We’re gearing up for a spectacular summer at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and our level of excitement is already at a ROAR.

If you haven’t been to the Zoo for a while—or even if you have—you can count on seeing lots of new surprises this year. Not to mention, the long-awaited return of some beloved exhibits and activities, including Bay Family Children’s Adventure Trails, the Berniece Grewcock Butterfly and Insect Pavilion, and the train, that were temporarily closed last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

One of the most enthralling new attractions is Owen Sea Lion Shores, which opened over Labor Day Weekend, 2020, and is currently home to six California sea lions and one harbor seal, with a second harbor seal arriving very soon. Taking its place among the foremost sea lion exhibits in North America, Sea Lion Shores includes a 275,000-gallon pool with its own waves, inlets for the mammals to explore and discover, and even a beach for the pups as they learn to swim.

The habitat, with seating for up to 150 people during daily demonstrations, resembles the rugged Pacific Northwest coast, with a three-story waterfall, trees native to the region, and lifelike models of starfish and mussel beds. A state-of-the-art water filtration system (housed in three separate, dedicated buildings) allows for a high level of clarity so that visitors have a crystal-clear perspective on the pinnipeds’ underwater antics—whether from the 40-foot viewing window that emulates looking into a flooded cavern, a vast overlook area, or the children’s porthole.

And the sea lions have a clear view right back. “As much fun as they are to watch, the sea lions get just as much joy out of watching us,” says Dennis Pate, president and CEO of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, describing a time when he saw young humans bouncing a ball on one side of the glass, and a sea lion pup swimming and diving along with it from the other side. “It makes you wonder who’s on exhibit.”

The area around the former Owen Sea Lion Pavilion has been completely transformed as well. The beautiful new Harper Event Center is Omaha’s most elegant and versatile new event venue, with a large indoor space that includes a bride’s room and private access for catering and is fully wired for sound and technology; an expansive lawn, covered patio, and lavish gardens which feature the 12 Tanuki sculptures by artist, Jun Kaneko, that formerly held court at Durham Bear Canyon.

Next door, the new, permanent Stingray Beach provides an interactive way for families to connect with these popular underwater animals year-round. The 22-thousand-gallon saltwater pool, which also has an extensive filtration system, houses up to about 50 stingrays that visitors will have the opportunity to touch (after hitting one of the plentiful hand-washing stations), feed, and learn about via the educational graphics that surround the room.

Some of the Zoo’s perennial favorites are also getting a glow-up. The Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium débuted a brand-new façade last summer, with wave-like lighting and sound effects that make the space come alive for evening events. By the end of June, the Simmons Aviary will re-open with a new entrance, new boardwalk, new flamingo viewing and a ground-level trail. Hubbard Gorilla Valley will include more natural enhancements for its primate inhabitants, including a major climbing structure, as well as a new wall of monitors with videos the Zoo has produced detailing the lives and times of our own gorillas, as well as our partnerships with various global gorilla conservation efforts, such as the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

Omaha’s Zoo is proud to have been recognized by Travel + Leisure magazine as one of 2021’s top nine zoos in the country for conservation, and we remain committed to our mission of providing excellent care for our animals here in Omaha, while helping to protect all of the earth’s wildlife. Our visitors can see living proof everywhere they look, from Claire, our pregnant elephant, who is due to give birth in early 2022, to Marshall, our endangered Indian rhino calf. “He’s not such a baby anymore,” Pate says of Marshall, whose birth in August 2019 was an important victory in Indian rhino conservation. “He weighs about 1,600 pounds!”

We can’t wait to see him—and all the animals and plants in our care—continue to grow and thrive this summer.