TAMPA — Behind the construction walls near the carousel at ZooTampa at Lowry Park, hammers, saws and power drills made a racket in the blazing Friday heat. A raft full of 100-pound water jugs took test trips on the new Roaring Springs ride set to debut June 9.
In an exclusive preview, the Tampa Bay Times toured the new 1.5-acre realm at the recently rebranded zoo. The zoo, which has had several makeovers since its humble start in the 1950s, appears to be taking a page from the playbooks of bigger, flashier theme parks. Still, zoo managers are reluctant to admit that.
"I wouldn't call us a theme park," said COO John Muller, who joined the zoo two years ago. "We are a zoo."
Muller came aboard shortly after the arrival of CEO Joe Couceiro, an alum of the Busch Gardens and SeaWorld marketing departments. One of Couceiro's boldest changes was his October announcement that Lowry Park Zoo was getting a zippier name. ZooTampa at Lowry Park came with a new logo and ambitious plans for attractions meant to signal a refreshed, contemporary identity. This makeover is the biggest expansion at the zoo in 10 years, costing upward of $6 million for just the Roaring Springs area, Muller said.
"Forget theme parks for a moment," Muller said as he pointed out changes coming to the Roaring Springs section, which used to be the site of the Gator Falls log flume. "The conversation for guests today is about the experience."
Roaring Springs is set up to look like an old Florida town with a boat house and a food stand. New food offerings are more elegant, with gourmet fare such as fish tacos with spicy remoulade, conch fritters and bourbon iced tea served in Mason jars with sprigs of mint. There's a playground with old-fashioned props such as a schoolhouse and a windmill. The steel beams holding up the ride have been painted to look like an oak tree, draped artistically with moss and topped by a huge osprey nest that looks genuine but is actually made of fiberglass. Riders will pass by the faux osprey nest before the big drop.
The ride is made for families; it isn't very big or scary. It takes about a minute to climb to the tree tops in a raft that seats about 20. The raft then turns and makes a three-story plunge that pushes out a shower of water on each side as it splashes down.
Exit through the gift shop, where you can buy a photo from your ride and browse the Country Store for gifts. Nearby is a Parrot-Ice stand selling frozen rum drinks and slushees.
"You have to think of every aspect, from music to food quality," Muller said. "As a customer, my expectation is you are going to give me a little 'wow.' "
Still, animals remain the zoo's core mission, Muller said. The park preview tour came on the day the zoo announced the arrival of four rare red wolf puppies, the first time in 25 years that the critically endangered species was born at the zoo. The pups live in a new habitat that allows guests to watch them grow and emerge from the den their mother dug in the soft Florida soil.
This was once a zoo so sadly outdated, with such cramped quarters for its animals that the Humane Society called it one of the worst zoos in America. A serious makeover turned Lowry Park Zoo around in 1988, and by 2009 it was an experience so pleasant, Parents magazine named it one of the best zoos for kids.
The zoo is run by a nonprofit, but the city of Tampa owns it on a sprawling piece of land more than 60 acres wide off Sligh Avenue. Nearly 1 million people visit the zoo each year to see more than 1,300 animals.
When Couceiro took over in 2015, the former vice president at Busch Gardens quickly instituted a Zooper Pass to give visitors unlimited return visits in a calendar year for the price of an adult or child ticket. The Zooper Pass has been a hit, Muller said, and propelled more people to become zoo members. Between "Pay for a Day" and zoo membership, ZooTampa has seen a 230 percent increase in the number of guests with repeat visitation benefits.
The next upgrade will add to the habitat of black bears, alligators, panthers, Key deer and other native species at the Florida Boardwalk area, which will be renamed Florida Wilds. It will expand to enhance the zoo's capacity to provide care for and rescue and rehabilitation of threatened wildlife, said zoo spokeswoman Andrea Alava.
And the Florida Waters area is in the process of upgrading tanks and the life-support system in its manatee critical care center, which will allow the zoo to treat the most severe cases. That is expected to open in October.
Modern zoos are focusing on conservation and making habitats more open and natural, said Rob Vernon, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The 229 zoos accredited by the association, including ZooTampa, spend more than $160 million on conservation programs each year.
"In the past 10 to 15 years, we've seen a dramatic shift in how (association) members approach the public display of animals," Vernon said. "We see much larger, more open exhibits based upon modern science."
And zoo officials said it sometimes takes a little showbiz to pay for those sanctuaries.
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at email@example.com. Follow @SharonKWn.