By Natalie Hope McDonald
More than a century ago, philanthropist Christopher Lyman Magee donated $125,000 for the construction of a zoological garden in Pittsburgh’s Highland Park neighborhood. Today, the zoo, which sits on 77 acres of parkland, is one of the top six major attractions of its kind in the country. With more than 4,000 animals on display, the zoo is getting ready for warmer weather, and with that, welcoming plenty of new tourists.
Frank Pizzi, curator of Horticulture at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, said that he’s been spending the last few weeks readying the destination for a whole new season. “Spring preparations include many horticultural activities,” he explained, “like leaf collection, pruning, transplanting and adding many new plants.”
Pizzi said that once danger of frost is no longer a risk the prep team targets hundreds of tender tropical plants that need to be installed in various areas of the zoo, as well as annual plants in containers. “Many areas are deep cleaned, painted and generally spruced up,” said Pizzi, including the carousel and other amusement areas. Many of the animal exhibits also receive a general cleanup. Sod is laid, grass is seeded and fences are checked.
In addition to focusing attention on the grounds and animal lairs, Pizzi said that all visitor amenities are checked, cleaned and repaired as needed – this includes scooter rentals, wagons, trams and any other feature at the zoo that is accessed by guests. “Any area that was closed for the winter is reopened and prepared for visitors,” he explained.
This season, focus is on the newest attraction – The Islands, which provides visitors with an up close look at endangered animals, such as Visayan Warty Pigs, Philippine Crocodiles, Galapagos tortoises and siamang. “The Islands also offers a huge beach area with oversized Adirondack chairs for family fun photos,” said Pizzi. “And lots of selfies.”
Getting Ready for a New Resident
Elaine Gruin, curator of Education for ZooAmerica North American Wildlife Park in Hershey, Pa., has been busy freshening up exhibits with new mulch and bedding this season. She said that as the staff gets ready to welcome tourists for spring and summer, parts of the zoo also get painted or pressure-washed wherever necessary.
“We’re open all year,” said Gruin, “so our steps are ongoing throughout the year. However, we do set up a tent on the Woodlands Patio for onsite summer programming. We get our entertainment schedules ready and we are good to go.”
This spring, the zoo will be featuring a new exhibit related to the great horned owl in its own Great Southwest building. “The desert garden has also been redesigned and replanted,” said Gruin, who hints that a new resident will be coming to the zoo in the near future. The introduction of a new animal is big news for ZooAmerica with high expectations that it will encourage even more tourist traffic during its busiest season. The zoo has the good luck of being in proximity to other popular attractions, like Hershey Park, Chocolate World and the Tangier Outlet, which all welcome lots of summer visitors.
Upkeep at the Oldest Zoo in America
With conservation and education at the heart of the Philadelphia Zoo’s ongoing work, Kristen Waldron, director of Conservation Education and Integration, has been getting ready for new exhibits and entertaining ways to share important messages about animals. The efforts usually get started in February and continue through March each year, with moments throughout the year dedicated to sprucing up the zoo.
Waldron and other staff members recently participated in a zoo-wide clean-up day in which the zoo, which is usually open year-round, was closed for the day so that new mulching could be laid, planting could be done and cleaning could be initiated across the entire campus.
“There’s a whole gardening aspect,” said Waldron. “We get the beautiful gardens ready for the season and we work on the outdoor animal exhibits.” And while she says that staff does ongoing upkeep throughout the year there is definitely a sense of change in the air at the first sign of spring. New blooms and even new additions to the exhibits can really sharpen the focus on what will ultimately become a very popular season for tourists.
“A lot of our sustainability efforts are part of spring readiness,” explained Waldron. There are important messages about recycling shared throughout the space and special receptacles are also cleaned up in anticipation of more visitors. “We operate like a little city,” she said, which makes sense considering the zoo, the oldest in the country, is spread out over 42 acres.
This spring season also unveils a fresh makeover of the small mammal house with a new vampire bat exhibit that opens in June. And there is a new trail experience debuting with popular meerkats that feature lookout towers and a special parallel kids’ trail where children, said Waldron, “can be nose to nose with the animals.”
