Our spectacular new Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo is open for business
By Fran Thompson
When I started publishing a newspaper here in the beginning of 1990, I was pointed towards a local guy that was in the middle of building a zoo on his family’s property about a mile north of Gulf Shores Public Beach. I headed over to Zooland Animal Park to get the scoop.
I was expecting to find a Marlin Perkins clone in a safari vest pointing a finger at the hired help. Instead, when I asked for Joey Ward, I was pointed towards a dude sitting atop a backhoe moving dirt. Joey was also the lead heavy equipment operator for the zoo he was building. We ended up meeting for a beer at Cadillac Jacks, where we talked more about music than animals.
Especially after I started having children, I realized that Joey was not just building a zoo (Zooland opened in 1989), he was building a community hub – a tourist attraction that locals were protective of and passionate about.
Learning as he went, he did not envision the project that is now open for business north of the Intracoastal Waterway (20499 Oak Rd.) in Gulf Shores on 25-acres donated by another prominent Gulf Shores family.
“I was 29 years old. I wasn’t thinking much about the future at all,’’ he said.
“Our family had been involved in a lot of different projects to help the community. For Zooland, we wanted a place that people would want to visit when they came to Gulf Shores. And it not only provided a recreational outlet for our guests, it became a community involved experience. Zooland was the first time we were able to do both.
“We had given quite a bit of land to the City of Gulf Shores and every major religion to build a church and the city’s civic organizations,’’ Ward added. “This was something a little different.’’
There are very few local children that grow up on the Alabama Gulf Coast without happy memories of their time at the zoo and their interactions with the staff and its animals.
“This is not something that is built every day,’’ Ward said. “It is very unique and different. A big part of the construction project was focused on the animals’ welfare and the guest experience. There were a lot of little hurdles and a lot to pull together, but it was nothing insurmountable.
“It just takes a lot of teamwork and we were fortunate to have a great construction team to work with. We used all local contractors and all of our design group is from the area. We were proud to be able to do that and not have to go outside the area from the ground up.’’
As the first ZAA-accredited U.S. zoo to be built in the United States in more than 20 years, the zoo will provide a more spacious and modern haven for more than 600 animals at its new location. And most importantly, it will be four miles removed from any Gulf of Mexico storm surges.
The complex will also include theme-park family entertainment, event venues, gourmet dining, shopping and educational programs.
Ward said he is especially excited to see visitors experience the Soaring Eagle powered zipline that will take them in a strapped in seat 110 ft. above the park and offer views of the entire park as well as the Gulf of Mexico and Pleasure Island.
The zoo was also built to include special events as a major income source. There are six different areas – all of them dynamic – available to host events ranging from weddings to birthday parties to family reunions. And the zoo’s Safari Restaurant is the first certified green restaurant in the entire country.
“We will be able to carry our conservation message through our food and beverage operations,’’ Ward said.
“These are awesome venues for special events, everything from cocktail parties to full scale multi-course dinners. We’ve already hosted several events with over 300 people.’’
A private investment firm purchased $26.26 million in tax exempt bonds that funded the new facility on 25 acres off County Road 6 East. The land, 4.3 miles north of the current location, was donated by the Weir family back in 2006. The bond money was also used to purchase 71 acres adjacent to the property donated by Clyde Weir and his daughter Andrea.
Monkey Island was the first exhibit built at the zoo. The Aquascape Pond Squad created a showcase water feature near the new zoo’s entrance before ground was broken.
The zoo has also secured a $1 million grant from the City of Gulf Shores to help with operational expenses during the transition.
Ward said it’s been a long and rewarding two year process – or even a 32 year project if you trace the zoo to its Ward family roots.
“I’m not sure what is next for me, but I know I am ready to rest,’’ he said. “It’s been two years this week that we’ve been under construction. We received the bond money on a Friday and we started construction the next day.’’
The zoo’s residents include big cats, reptile and bird collections, Eurasian Eagle owls, kookaburras and encounter animals such as kangaroos, reptiles, sloths, lemurs and anteaters.
Insects exhibits will include one of the world’s most valuable collection of butterflys and moths that will be part of the Dirk Beyer Butterfly Observation Outpost. There will be beehives at the zoo.
Ward said he is especially excited to have giraffes.
“The giraffes we have are phenomenal,’’ he said. “They will be a great addition. I’m also excited about our tiger habitat. Our guests will be able to see the tigers in the water with the only thing separating them a three inch piece of bullet proof clear glass. There is a lot to see. I think that everybody will be pleasantly surprised.’’
The zoo’s mission is to create experiences that connect people and with wildlife. It aims to inspire in its visitors a personal responsibility for the conservation of the natural world.
With that in mind, the Sustainable Life Centre will highlight the idea of being stewards for the planet through demonstrations of animal conservation, rainwater harvesting, organic gardening and sustainable technologies.
Patti Hall came to the zoo first as a volunteer in 1995 and then as its director. She was able to get The Little Zoo That Could through Hurricane Ivan by boarding the animals on her property north of the Intracoastal Waterway. She then led her team’s effort to get the zoo back open less than 12 months later.
“Hurricanes, tropical storms, the recession, the oil spill. We aren’t called The Little Zoo That Could for nothing. We are definitely survivors, but it’s time to move to higher ground and become The Little Zoo That Grew,” Patti said during the groundbreaking ceremony.
Patti’s late husband David was also relentless in his quest to have a new zoo built on higher ground for the Alabama Gulf Coast community. Surely, he smiled down from heaven and celebrated with the rest of us when the first guests entered its gates.
The zoo is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (last guest allowed entry at 3:30 p.m.). Admission: Adults (ages 13-54) are $19.95, seniors (55+) and military are $16.95, children (ages 3-12) are $14.95, and children 2 and under are free. Prices do not include tax.
Safari Club Restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily, and brunch is available on weekends. There is also locations in the park to purchase food and drinks.