Sep 23

A New Era of Learning and Interacting at the Zoo

Most of us who grew up going to Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium have fond memories of engaging with the animals in the Red Barn. Over the years, as the zoo expanded, so did the opportunities visitors had to get up close and personal with its residents. Bats fly overhead in the Lied Jungle; the Tide Pool Touch Tank in the Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium provides a hands-on way to connect with marine life; birds and small amphibians skitter across the walking path in the Desert Dome.

Now, as we gear up for the opening of our new, $27.5 million education and exploration expansion, the zoo’s youngest visitors can get ready to interact with animals and nature in a completely new and groundbreaking way.Todd Scholz, director of capital projects at the zoo, says we can look forward to the Children’s Adventure Trails opening in August 2017. Here’s a sneak peek at what to expect:

After passing through a refreshment plaza, complete with a snack bar that looks like an ice cream truck and a nursery center with a baby changing station, nursing rooms, sinks and microwaves, visitors enter the exhibit through via a kid-friendly agility course, where they can play with — and test their balance compared to — goats. They then have the option of sliding down embankment slides, or meandering down an elevation change, to the prairie dog exhibit where children can crawl through tubes and pop their heads up in the exhibit just like the prairie dogs.

Across the way, would-be Huck Finns can pull themselves across a stream on one of two skiffs. Or visitors can make their way to a nature play area where they can learn about crawlers, fliers and pollinators while playing on a climbing web and a beehive-like jungle gym. At the headwaters, there is an eagle’s nest to climb in, as well as a waterfall that is open to investigation. Meanwhile, babies can experience the thrill of gliding over different textures as they are pushed along the “stroller coaster” path. The terrain then gives way to the great lawn, which Scholz describes as a big backyard but with oversized insect statues and cool climbing features.

Next comes the giant tree house, which is ADA-accessible on the first level, and an outdoor classroom. Then, the primate tunnel, where children and spider monkeys can play in the same tree canopy (albeit at a safe distance from each other). The trails wrap up with the Budgie Encounter — transplanted from nearby the carousel — which now looks like an Outback storefront where the budgies can come and go, and be fed by visitors.

Judy Keating, a longtime donor to the Omaha Zoo Foundation, says that she’s most impressed by the fact that there is one entrance and one exit so that children can safely explore on their own, or be joined by their parents. She also likes that children of all ages and abilities can experience the zoo at their own level. “Omaha kids will have access to something really unique,” she says.

Tina Cherica, executive director of the Omaha Zoo Foundation, agrees. “The education and exploration expansion project will help us engage and teach children in brand new ways, both in the classroom and outside of it,” she says. “The donors who have helped make this happen are truly shaping how future generations approach conservation.”The expansion project also includes a new 400-seat Flight Amphitheater for bird shows, opening Memorial Day 2017. And, of course, the new education center, which will open in July, just in time for the 2017 academic year. For more information on how you can support our education and exploration expansion, please visit our website or call our office at 402-738-2073.