ASHEBORO — Climb aboard the open-air Dino Bus, balance 12 feet above the ground on the Air Hike ropes course, or cruise the lake on Dragonfly paddle boats and you’ll know that new things are happening at the North Carolina Zoo, but big plans for the future and an exciting new hire could mean Walt Disney-style magic might touchdown in our own backyards.
The zoo currently has two major subregions, North America and Africa, that highlight each continent’s native species and cultures. In her first visit to the zoo since being appointed secretary of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Susi Hamilton outlined the $25 million vision that will expand the park to include subregions Australia and Asia. Patrons will also say goodbye to the old Pavilion to resurrect a new home for the hamadryas baboons.
The 500-acre zoo certainly has the space to cover the expansion, while funding is afforded by the bond referendum that passed in March 2016, spearheaded by then-Gov. Pat McCrory.
The Asheboro renovations draw similarities to the layout and vision of Walt Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and with the hire of Gary Buchanan, a 19-year Disney veteran, the world’s largest zoo might be able to tap into some of that magic and innovation.
Buchanan, the new manager of Public Relations and Media, worked in Disney’s theme park division in Orlando, leading marketing and public relations projects for Disney World as well as satellite parks in California, Hong Kong and Paris. After “having a ball with the mouse for almost two decades,” Buchanan said parallels and potential is what drew him to the NC Zoo.
“One thing I love seeing is that they are focused on the guest here, and that’s something Disney teaches everyone,” said Buchanan while watching families climb into the new paddle boats on North America Lake.
Guests can take a 30-minute paddle on one of 24 canopied boats. For those seeking a little more adventure, head over to the Africa region to harness up for the elevated Air Hike which features a series of obstacles designed to test balance and climbing skills, and increase self-reliance.
“We’re here to make the guest happy, and make everyone who walks through those front gates leave happier, a little more educated, and little more aware of their surroundings in the world around them, and enriched,” said Buchanan.
The beloved Dino Bus also returns this year with a few new Jurassic additions.
“I see a lot of opportunity here,” Buchanan raved. Only in his first week on the job, Buchanan is just beginning to lay out ideas to zoo leadership but says there have been discussions about rolling out a multiday experience pass, and bringing an Animal Kingdom-type lodge to the premises.
“We just finished a basic piece of a feasibility study of whether hotels, restaurants, shops and a lodge would make sense, and the information looks promising,” Patricia Simmons, director of the NC Zoo, said on Tuesday.
“I am extremely excited about that project development master plan, in fact we anticipate the zoo and society officials coming to Raleigh in the next few weeks to go over the timeline for that,” added Hamilton.
Future developments will build upon an already-improving zoo. In line with the report Visit NC released last month on 2016 tourism, the NC Zoo did not hurt for visitors last year, despite comments from leaders including Gov. Roy Cooper that H.B. 2 was putting negative pressure on North Carolina’s tourism and economy.
“Last year marked the third-highest visitation in the history of the zoo,” said Hamilton to the press. “We had close to 800,000 visitors last year.”
Hamilton hopes to see attendance reach 1 million in the next five years. With exciting current and future attractions, and a little bit of Disney magic, that goal will likely be met.