Making Room for New Exhibits
It takes 10 million gallons of marine and salt water to keep the Georgia Aquarium up and running in Atlanta. In addition to being a popular tourist attraction, the aquarium functions as a leading facility for aquatic animal conservation and research. It leads research on important environment issues that have a far-reaching impact globally.
Roger Montiel, manager of guest programs at the aquarium, explained, “We not only care about our animals, we care about our guests, too.” He said the staff tries to plan ahead for each season, thinking of different ways to ready for extended operating hours and larger guest counts.
“We take time to reflect on past seasons, review successes and challenges, taking lessons learned and putting them into practice,” said Montiel. “Over the course of the past 10 years, we’ve found many best practices and have implemented a significant number of those, increasing satisfaction and further improving the guest experience even on the busiest of peak days.”
To keep up with the demand, Montiel spends a lot of time in meetings as extensive planning goes into creating well-rounded experiences each year. He works closely with guest-facing and behind-the-scenes teams to ensure they are delivering the best possible experience for each visitor – ones who may be new or returning.
“At the end of the day, our goal is to create the best experience possible for our guests, showcasing our living collection, the care provided to our animals, and passion of our team, ultimately creating awareness to help preserve our oceans for future generations,” he said.
For starters, each morning the team takes part in making the destination ready for guests. “Everyone does their part,” said Montiel, “from preparing animal diets, providing world-class care to our living collection and habitats, and maintaining our guest areas before we open; each team member is key in creating the guest experience.”
Department managers also meet each morning to discuss the day’s operations, guest flow, special events and to share challenges and successes from the previous day. This is the team’s opportunity to communicate and make sure everyone is equipped with necessary information to make each new day a success.
This year, as the Georgia Aquarium celebrates its 10th anniversary, it’s gearing up for new attractions. Some of these include the newly renovated 4D Funbelieveable Theater featuring an interactive experience of the film Happy Feet. There’s also a new exhibit and presentation which will feature the return of California sea lions to Georgia Aquarium starting March 31st. “This exhibit will feature an up-close and personal presentation showcasing our sea lions,” said Montiel. “Our guests will be treated to a fun and informative demonstration showing the care and efforts that go into creating a top-notch home for these amazing animals.”
New this season is also the AT&T Dolphin Tales Celebration, an experience, he said, “celebrating the athleticism, power and grace of these popular sea animals.”
The Ultimate Beach
Located halfway between New York City and Philadelphia, Jenkinson’s Boardwalk is in the heart of the famed Jersey Shore in Point Pleasant. The privately owned and managed destination not only features a popular coastal retreat, but also a boardwalk and aquarium. Since it opened in 1991, the facility has been focused on showcasing marine life and aquatic habitats for the sake of education and conservation. With a new exhibit about seals opening this spring, the team has been very busy getting ready for the high season.
Cindy Claus, the aquarium’s director, says that seasonal preparation has everything to do with planning ahead. “We walk the aquarium and prioritize needs from cleaning to what signage and artificial plants need to be replaced,” she explained. “We also meet with key staff, such as curators and aquarists, to determine what exhibit areas need changing or additional animals need to be added.”
Claus says the planning gets started several months in advance of the spring and summer season to make sure the animals are available and can go through a lengthy quarantine process before they are introduced to the resident animals. She also begins hiring staff to help with the increase in school and summer camps that visit.
“Our facility is open year-round,” said Claus, “so we are always ready for visitors. Our numbers do increase during our boardwalk’s main season (Easter through Halloween) so any major work we try to carry out between November and March.”
Last year, the facility’s harbor seal habitat was completely refurbished, so this year Claus is concentrating on life support upgrades that the public may not necessarily notice unless they go on one of the behind-the-scenes tours. “Our facility will be celebrating its 25th anniversary this summer,” she said, “so there are some energy-efficient filtration changes we need to get us through the next 25 years.”
