An already-massive expansion to the Lincoln Children’s Zoo is getting even bigger.

The zoo announced last year that it planned to more than double in size, adding giraffes, tigers, spider monkeys, a larger exhibit for its marquee red pandas and a new education building, among other improvements, by May 2019.

The zoo planned to raise $16 million to $18 million for the 10-acre project.

This winter, an anonymous donor (the identity is known only by the zoo director) pitched in $1.5 million. Before this project, the intimate zoo had never received a seven-figure donation. Now it has several.

The surge in donations has grown the zoo’s construction budget to at least $22 million, with a stretch goal of $24 million. That’s allowing the zoo to add even more.

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John Chapo

“We have been absolutely humbled,” said zoo President and CEO John Chapo. “This is empowering the zoo.”

The zoo will open its first phase of expansion on May 10.

Then, one year later, the zoo will open the newest additions to its plan: a cheetah habitat with a straightaway sprinting lawn, a giant anteater exhibit, a playground that extends over the outdoor giraffe yard, a cafe and an event lawn with a permanent stage.

Each of the new components was cut from the zoo’s original expansion plans to control construction costs.

“When the real numbers came in, the $16 million dream was really a $24 million dream, so we had to value engineer out some of the elements,” Chapo said. “Now, we get to put them back in.”

This year marks the beginning of a new era for the Lincoln Children’s Zoo. After it opens for the season in March, it will become a year-round zoo.

The largest addition is an 8,600-square-foot giraffe building with a companion yard outdoors. No matter where the animals are located on a given day, zoo visitors will be able to feed the eager eaters leaves of romaine lettuce.

“We built it so no matter what time of year you come, you can see something,” said Ryan Gross, the zoo’s director of creative strategy.

Although the zoo is getting substantially bigger and is bringing on big-name animals, Chapo said it is designed and organized so that the zoo won’t lose its identity as a hands-on, up-close-and-personal experience for families.

“We didn’t scrimp on animal care or zoo guest experience,” Chapo said. “We want things close and convenient so it’s accessible for all ages and all abilities.”

Inside the giraffe barn, giraffes Allie, Joey and Phoebe can stick their heads and tongues right through the guest railing. Zoo visitors will be able to play tug-of-war with a Sumatran tiger. And the newly announced 200-foot cheetah run will include stadium-style seating for spectators to watch a cheetah bound toward its top speed, 70 mph.

“A rope will be attached to a winch, then at the end of that rope will be a little fuzzy creature,” Chapo said. “You stretch it out, you flip on the winch, PHEWWW!, and the cheetah takes off after it.”

The expansion plan calls for three new play spaces for kids. A play-in stream near the new entrance, inspired by the Platte River, will mimic a stream in the Sumatran tiger exhibit. Then, just down the path a short walk, kids will be able to climb up a play structure and cross a bridge into a protected tower that will sit inside the giraffe yard, allowing them to look down on the African giants.

An old Works Progress Administration building that previously housed the city’s Parks and Recreation offices (and was an aviary further back in its past) will become a jungle-themed indoor play place where kids can share a glass wall with spider monkeys.

When visitors first enter the zoo through its new entrance gate, they’ll be greeted immediately by animals. Small critters will be waiting by the front gates with an animal handler, then just a few feet inside the gates, red pandas will walk along a log tube arching overhead, connecting the species’ two habitats.

The new exhibits are laid out in a way that visitors won’t spend much time walking from one exhibit to the other.

“In the zoo world, we’re still small,” Chapo said.

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