As the sun rises over the savanna, imagine waking up to zebras and giraffes outside your African-themed lodge before you stroll over to an indoor water park or take a sky ride to an aquarium.
It’s all not just possible but probable with the Sedgwick County Zoo’s new 25-year master plan.
“It’s pretty cool stuff,” says Kevin Arnel, president of the Zoological Society Board of Trustees.
He calls the plan “bold but certainly doable.”
“There’s just a huge amount of potential at the zoo,” Arnel says. He says the master plan is about “the breadth of the thinking and the potential for not only the zoo but our community.”
The zoo, which is the state’s No. 1 attraction, has a $14 million annual budget and about a $43 million annual impact on the Wichita economy.
“It’s kind of the crown jewel of the community and the region,” zoo executive director Jeff Ettling says.
However, 94 percent of the 600,000 annual visitors come from within 100 miles of the zoo, and he wants to change that with additions that will be a draw beyond what the zoo’s reach is today.
The eight phases of the plan have a mix of upgrades and new features, some of which Ettling says are typical at similar zoos and some of which are innovative and will set the zoo apart.
He says he can’t talk costs yet, in part because they’re likely to change over the next couple of decades during the plan’s implementation.
Much of the money for the plan will be generated through fundraising. Ettling says other money will come after revenue-generating new features are in place, such as the water park, an event center and a hotel.
R.L. Blakely founded the zoo 47 years ago, and Ettling says the new plan is simply an update of Blakely’s original one.
“We’re still adhering to the original concepts and principles that Mr. Blakely, the first director, put in place,” Ettling says. “The whole plan is really to enhance a lot of what we already have going here.”
There are several components to the first phase of the master plan, which Ettling says the zoo hopes to accomplish in the next five years. Fundraising likely will begin before the end of this year.
The first goal, which Ettling says he wants to reach by the zoo’s 50th birthday in 2021, will be a new entry with eight ticket booths instead of four.
“That’ll be a really new face to the zoo,” Ettling says. “We’re living with the original entry that was built in 1971.”
There also will be a new C.P. Huntington electric train, made by Wichita’s Chance Rides, that runs on a lithium battery.
“It really kind of harkens to our green movement,” Ettling says. “We know that everything we do here not only has an impact on local wildlife and habitats but also wildlife around the world. . . . We know that we have to be the best stewards of the land that we can.”
Currently, the zoo has a tram that does not run on tracks. Ettling says the new train “will give you views of the zoo that you wouldn’t have otherwise.”
The Amur leopard habitat will expand as well. Ettling says the expansion will do for leopards what another expansion did for elephants in 2016.
“We did the right thing for elephants.”
The leopards are “living in a 1973 exhibit,” Ettling says. They need “bigger and better habitats.”
In the latter half of the first phase, the zoo will build an event center near the entry to the zoo. It likely will be able to hold 400 to 500 people.
On one end of the center, Ettling says there will be an exhibit with stingrays and small sharks that visitors will be able to touch and feed, and all of it will be accessible via the zoo on the other side of the center.
“It’ll be a very unique event space.”
Within the eight phases of development, Ettling says there are “projects of opportunity” that could happen as soon as money is available.
He calls a new aquarium “one of the big ones.”
“We’ve decided to kind of take a different approach to an aquarium,” Ettling says.
It will be part of the amphibian and reptile complex, which will more than double in size. He says that area needed updating anyway.
The three will combine to make an experience that tells the story of amphibians and reptiles dwelling in the tropics, the mountains and deserts, “And then we would end up in an ocean gallery,” Ettling says.
“It’s going to be substantial.”
Ettling says there will be a lot of the iconic things that people look for in an aquarium, such as a more than 55,000-gallon shark tank, perhaps designed as a tunnel that people can walk through with sharks surrounding them.
There will be other areas for giant octopuses and a mixed-species saltwater tank.
Ettling adds, though, that he has to be careful with the aquarium area.
“Operationally, they can cost you more than it costs to run the rest of the zoo.”
In the second phase of the master plan, there will be what Ettling calls an “African lodge” that actually is a 200-300 room hotel overlooking a grassy area that is quite similar to an African savanna.
“It really does give the feel that you’re in a very, very different place than Wichita, Kansas,” Ettling says.
It would be on the back 40 acres of the zoo, which is also where an indoor water park on a the scale of a Great Wolf Lodge — think lots of water slides and splash pads — would open.
Timing on the hotel and water park depends on interest from potential partners, Ettling says.
“That really depends on how much interest we can generate . . . in both of those.”
He says he hopes they can happen within five years.
There also would be what Ettling calls a destination restaurant overlooking the savanna.
The entire area would be “an economic incentive for the community as a whole.”
“It’d be very unique for this area to have something like that,” Ettling says.
Compared to other zoos, he says, “It would really set us apart.”
Also likely in phase two, though it could be a project of opportunity, would be a sky ride that would take visitors from near the front entrance to the savanna area.
The sky ride, train, a new carousel, also probably made by Chance Rides, and an extended boat ride would all meet at a central activity zone where guests can use each one.
Other projects of opportunity include an expanded grizzly bear exhibit; an expanded outdoor gorilla habitat where chimpanzees, pygmy hippos and baboons also could congregate for an African primate experience; an expanded farm area; and an expanded green space that can seat more people for events around a new pavilion and concert stage.
Also in need of updating is something that guests and perhaps donors don’t think about, which is all the service and support areas. That includes new maintenance facilities, keeper and employee service areas and a garden to raise plants for animals.
Phases three through eight include enhancements for “bigger, better spaces” in the Asian area with snow leopards, cinereous vultures and takin goat-antelope from China; the North American area with bison, elk and prairie dogs; the South American area with jaguars, giant river otters and a variety of parrots and other birds; and the Australian area with kangaroos, wallaby and, Ettling says, “maybe even Tasmanian devils”.
The idea, he says, is prioritizing what animals — the zoo has more than 3,000 of them — have the greatest needs and then “doing better for what we already have.”
Setting the groundwork
The master plan came together over the past half a year with significant input from staff, board members, GLMV Zoos, which is a studio within GLMV Architecture, and Philadelphia-based Zoo Advisors.
“It was amazing to me how much congruency there was in the way we were thinking,” Ettling says.
He says they’re not merely thinking of the next 25 years but the zoo’s next 50 years and what its needs will be over those decades.
“What we’re doing is going to set the groundwork.”
It may seem daunting, but that’s not how Ettling says he’s looking at it.
“I’m very optimistic just being the kind of person I am.”
Ettling, who worked at the zoo in the 1990s and then returned as executive director a year ago, has a lot to live up to.
“We’ve always done what we said we’re going to do with a project,” he says.
About 60 percent of the zoo’s budget is from earned revenue, about 39 percent is from the county and 1 1/2 percent is from grants and donations.
Some of the master plan “is fairly expensive,” says Sedgwick County Commission Chairman David Dennis.
“We’ve got to make sure that both the public and private sector is ready to take on that challenge,” he says.
Dennis says he’s confident the zoo can raise the money it needs.
“We’ve always had huge public support,” he says.
“It’s a great opportunity that we have, and it demonstrates what we can do if we work together,” Dennis says.
“The bottom line is that it’s exciting looking at what’s going to happen to our zoo for the next 25 years.”