Jungle Island plans giant transformation

When John Dunlap walks through Jungle Island, the 18-acre attraction on Miami’s Watson Island that he has overseen for the last year, he can barely take a step without pointing out something that’s about to change.

“Our idea with Jungle Island is to transform from a zoological attraction where people come and see animals to an ecological adventure park,” said Dunlap, president of Jungle Island and CEO of Iconic Attractions Group, which manages the park’s operations.

Dunlap, who was director of the San Diego Zoo before coming to Jungle Island, is also tasked with a larger goal: Changing the reputation of a once-revered attraction that has disappointed its city landlords since its 2003 move to Watson Island with lower-than-expected attendance and financial woes.

To brighten both the financial outlook and the park’s low-energy reputation, Dunlap and his team have devised a transformation with a price tag of “tens of millions” of dollars set to include:

• Zip lines, adventure bridges, bungee swings and other aerial activities.

• Pool areas, some including waterfalls, where guests can take a dip throughout the park.

• A built-out stretch of waterfront on Biscayne Bay promoted as a “private beach club” for tourists and locals.

• Interactive environments for all animals.

• A restaurant overlooking the orangutan habitat for visitors and for after-hours special events.

• A beachfront dining spot and bar serving light fare to sunbathers.

• An upscale “destination” eatery at the entrance, with a focus on craft beer. It would be open to both paying guests and members of the public who don’t buy tickets.

Dunlap revealed the plans — and hinted at more that were not yet ready to be disclosed — to the Miami Herald during a recent interview, describing the changes as a “total re-concepting.”

The full master plan is on a five-year schedule, but some upgrades such as the beach expansion have already been completed. Others are slated for the not-too-distant future, such as the restaurants, expected to be completed by the spring of 2015, and the zip lines, which Dunlap expects to be open by next summer.

This year, Jungle Island introduced a summer entertainment program and will also host haunted houses for Halloween and a winter festival. This month, the park is also allowing kids 10 and younger from Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to visit the park for free, with family events on the weekends.

Dunlap said he thinks the new and improved Jungle Island can even give that tourist town to the north a run for its money.