When the decision was taken to relocate the failing Emmen Zoo, its new Director, Frankwin van Beers, was determined to reinvent it, too. The result is Wildlands, a story-driven adventure zoo showcasing three climate-related habitats, where the animals are part of the narrative.
“We have a lot of zoos in the Netherlands, ” he says. “We needed to make this one special.”
Frankwin van Beers (above) talked to Blooloop about his bold move away from the conventional zoo experience to a unique adventure-themed attraction.
“I’m an animal guy; we have a horse, three dogs, birds at home, ” he says. “But, my expertise is in financial marketing and operations – that’s my profession, not really animals. I’m really a manager.”
He joined Emmen Zoo in 2010 after twelve years as the Director of Europe’s largest marine mammal park, Dolfinarium in Harderwijk.
“It was going very badly at Emmen; they were looking for a guy who could put a shoulder to it and take the right steps for the future. So that’s why I decided to go to Emmen as its Director.”
Starting From Scratch
The decision to start from scratch and build a completely new zoo had been made before van Beers arrived, in an agreement between the zoo and the City of Emmen. The land occupied by the old zoo was to be redeveloped as part of the city’s improvement plan.
“That’s why we had to move to the other side of the city where there was space, ” he explains. “So the decision was made in 2008 and I came in 2010. That’s when we had to present our plans to the city.”
The original plans were based solely around the concept of nature and culture but he was adamant that this was not a sufficiently compelling proposition.
“I said, that’s a good start, but we can’t use it as a marketing tool, because for me, nature and culture is the same as animal welfare and sustainability; something that will naturally be the basis of any new zoo, ” says van Beers.
“We have a lot of zoos in the Netherlands, and needed to make this one special, so people would visit: we had to build a unique park. That’s why the original zoo was failing. The Netherlands has a lot of good zoos, so why should people come from the west or south to the North if there are also other zoos?
“We needed a USP so visitors would come not only from all across the Netherlands, but also from Belgium and Germany.”
A Theme Park with Animals
The solution, as he saw it, was to create a theme park with animals.
Admittedly, this wasn’t a completely new idea: America was already home to several highly successful examples including Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay Florida and Disney’s Animal Kingdom which opened in 1998. Germany, too, had ZOOM World of Adventure, among others, which opened in 2000 – a reimagining of the Ruhr Zoo.
But, for the Netherlands, it was an innovation.
Wildlands would place the animals at the heart of three worlds. And, rather than organising the animals in terms of geography, the worlds would represent three climatic zones: icy cold, hot and dry, wet and warm. This would give the park the flexibility to group animals such as polar bears and penguins together.
Everything Starts with the Story
“Story-telling was the basis of all the plans, ” explains van Beers. “It would be a combination of animals (the most important element), culture, nature, entertainment and rides, and we would do everything for our guests.
“That’s why we made three worlds, each with a storyline, and then we put in the animals, the entertainment, the rides around the centre where you start your journey.
“You don’t have to go to Africa, you don’t have to go to the jungle, you don’t have to go to the icy cold, you can just go to Emmen, where you can see it all.”
Visitors to Wildlands start at the central Compass Area, from which they can visit any of the three ‘worlds’, Jungola, Serenga and Nortica, returning to the centre before setting out once more for the next zone.
Jungola centres on the idea of survival and living in harmony with nature. ‘Jim’ is the themed character who draws guests through the Jungola story. He’s a researcher who loves birds and whose plane crashed near the river while he was looking for the legendary LiaLia bird which hasn’t been seen for centuries.
The Visitor Journey
The journey at Wildlands begins with butterflies. Emmen Zoo had been famous in the Netherlands for its butterfly house, so a large butterfly house (above) was a key part of the plan for the park. This new version has been reimagined as a butterfly temple, a relic of the ancient people of Jungola.
“This is the location of our covered area, an 18, 000 square metre greenhouse with trees from Costa Rica: there’s a real plane and a real river and you can really meet Jim. There’s theatre where he explains about the bird, how he crashed, and how he has learned about camouflage, survival and so on.”
Riverboat Ride by Mack Rides
From here, visitors go to the plane at the ‘base camp’. This is actually the queue line for the river boat ride (above) designed by Germany-based Mack Rides. The boat takes guests along the river and into the jungle, where they emerge from a cave and find themselves among the elephants.
