Kansas City Zoo not resting on its 1 million laurels

The Kansas City Zoo has about a million reasons to just kick back and smell the roses. It’s easy to see how that might happen now that this dynamic facility has ushered more than 1 million visitors through its gates -- eclipsing a goal that only 25 to 30 of the 235 accredited zoos and aquariums reach annually.

Fortunately for devoted patrons, this zoo is already surging toward the “next big thing.”

“While 1 million visitors has always been a goal, it certainly isn’t the end,” said Randy Wisthoff, executive director/CEO. “We’re vetting other elements from our Master Plan and looking to announce by mid-summer the opening of a major exhibit that we believe will be on par with the polar bears and penguins.” Polar Bear Passage opened in 2010, followed in 2013 by Helzberg Penguin Plaza. Both are world-class exhibits and fan favorites that have undoubtedly contributed substantially to increased attendance.

Here’s more:

For a calendar of upcoming events, visit www.kansascityzoo.org/special-events.
While this ongoing behind-the-scenes analysis is happening, patrons of this amazing zoo will enjoy the “Billy Goats Gruff” exhibit, which opened in March to offer a new way to interact with goats. Visitors can stroll through the area and watch the goats play in their new playground, which comes complete with a bridge and troll lurking underneath.

The fun won’t stop with the goats, though. Three new Allen’s swamp monkeys will bounce around the grounds, providing lots of activity in the building that used to house the sleep-loving koalas that were on loan from the San Diego Zoo. The restaurant overlooking the kangaroo yard is being remodeled and themed as a barbecue joint. And two of the always-popular trains are being refurbished with fresh, glistening coats of paint.

This is the type of ongoing investment that Wisthoff, who spent more than 26 years at the Omaha Zoo before arriving here in 2003, said it took to push attendance past 1 million. Maintaining that status requires an equal measure of vision and investment going forward, he said.

The KC Zoo has certainly been aggressive about investing in its product, spending $15 million on the penguin exhibit, $6 million on Orangutan Canopy in 2015 and $3 million on the 100-seat air-conditioned restaurant.

“What we’ve tried to do over the years is to make the zoo accessible and user-friendly,’’ Wisthoff said. “A lot of what we’ve done are very elementary things, like added shade to viewing areas, steps in the restrooms so toddlers can wash their hands without their parents having to hold them up to the sink, toddler seats in restrooms, designing the walking trails to make it easier for parents with kids to navigate and really just trying to realize what people want.”

The substantial investment in animal exhibits hasn’t caused Wisthoff and company to overlook the humans who staff the zoo year-round. This 200-acre zoo boasts about 200 full-time employees, with another 300-400 summer workers, largely young people, hired from throughout the region. The maintenance department is responsible for more than 50 buildings, including a full-blown hospital.

“Our employees are so loyal and dedicated,” Wisthoff said. “The last time there was a weather forecast that called for ice, we had staff spend the night because if the roads are closed, then someone still has to be here the next day to take care of the animals and to plow our streets.”

The zoo is open year-round and offers a variety of budget-friendly perks, particularly for Jackson and Clay County residents. Daily pricing for those residents is $7 for adults ($6.50 for seniors) and $6 for children ages 3-11. Children under 2 years old get in free. Residents in those counties need to show a driver’s license or utility bill to get the discount.

Bus line 108 also runs through the zoo, making it easier for visitors and employees who may not have their own transportation.

“We’re trying to create a situation in which people won’t be able to say they can’t afford to come to the zoo,” Wisthoff said.