With funding for the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens’ Master Plan now in motion, WOKV is learning more about when you will start to see the changes. As part of the City of Jacksonville’s annual budget process, a plan was approved to borrow $5 million each of the next five years, with the Zoo matching that amount in private donations, and all of the money dedicated to the ten-year Zoo Master Plan. While the total $50 million will not cover the entire tab, Zoo Executive Director Tony Vecchio says he was satisfied and excited to see the City sign on to the funding. “We’ve been working on it so hard, for so long, for it to finally come together,” he says. FULL COVERAGE: Jacksonville’s $1.2 billion City budget WOKV has learned from the Zoo that the first project under the Master Plan that is already in motion is a $3 million overhaul of the parking area. Planning is already well underway, with construction expected to start in then next couple of months. Vecchio says it’s important to start with parking, because as the Zoo has grown in popularity, so has the traffic to get in and congestion in the parking lots. “I don’t want people to start their visit here with a negative experience, so being able to fix that from the very start is really exciting,” he says. FULL COVERAGE: In-depth look at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens Master Plan They are reworking their retention ponds, to create a water feature at the entrance point to the Zoo. There will be an entrance bridge over that water, which funnels cars on to a landscaped lane that encourages cars to continue moving toward the front of the lot to park- near the main Zoo entrance, which is also being moved under the Master Plan. Traffic can navigate off the main drag and in to the various rows to park, as well. This new central flow is aimed at not only making traffic more streamlined, but improving your safety, because you’ll now be walking with the flow of most of the traffic. The lots themselves are being repaved and marked, and about one hundred new spots are being added as well. The exception is Lot C, where they won’t be paving everything, but they will be more clearly marking spaces, in order to ensure the parking lot can be used in an orderly manner, even if there is no attendant. The parking overhaul is expected to take inside of a year to complete. A few months after construction on the parking begins, Vecchio says they start work on the new entrance. The main gate and the education center are being flipped, under the Master Plan. The intent is to have a more centrally located main entrance, which creates two possible “loops” through the Zoo, as opposed to the current set-up, which requires a long walk to get to the end. The new entrance will have a restaurant and gift shop, as well as admissions area. Tandem with that project is adding a new entrance exhibit, which will be “Manatee River”. The exhibit will highlight the species, while also showcasing the work that’s done at the Zoo’s Manatee Critical Care Center, which is not open to the public. The Center cares for and rehabilitates manatees until they can be released back in to the wild. Two of the manatees currently in the Center- Percy and MJ- have been there more than a year, but could be released as soon as next month, according to the Zoo. The exhibit will feature a long-stay manatee or one that can’t be released back in the wild, in a natural setting. The new education center, when it’s moved, will also serve as an event space. It will overlook the to-be moved and rebuilt lion exhibit, which will be “wellness-inspired”, meaning the lions will have a lot of features that allow them to climb or otherwise entertain themselves, to ensure they’re healthy mentally and emotionally, as well as physically. The Zoo’s “Range of the Jaguar” and “Land of the Tiger” are other big cat exhibits that have “wellness-inspired design”. The new “Great Apes Loop” in the African Forest embraces that as well. “We want our animals to thrive and be happy, and we’re using that philosophy as we design our new exhibits,” Vecchio says. Vecchio says they’re doing everything they can to keep the impact on you minimal, including planning construction around high-traffic months, looking at phased approaches, and more. “We want every day to be a great experience at the Zoo. We don’t want to say, ‘Well, yeah, you’re having a crummy time today, but come back in a year because it’s going to be better’. We intend it to be a great experience every day, so we’re very careful about how we time construction and the logistics of what’s going to be closed,” he says. There is a lot involved in this Master Plan beyond this first phase as well- a new attraction, and overhaul of “Wild Florida”, the addition of an “Orangutan Reserve”, a flex exhibit that can feature different animals, a new “Nature Play Zone” outside of the main gate to use for education and programs targeting at-risk youth, and more. “Hold on to your hats. It’s gunna be an exciting ten years here at the Zoo,” Vecchio says.