“It could be that you are in the boat and, just next to you, the elephants are swimming. We have eight, as well as lots of birds, and it really does resemble the jungle, ” says van Beers.
Another popular feature of Jungola’s covered area is a large climbing facility. This has wooden houses and nets so guests can climb through the area like primates. One of the wooden houses is next to the gibbon enclosure, so visitors can actually climb ‘with’ the gibbons.
“It looks like you’re doing the same as the animals. So, there’s a climbing facility for the gibbons, and the same facility for the children. It’s very funny.”
The second world is Serenga, which is hot and dry.
“Here, the basic theme is conservation, and taking care of nature, ” he explains. “It’s the home of the prairie dogs. We built a small village in this area. It is really a small farm with a donkey and goats that people can pet, before walking on and coming to a big savannah.”
This zone is home to giraffes and rhinos. Lions also roam across what appears to be the same area, although they are actually on the other side of the river.
A Conservation Message
The story in this zone is led by another ranger character who’s main preoccupation is animal welfare.
“All her family works there, and she teaches them the importance of animal care. Her nephew has a truck company, and we take our guests into the Savannah on a truck ride.
“It’s a very big area, and an area that maybe comes close to a zoo, but you really have the feeling of ‘take care of nature’. That’s very important to us.”
“Everything we do there is to do with research for nature. It is based around a small harbour village in the icy cold. There are sea-lions swimming in the harbour.
“The story here is that in the village there is a researcher who has built a vehicle. This vehicle can fly, ride and dive. It hasn’t been tested, so our guests join us and we can take people with us to one of the Poles.”
4D Arctic Ride by Vekoma and Brogent
The 4D motion base ride created by Brogent Technologies Inc. and Vekoma Rides Manufacturing BV, gives 100 guests per show the experience of flying through snow and ice as they get close to wolves, penguins and polar bears. Seats are equipped with leg ticklers as well as wind, mist and smoke effects to enhance the onscreen action.
According to Brogent, developing a ride for an area inhabited by animals presented its own unique issues.
“Brogent engineers paid special attention to noise emission. Animals react to other frequencies than humans, which made the development of the ride especially challenging.”
After leaving the ride, guests can interact with the penguins going down a slide. They can also view polar bears through glass panels.
A further feature of Wildlands is the city’s theatre facility built at the entrance to the park.
“In summer periods, there is no activity in the big theatre of the city. We have one theatre with 800 seats and a smaller theatre with 300 seats. We can use that space for our guests in summer periods, so we still have theatre activities.” says van Beers.
“This summer, we had a magical show that we performed for our guests, included in the price.”
Merging Two Markets
Van Beers’ strategy of merging two markets – theme park and zoo – has clearly worked. Since opening in March, visitor numbers at Wildlands have far outstripped those achieved by the original zoo.
This has had some unforeseen consequences.
“What we see is a new kind of visitor in our park. In the old zoo, we had zoo visitors – the people who also love the WWF and so on – but now we have the kind of people who normally go to a theme park or an attraction park. What’s new to us is people who throw garbage and cigarette ends on the floor: we’re not used to that.”
On the plus side, he says, “Last year, over the summer Wildlands had around 5000 visitors a day. Now we often see around 10, 000 visitors a day. People love it. It’s our first year, so all the trees and plants still have to grow. And, already now visitors are saying: wow, it’s a jungle. When they come next year it will be even nicer.
“Our visitor numbers are consistently growing, which is a good thing. In addition we see that people who visited us in the old zoo, they love us. They say the animals have so much space, it’s almost like nature.”
Wildlands, The Zoo of the Future
“People have to get used to the fact that Wildlands has a lot more space for the animals. And although we have slightly fewer animals, we have bigger groups and also rides and attractions, and theatre productions in the park. It’s not just walking around, it’s now sitting down and getting a sea-lion show, a jungle production with the animals, boat rides, climbing, a whole combination.”
According to van Beers, successfully reinventing the zoo experience is also about changing customer expectations. The passive viewing of animals in small enclosures is no longer acceptable or desirable. He believes deeper connections can be made by involving both the guests and the animals in the story-telling. This creates a sense of discovery.
“You have to go on an adventure to see the animals. You really have to walk through the jungle to see the elephants. People have to stop thinking, ‘I go to the zoo and there’s a cave over there and a cage over there and I can see just animals.’ That’s old school, ” he says.
“We are the zoo of the future.”