The Tulsa Zoo unveiled its master plan to the Tulsa Park Board on Tuesday and discussed how the zoo might look in the next 20 years. As part of the Tulsa Zoo’s transition from City governance to a public-private partnership, a 20 year master plan was commissioned by Tulsa Zoo Management Inc. (TZMI) as outlined in its contract with the City to address the advancement of the physical layout and condition of the zoo. TZMI operates the zoo through an operating agreement with the City of Tulsa. The master plan is a living document that describes the general location and function of exhibits, guest amenities and support facilities. Master planning is an exercise that many large-scale organizations initiate to form a road map for future development and projects. Though Tulsa Zoo entered into the public-private partnership in January 2011, it still remains an important city asset as a recreational, family-oriented attraction and educational facility.
An average of 525,000 visitors from all over Green Country pass through the Tulsa Zoo’s gates every year. The zoo experienced a growth of exhibits and support facilities from 1970-1997, but budget constraints have stifled that pace. Additionally, the zoo's aging infrastructure was not receiving the attention it needed. With a lack of new exhibits and infrastructure and deferred maintenance issues accumulating, its prominence as a recreational family tourist attraction and educational facility has begun to wane. “A strategic master plan with exciting modern exhibits is vital to grow as a family recreational destination and as an educational facility, and to become a premier zoo in the region,” said Terrie Correll, CEO of Tulsa Zoo Management, Inc.
To develop the plan, Tulsa Zoo Management Inc. hired PGAV Destinations, St. Louis, Mo. They have consulted and designed for various zoos and attractions worldwide, including: Sea World, Georgia Aquarium, St. Louis Zoo, Kansas City Zoo, Brookfield Zoo (Chicago), Louisville Zoo, Busch Gardens, Kansas City Zoo, Gettysburg Battlefield, Hoover Dam, Ocean Park (Hong Kong) and Banff National Park (Canada). The master planning process began in March 2011 with departmental interviews and on-site assessment of the zoo. From this point, regular meetings were conducted with zoo staff and TZMI board members to develop a master plan that would transform the zoo into a premier institution with long-term success. During planning sessions with PGAV, the Tulsa Zoo’s current infrastructure, conservation and education goals, community impact and financial sustainability were considered. In-depth assessments were performed on the animal exhibits, guest experience and revenue opportunities. The assessments also explored how the zoo could be improved with new state-of-the-art animal exhibits, while also addressing deferred maintenance.
Overall, the goal was to set the zoo’s sights on becoming a world-class zoo. The resulting plan will roll out in three phases over 20 years and will cost more than $150 million that will fund the renovation or addition of approximately 20 exhibits, both major and minor. This may seem like a high price tag, but when one takes into account other zoos in the region and their master plan budgets over ten years, this number is in line to transform the Tulsa Zoo. Phase I of the master plan includes new exhibits for tigers, snow leopards and rhinos. These exhibits are in need of replacement because of infrastructure deficiencies, out-dated animal facilities and a diminished guest experience. The three-phase master plan integrates future development of exhibits and guest amenities into the current zoo infrastructure, whether replacing out-dated exhibits or rearranging animal exhibits into a more geographically specific manner. It also takes into account current trends in exhibitory and, most importantly, highlights key species that fit into the zoo’s conservation and educational goals. “On one level, it is important to bring exciting, immersive exhibits for our guests to enjoy,” said Correll, “but it is also important to choose animals that carry an important conservation message. Good exhibitory helps accomplish that goal of educating the public in a dynamic and meaningful way.” Part of what makes an exhibit ‘modern’ is by having an immersive quality. As opposed to an animal being displayed in a menagerie-like setting -- in an old-style grotto such as our tigers -- the idea is to immerse the guest in an environment that is more naturalistic and representative of where the animal would be found in the wild.
It is also important to allow visitors the opportunity to engage in an up-close experience with the animal, such as through a viewing window. Helmerich Sea Lion Cove is an example of the public-private partnership, with funds coming from the 2006 1/3-penny sales tax and private fundraising efforts. It is also a great example of a modern, immersive exhibit, featuring numerous vantage points to see the California sea lions in a themed beach setting, complete with natural rocks on which the animals can bask. Guests feel like they are in ‘sea lion territory’, and the Hille Foundation underwater viewing area is also a special opportunity for guests to closely view how sea lions maneuver under water. “There’s a big ‘wow factor’ with this feature and these are the types of elements we’d like to incorporate into all our exhibits,” said Correll. Some of the new major exhibits highlighted in the zoo’s master plan include:
- The Lost Kingdom—Tigers: This new area within the zoo will be themed for guests to explore the mysterious lost world of tigers, snow leopards and Komodo dragons where structures and relics seem to be lost to the wilderness.
- African Forest: The current Chimpanzee Connection, which houses the zoo’s chimpanzees, will be transformed into the African Forest with an expanded chimpanzee exhibit and the addition of gorillas. This area will be a deep, misty jungle with climbing structures and the added attraction of a zipline for guests to enjoy.
- African Plains: The current Africa section of the zoo will be expanded to include new rhino, lion and African wild dog exhibits. The giraffe area will also be expanded. This area will be like a backpacking adventure with a safari camp feel.
- Sheepy Hollow: A re-designed children’s zoo will be a fantastical wonderland for people of all ages. This area will feature explorative play with giant flowers and mushrooms for climbing, animals from all parts of the world, including domestic animals for guests to pet.
- Wild Islands: This area will build upon the current Helmerich Sea Lion Cove area, which currently includes sea lions and penguins. This area will feature a rugged “Gilligan’s Island” theme with splash pad water play for children and shady places for parents to watch and relax. Flamingos, Aldabra tortoises and lemurs will be incorporated into this area. It will be energetic, fun and wild! The master plan also calls for an expansion of the current Tropical American Rainforest, with an expanded jaguar exhibit as well as expanded bear exhibits and traffic flow improvements in the North American section of the zoo. The elephant exhibit will also undergo a makeover and become the Lost Kingdom: Elephants, which will include an expanded barn and outdoor area with an event facility offering special viewing of elephants.
In addition to new exhibits, animal and guest amenities, infrastructure will also be added to support the zoo expansion, such as additional animal holding areas and an expanded animal food commissary to accommodate a larger and more diverse animal collection. Also, additional retail and food areas will be incorporated into each area to maximize guest comfort and create potential revenue streams. The implementation of the master plan is dependent on funding, as well as the availability of animals through conservation breeding programs. Completing the plan is just the first step in making each project a reality. “Having a plan in place really gives the zoo an advantage for investment,” said Correll, “instead of only having one project available, potential donors have a variety of opportunities to become involved that may be better suited to their particular interests. As the first step in the City approval process, the Tulsa Zoo’s master plan will be reviewed by the Tulsa Park Board.