The first time John Dunlap stood at the lagoon near the entrance to Jungle Island, heat radiating in waves around the murky shallow pool, he put his hands on the brown railings and thought, “I wish I could get in the water here.”
No, the former director of the San Diego Zoo wasn’t hallucinating in the Miami heat. Dunlap was on the edge of an idea that he has carried with him since that day in 2013, of a redesigned Jungle Island with a new purpose: adventure.
Now, as president of the park, Dunlap soon will see the small lake morph into a tributary feeding a two-acre, crystal-clear lagoon for swimming, sailing, paddle boarding, kayaking and more. Soon, towers will rise above the tree canopy on Watson Island. Visitors will soar through the sky on zip lines, like the colorful parrots that gave the park its original name, Parrot Jungle. (It became Jungle Island in 2007.)
The plan, thanks to financial support from new owners ESJ Capital Partners, an Aventura-based asset management firm, is touted as a reinvention of the cash-strapped animal park. Owners hope it will relieve Jungle Island of the financial burdens that have choked its growth in the past and allow it to gain renewed relevance. The park has not yet revealed the sticker price for the renovations, but the acquisition of the park, including the assumption of about $45 million in debt, cost ESJ $60 million.
Here are some of the proposed features for the new park:
As part of its Phase One developments, Jungle Island is already constructing seven zip line towers off-site that will be installed at the park in the fall. The towers will rise as high as 14 stories, one of them swinging riders in a Superman-style tandem harness. Jungle Island will eventually add an aerial park between the zip line towers, with rope courses and high wires.
The centerpiece of the park’s facelift plan will be Dunlap’s long-imagined lagoon. The man-made structure from Miami-based company Crystal Lagoons U.S. Corp will likely be eight- to 12-feet deep, with a set of water slides at the center. On the lagoon’s perimeter: cabanas and new restaurants, plus a splash pad for kids. Dunlap is also playing with the idea of a bungee jump over the water that will send riders barreling toward the ground before decelerating and catching them inches from the surface.
The Phase One attractions —the zip lines and lagoon — are expected to be in place by about 2019 and, for now, are the only additions the park is promising. But Jungle Island has more ideas in the works, Dunlap teased. Later plans call for lazy rivers that stem from the lagoon like tentacles, taking visitors deeper into the Jungle. And, if the experience merits it, Jungle Island is mulling building a boutique hotel on the premises.
“We want to lead with a great park that then becomes a resort destination,” Dunlap said.
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado applauded the park’s move away from solely an animal experience, particularly at a time when travelers are more sensitive about visiting attractions that feature captive animals. Jungle Island said most of its 620 animals are rescued from the public, the pet trade and substandard conditions. In its reinvention, the park is redesigning its animal enclosures and assessing what animals may need to be relocated to new homes.
“What we had 20 years ago — caged animals — are not the “in” thing now,” Regalado said. “So they have this fresh new idea, which I think is great.”