A new concession area and restroom may not seem like a big deal, but the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium’s newest addition could transform how young families experience the zoo.
The new guest services area, called Glacier Bay Landing, opens Friday at the former site of Red Barn Park, just inside the north entrance. Its vibrant red, blue and yellow buildings form a plaza that will enable families with young children to spend an entire day in one corner of the zoo, saving a long, sweaty stroller trek around the property.
Glacier Bay Landing will provide restrooms, concessions, nursing stations, shaded seating for about 600, a playground, a ticket booth and a sweet shop.
“We’re really working harder to accommodate young families that come to the zoo,” said Dennis Pate, the zoo’s CEO and executive director. “We want to make sure they have all the conveniences that they would maybe expect with a facility like ours.
“We’re a big zoo. It takes a long time to get around, so we needed do to a better job taking care of our guests who are going to spend all day here.”
The new area ties together exhibits that cater to young kids. It’s a short walk from the Children’s Adventure Trails, Holland Meadowlark Theater, Alaskan Adventure Splash Park, Sue’s Carousel, Stingray Beach and the Omaha Train Depot.
The 2-acre, $8.7 million area replaces an old family favorite, the Red Barn Park petting zoo, which opened in 1966. Pate said the zoo has integrated most of its petting zoo animals throughout new exhibits. The popular goats, for example, can now be found at the nearby Children’s Adventure Trails and across the zoo at the African Grasslands.
Nursing stations have become a priority for the zoo. There are two private nursing stations at the Children’s Adventure Trails. The zoo is adding five more semi-private nursing stalls in an area called the “Mother’s Den.”
“The days when moms have to nurse their kids in restrooms at the zoo are over,” Pate said. “We’re making room.”
The zoo also is trying to cut down on restroom wait times for women. At Glacier Bay, the zoo’s largest guest service area, women’s restrooms will have 11 stalls versus six for men. Family restrooms will have small and regular-sized toilets for tushes of different sizes.
As a result of the opening of the new area, the concession stand and restrooms between exhibits for bears and gorillas have closed. On May 17, the zoo will open new restrooms and concessions nearby at the Asian Highlands exhibit.
The menu at Glacier Bay is a big step up from other zoo concession stands. Alaskan-themed food, including crab cake sliders, fish sandwiches and shrimp tacos, join a lineup of new offerings such as burgers smothered in Monterey Jack cheese (including a four-patty burger called an “Iceberg”), garlic Parmesan fries, toasted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a blueberry flapjack cake. Lighter touches include a harvest berry salad, a chicken quinoa wrap and a portobello quinoa wrap.
Shaded seating outside can accommodate more than 400, while there are another 240 seats in an indoor dining space called Fisherman’s Landing, which can be rented for private events beginning at $2,500.
Just outside Fisherman’s Landing is a small jungle gym shaped like a lighthouse on a soft substrate. Nearby is the sweet shop, which serves up ice cream and safe-to-eat cookie dough in three flavors: chocolate chip, sugar cookie and cowboy (with M&Ms).
Finally, just outside the plaza, visitors can buy tickets for the train, the tram, Skyfari or any other zoo experience. As one final touch, the zoo bought a Cessna float plane, which will sit in a nearby stormwater retention pond and point its nose cone toward the faux Alaskan village.
The area surrounding Glacier Bay, in the northwest corner of the zoo, has a few other developments on the horizon.
The second and final phase of the new marquee exhibit Asian Highlands will open May 17, and a new exhibit for sea lions is under construction at the former Durham Bear Canyon. New exhibits for polar bears and other Arctic-dwelling mammals are being planned in the coming years.
Nearby exhibits, namely the splash park, have increased traffic to the zoo’s north entrance, which opens daily on Mother’s Day. That increase in traffic should continue.
In past years, the north gate was one of the zoo’s best-kept secrets. Those hoping to beat the traffic by sneaking in on 10th Street from the north could finding a prime parking spot, while those choosing the main entrance found themselves facing quite a hike.
Photos: 106 of our favorite shots of Omaha’s Henry Doorly zoo creatures through the years
Through the years, Omaha's Henry Doorly zoo has cared for animals as large as elephants and as small as tree frogs, offering the public a broad look at the earth's biodiversity.