley zoo can cost hundreds of dollars at other zoos. That could trigger a backlash among consumers who already see the Minnesota Zoo as a costly outing.

“I have friends with three or four kids, or six kids, who never go there now because it’s too expensive,” said Shannon Martin of Eagan. “Already I’m asking, why am I paying extra for parking and the monorail? … When we pass the gift shop with our 6-year-old, it’s ‘Do you really want that or do you want to eat lunch here? Because you have to pick.’?”

The Minnesota Zoo is a state agency; about 29 percent of its roughly $25 million operating budget is public funding, and the state has provided tens of millions for major capital projects, such as new exhibits.

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