A giant alligator stands in the center, snarling at the sky. As its jaw unlatches, a torrential downpour of water drenches the waiting, squealing children visiting the Audubon Zoo, their shirts slickening and sticking to their backs.
This is the first addition to Cool Zoo, Audubon Zoo’s spray park that opened in 2011 and hosted water cannons, the gator water slide, spider monkey soaker, a water-spitting snake and concessions for hungry families. But at 14,000 square feet, generous descriptions called the space “intimate.”
No longer. After the success of the first Cool Zoo, which increased attendance by approximately 100,000 guests, the powers that be at Audubon have doubled down and are adding 44,000 square feet to the Cool Zoo area. This new area will feature a lazy river named Gator Run by the park, which will allow guests to float by on inner tubes and watch the various animals from the comfort of the water. At 10 feet across and three feet deep, the designers believe the run will take a total of seven minutes when the route is empty and 10 minutes when busy.
“But you can stay in there as long as possible,” said Larry Rivarde, executive vice president and managing director of The Audubon Zoo and Park.
“There are several water cannons, there’s an eating place, two sandy beaches, and several cabanas you can rent for parties. So it’s a completely immersive experience, and it ties directly into Cool Zoo one, so you pay one price and you’ll get both water parks for the price of one.”
Cool Zoo and Gator Runs costs Audubon members $10 and non-members $12, plus the price of Audubon Zoo admission. There is the option of the Pay-One-price wristbands—$12 for Audubon members and $15 for non-members—which offers access to Cool Zoo, Gator Run, the train, carousel, and Audubon’s Dinosaur Adventure for the entire day.
The expansion of Cool Zoo continues the additions the zoo has been working on for the past few years: a new petting zoo opened in December; Kamba Kourse, a four-story ropes course, came into use less than a month ago; later this year, the reimagined elephant and orangutan exhibits will be available to guests.
But for the water park, safety is paramount and made the zoo re-examine the kinds of attendants they require. In the past, the zoo only needed attendants because Cool Zoo had no standing water. Lifeguards will be present, as Gator Run’s addition will add pools of water.
“We have an outside third party company, SELA Aquatics, that is actually manning all the locations,” said Rivarde. “Each person that they staff will be a certified lifeguard. At any point in time any employee that you encounter in Cool Zoo will be a SELA Aquatics staff person who is also a trained lifeguard.”
Though Audubon enjoyed record attendance last year, the park wants to continue on a trajectory of success. With the supplement of the aforementioned additions, the park is conservatively budgeting they will see a 6 percent increase in attendance this summer. Usually, the hot months bring a drop in attendance.
Rivarde says Audubon believes the water park will encourage people to come see the animals as they can cool off at the same time. No matter the addition, he says, at its core Audubon is a zoo and it wants guests to see the animals in a beautiful, educational and natural habitat.
“We’re expecting 120,000 additional guests coming to the zoo this year,” said Rivarde, “and that would be Audubon-wide. We typically budget conservatively. We’re hoping we can exceed that number. But again, if we’re getting close to that number and individuals are staying in longer and enjoying themselves more, then we’ve achieved the goal we wanted.”