The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium has accelerated a project that will create a children’s splash park, set to open early this summer.
Alaskan Adventure, as it’s being called, broke ground recently at a vacant site occupied by camels two years ago, across from Durham’s Bear Canyon. The project was initially planned for a year or more into the future as part of the zoo’s Coastal Shores project — a smaller region-themed exhibit along the same lines as the African Grasslands — but donor interest caused it to be moved up.
Alaskan Adventure will act as both a splash-ground play area and a water feature for the zoo. The exhibit, which will be free with zoo admission, will include more than 75 bronze sculptures, many of which will have built-in water features that mimic actions that the animals make in the wild.
“They will appear as though the animals are dragging water with them,” said Dennis Pate, zoo CEO and executive director. “So if an orca is porpoising, he would be pushing the water in front of him as he’s doing that. We’ve used nozzles to simulate that water action.
“When a humpback whale comes up out of the water, he drags a certain amount of water with him, and that certain amount rolls off his flippers. We’re going to simulate that with computerized nozzles.”
At the center of Alaskan Adventure will be an 18-foot sculpture of a humpback whale. It was sculpted by Omaha artist Matthew Placzek, who has created pieces for the zoo before and is known for his sculptures in several hospitals and public places in Omaha and Council Bluffs, including the “Labor” monument on the Omaha riverfront.
Placzek also made 30 jumping salmon, 25 puffins, 15 sea lions, three orcas and three brown bears for the Alaska-themed exhibit, which will have a soft, rubbery material paving the play area. Surrounding the exhibit are spruce trees and other flora familiar to an Alaskan landscape. Some of those trees have already been planted near Red Barn Park.
“(The exhibit) is a way to introduce kids to animals from Alaska at a very early age in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do it,” Pate said. The zoo doesn’t plan to have a humpback whale anytime soon, so this is the next best thing.
Despite the Alaskan theme, Pate said the water would not have an Alaskan temperature.
In the completed exhibit, parents will be able to watch their children from dry rock formations, some of which are already complete in the tent-covered construction site. Then, when they’re all done, they can head into a changing area to dry up for the ride home.
The project will cost the zoo $14 million. Funding for the project came from private donors, though the zoo said it is still raising money for Alaskan Adventure on its foundation’s website. A stone donor wall will list the names of contributors.
According to the zoo’s master plan, the initial design for the park called for 12,000 square feet of space, plus a few thousand more for changing rooms, seating and other facilities. Pate said the final form of the project is close to that size.
The splash zone will be a standalone project, Pate said. The other elements of Coastal Shores — including planned new exhibits for polar bears and sea lions — will come later.