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The Future is Here: Tomorrow’s Zoos Today


Stacey Tarpley, PGAV DestinationsBy Stacey Tarpley, PGAV DestinationsMC Hammer pants

Hammer pants (as brilliant as they were combining swagger, comfort and utility for those facing the perpetual threat of a street dance-off) never gave rise to anything that we still regularly use today. However, that boxy old Commodore 64 gave way to our laptops, and what was once the size of a carry-on bag and needed to be plugged into a car cigarette lighter is now our iPhone. Lesson here? Just because it’s popular, doesn’t mean it’s a persistent, meaningful change, but true innovation can grow from a simple trend.

But what does that have to do with zoos?

As designers, we are always searching for the next big thing’seeking to advance and innovate. By looking at trends of today, we learn where we are headed tomorrow based on the small interim steps that are successful now. Case in point: SeaWorld Orlando’s “Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin.’

Seaworld Antarctica Penguins

This mega project is the largest single expansion of a park in SeaWorld’s history, and it does not involve a show’in the traditional sense. The attraction is a blending of penguin exhibit and ride to create an overall emotional experience that taps into the heart of the guest; creating empathy for a somewhat foreign (however, charismatic) creature. As grand as the place is, it’s actually not a new thought. “Wild Arctic’ was SeaWorld’s first deep foray into ride / exhibit integration’where the ride was integral to the story. And because it’s not entirely new, it’s a trend. And a growing one at that.

Over the past decade or more, I’ve noticed many projects contributing to this trend in ways that are not altogether obvious. The trend? Multi-Disciplinary Integration. That’s my nickname for it (just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?). And as the name implies, the trend is the merging of multiple specialized tourism destinations, like with “Antarctica’, zoos + theme parks. But it’s occurring across the destination sector as a whole.

Greensboro SciQuarium Puffer FishSoon, Greensboro Science Center (Greensboro, NC) will be opening what they’ve termed the “SciQuarium’ – an intentional merging of an aquarium, zoo and science museum. Other science centers across the US, like California Academy of Sciences (San Francisco, CA) and the Museum of Life and Science (Durham, NC), have been doing this for years.

Zoos like Louisville Zoo and Audubon Zoo have been adding extensive wet play areas recently with Zoo Atlanta being the latest. Zoos have also been looking at how to integrate rides in more meaningful ways with animal exhibits, utilizing trains, skyrides, monorails and boats.

Columbus Zoo is experimenting with a boLouisville Zoo splash parkat ride to view animals, and with a little tweaking–like extending the ride time and adding more animals–could be a world-class success.

Zoos have also been learning from theme parks in the methodology of communicating their message of conservation. Theme parks use strong, simple storylines and extensive theming to convey their message. They also are not afraid to use shows. To get out in front of people and connect one-on-one with story, magic and whimsy. This is something zoos are now catching onto with aplomb.

Recently, Georgia Aquarium opened their dolphin expansion largely anchored by an elaborate show, Dolphin Tales. Shedd Aquarium revamped their marine mammal show to include fantastical elemGeorgia Aquarium Dolphin Talesents and immersive setting. Although less “theme park-like’, elaborate training demonstrations at zoos, like Shiley’s Cheetah Run at San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the multiple demos at Louisville Zoo‘s Glacier Run, are becoming more and more the norm.

For years, zoos have featured aquatic animals and many even incorporate major aquarium elements like the dolphins at Brookfield Zoo and Indianapolis Zoo. Botanical gardens have long been synonymous with zoos, but rarely integrated as an exhibit unto themselves. Cincinnati Zoo features multiple themed display Cincinnati Zoo gardensgardens – something many zoos do, but rarely to the same extent. Several years ago, Jacksonville Zoo opened a new attraction, Asian Bamboo Garden, touting the garden itself as the star while the Komodo Dragon exhibit was a supporting actor.

From an educational stand-point, this merging of disciplines is a reflection of society’s views of the world today. We no longer examine the world by isolating individual elements, as we did in the past. Jacksonville Zoo Bamboo GardenWe’re no longer classifying and delineating. We are aware of the individual’s role in the whole, as part of the great web. And it’s that connection that we examine, scrutinize, and teach about in today’s zoos, aquariums, and museums. It makes sense that we’d like to see the whole together in one place–the gestalt rather than the pieces’and because each institution often teaches the same principles, the assumption is we’ll continue to see merging.

The symbiosis between theme parks and science institutions also makes sense. Theme parks are becoming more sensitive to the issues and responsibilities of today, and science institutions want to better communicate to over-stimulated guests. Competition among these institutions is driving them to develop similarly, and I believe this trend will grow to be the next recognized innovation in the future of zoos. Will this benefit all or will we see the eradication of institutions? I don’t know, but get out your Hammer pants. There’s about to be a dance-off.

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Stacey Ludlum

Stacey Ludlum

Stacey Ludlum is Director of Zoo and Aquarium Planning and Design at PGAV Destinations in St. Louis. She enjoys watching visitors fall in love with animals in the places she designed for just that.

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