“Change or die,” could be the motto of the Audubon Nature Institute.
Although it has been years since the organization opened an entirely new attraction — the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium in 2008 — new features are continually being added at the Audubon Zoo and elsewhere in an effort to attract bigger crowds and more revenue.
After all, it was just last year that New Orleans voters soundly rejected a 50-year property tax that would have generated $12 million annually for the nonprofit’s family of nature-oriented attractions — and the money to run them has to come from somewhere.
Thus, the Audubon Zoo is opening several new, hopefully crowd-pleasing attractions.
The institute also is preparing to debut a splash fountain at Woldenberg Riverfront Park in the French Quarter.
On Sunday, the zoo unveiled a 5,250-square-foot ropes course that stands 44 feet high, and this spring, its Cool Zoo splash park will debut a winding lazy river called “Gator Run.”
On Wednesday, Woldenberg Park unveils a colorful new fountain along with several infrastructure repairs.
The four-story ropes attraction, called “Kamba Kourse,” allows 50 guests at a time to try their strength and skill in dozens of routes at three levels: 12, 24 and 36 feet off the ground. Participants are strapped in with safety gear the entire time.
For children ages 2 to 7 or under 4 feet, there is a Sky Tykes course set about 2½ feet off the ground.
Audubon officials are hoping the courses will continue to boost admissions and the zoo’s profile after the successful launch of a petting zoo in December and the Cool Zoo splash park in 2011.
“It’s going to be a phenomenal year from an attendance standpoint, and we hope the happiness quota increases for our visitors,” said Larry Rivarde, executive vice president and managing director of the zoo, adding that attendance in 2014 was higher than the year before.
Across town, the institute is capping off its restoration project at Woldenberg Riverfront Park with a dedication ceremony at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. The $5.3 million project, funded by Community Development Block Grants, includes repairs to the park plaza and wharf and the addition of 35 palm trees. But the focal point is a 90-foot splash fountain, complete with 30 different shows of shooting water and colorful lights.
“This feature will bring new energy to the front of the aquarium, becoming a destination point on steamy summer days as kids cool off,” Audubon spokesman Frank Donze said.
In total, the nonprofit institute manages Audubon Park, Audubon Zoo, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, the Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, Woldenberg Park and other facilities on behalf of the Audubon Commission, a public agency.
Some visitors, however, may find the prices of the zoo attractions a bit hard to swallow. Admission to the zoo is already nearly $19 for adults, $14 for children and $15 for seniors, and after paying for entry, customers will have to shell out $15 for 30 minutes on the Kamba Kourse or $8 for Sky Tykes.
The Cool Zoo also costs extra, at $8 per person.
Audubon members can get discounts — 10 percent off the Kamba Kourse and 25 percent off the Cool Zoo — but the cost may still be considered steep by many.
“Our attractions are affordable for most people. It may get expensive for some, but there are a myriad of areas and opportunities for discounts,” said Rivarde, citing group discounts, free days for locals and the Pay One Price wristband that gives customers access to the Cool Zoo, the Dinosaur Adventure and unlimited carousel and train rides. The POP wristband costs $9 for members and $12 for others.
The zoo also defends the cost by saying the money is needed to help pay for day-to-day operations at the zoo. Special attractions are budgeted to bring in $1.7 million in 2015, making up 8 percent of the zoo’s budget, according to Donze.
“Attractions keep us operating,” Rivarde said. “We’re at breakeven now.”
He added later that attractions “play a significant role in allowing Audubon to ostensibly ‘break even’ or have a slight, budgeted surplus” of about $400,000. But he cautioned that down the road, attractions and existing funding may not be enough on their own to maintain the zoo in its current condition.
He pointed out that there are new projects that will not cost visitors extra.
A new Asian elephant exhibit and a new orangutan house will open this fall. The elephants will have nearly one acre to roam and explore, with a brand new barn.
The orangutans will move into the iconic building the elephants used to call home, a Works Progress Administration-style building from the 1930s that has been refitted for its new primate residents.
Rivarde touted the interactive Asian-themed area, promising, “It’ll be awesome.”
As the zoo continues to develop attractions and expand its offerings, there are some concerns about space, given its confined boundaries.
“We’re 100 percent landlocked,” Rivarde said. “But we’ve been repurposing land not utilized in the best capacity. … We’ve had spaces that were dormant or not utilized correctly, and now we’re repurposing them into money-making operations.”
He said he’s not sure if the zoo could someday expand outside its current boundaries, but for now, he said, it is making the most of its resources.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story stated the zoo was offering behind-the-scenes tours of the new Asian elephant exhibit. These are no longer being offered.