The Inside Line
What It Takes to Prep a Freshwater Aquarium for the New Season
Allison Iacone, a coordinator at Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth, Minn., talked to us about how the freshwater aquarium – one of the few in the country – has been preparing for spring. Opened in 2000, the aquarium features animals and habitats found within the Great Lakes basin and other freshwater ecosystems, like the Amazon. The destination currently houses more than 200 species of fish, reptiles, birds, amphibians and mammals. -NHM
How do you start preparing for your busiest time of year?
To prepare for the summer tourism season we hire extra staff, part-time ticketing and front-end staff, and occasionally a temporary educator position to help with summer camps.
You’re open year-round – so does that mean that there’s an annual plan in place to keep up with demands?
Because we are a year-round operation we don’t take any additional steps to make the destination ready for visitors. It is always ready. We are always working on exhibits to keep them clean, fresh and in proper working order. We do boost our marketing budget to focus on the summer season when Duluth sees tens of thousands of tourists.
What can we expect this new season?
In the summer of 2016 we will be unveiling a new exhibit called “Unsalted Seas.” The exhibit tells the story of the large lakes of the world. The 3,500-square-foot gallery hall currently under construction will, for the first time in Great Lakes Aquarium history, increase the exhibit space and create a bigger, more dynamic facility. “Unsalted Seas” will feature an 8,000-gallon sturgeon touch pool, a giant cichlid tank and an interactive reproduction of the Blue Heron, a University of Minnesota-Duluth research vessel. The exhibit space will overlook the working Twin Ports harbor and gateway to Lake Superior.
What about seating? How do you accommodate guests?
Currently, we have wooden benches throughout our facility, but we are replacing them this spring with Loll benches made in Duluth, Minn., from recycled high-density polyethylene. We are excited about the change, which we believe will refresh and modernize our space. Our lobby features wooden tables and chairs.
A Question of Seating: What Material Works Best?
Frank Pizzi of the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium: “Seating in the zoo varies. The Development Department has selected a painted metal bench for memorial placement. Most other benches in the habitat areas are wood to better fit into the natural setting.”
Elaine Gruin from ZooAmerica: “Most of our benches are a plastic type of material.”
Kristen Waldron of the Philadelphia Zoo: “We have varied seating throughout the zoo that’s part of our history. When we unveil new seating we look at sustainability, particularly recycled plastic.” The zoo actually has its own committee focused on sustainability issues that plays a huge role in what the zoo purchases.
Roger Montiel of the Georgia Aquarium: “We have all three types of seating in Georgia Aquarium. The type of seating in a certain location depends on a number of factors: location, theme or décor, and environment. Some of our areas are conducive to wood seating, but plastic or metal seating can be found in some of our galleries and theaters due to their ability to withstand these marine environments in the building.”
Cindy Claus of the Jenkinson’s Aquarium: “Most visitors enjoy just walking through the aquarium. However, we do offer a few wooden benches throughout for those who wish to sit awhile. We are all indoors and offer wooden benches because it goes along with our theme.”
A Quick Three Questions with Deanna Sabec of the Adventure Aquarium in Camden
What preparations do you take to get the destination ready for the spring and summer seasons? Adventure Aquarium consistently focuses on guest satisfaction, regardless of the time of year. To prepare for the spring and summer seasons, we increase our programming in order to accommodate more guests throughout the day. There’s our “Meet the Divers” and “Who Wants to be a Fishonaire?” shows, as well as Ocean Realm, Hippo and Penguin feeds, and other programming, such as Gill’s Dance Party and Ice Age: No Time for Nuts 4D Shows, which are offered at various times each day to ensure guests will have numerous enjoyable opportunities during their visit. In addition, we increase the size of our staff for the spring and summer seasons in order to service our guests in the best way possible.
Do you plan to unveil any new exhibits or additions to the aquarium this season? With a grand opening of Friday, April 8, we’ll invite guests to the Dare to Cross Shark Bridge, the longest V-shaped rope suspension bridge in the world at 81-feet, which will bring guests just inches above nearly 30 sharks.
What type of seating do you offer guests? Adventure Aquarium offers a variety of seating all around the aquarium for guests who are watching our programs, dining or resting. –NHM