CINCINNATI — Coming off a three-month forced closure in 2020, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is counting on a new adventure and some events to get attendance back up while refocusing a major expansion plan.
In the spring, the zoo will open an upcharge ropes course and treehouse called Kanga Klimb, featuring nets, bridges, and an observation deck.
"It's the only one we know of anywhere that at this level is wheelchair accessible," said director Thane Maynard.
WCPO was the among the first to explore the structure.
"The whole family can come," Maynard said. "Maybe they have kids that are 12 to 13 [years old] who want to have an adventure and climb on this. Mom and Dad want to have a beer in the beer garden, while the other kids want to go down and look at the kangaroos and the little penguins."
The zoo debuted Roo Valley and the Hops Beer Garden in summer 2020, featuring a "walkabout" path allowing close access to 10 kangaroos, plus a viewing platform for the zoo's little blue penguins.
"To have something new that we can open and be an attraction will be a neat thing, even in a year with still masks and distancing," said Maynard.
He said 2020 attendance was roughly 900,000, half of what the zoo normally brings in. It had to divert fundraising efforts from an ambitious capital campaign to an emergency operating fund.
"One thing I learned is the zoo spends just about the same amount of money over a month whether we're open or closed," Maynard said. "All the animals have to eat, the keepers have to get in here, those expenses continue. You can't just turn out the lights."
That slowed efforts to complete a $150 million campaign for several major projects ahead of the zoo's 150th anniversary in 2025, featuring a massive new elephant habitat in what's currently a parking lot. It also includes a renovated rhino habitat.
"We're still – we think – on target to have all that completed," Maynard said, adding that some parts of the plan have been shuffled or scaled back. "We're going to hold on the parking garage because they're extremely expensive to build."
The proposed 1,800-space garage was planned for 2023, making room for the "Elephant Trek" by 2025. The elephant habitat will instead take priority, according to Maynard, with a proposed 2024 opening.
Roo Valley and the new entrance were part of the expansion plan, as was Roo Valley and the beer garden.
The zoo hadn't been forced closed since the last pandemic of this magnitude – the 1918 Spanish Flu.
"[It was] almost a mirror image," Maynard said. "It was closed, that time by the mayor not the governor, for three months."
The zoo closed in March and reopened with mitigation measures in place in June.
Kanga Klimb is scheduled to open in April.