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Done the dome? Rain forest alone won't draw visitors, projects learn

By Zack Kucharski
The Gazette
April 11, 2004, p. 1B
[Filed Saturday, April 10, 2004, 2:34:24 PM]

Drive 250 miles to the west and northeast of the proposed rain forest in Iowa and you'll find two other facilities that bring a bit of the Amazon to the Midwest.

While neither the Lied Jungle at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Neb., or the Mitchell Park Domes in Milwaukee, Wis., are comparable in size to the proposed $180 million, 4.5-acre indoor rain forest in Coralville, each facility has learned it's less about location than it is cost and what people see while they're there.

Both sit next to a major interstate much like the one proposed for the Iowa Environmental Education Project, at First Avenue and Interstate 80, but both are in larger population areas.

In both cases, they've learned a rain forest alone hasn't been able to sustain attendance.

Iowa Environmental/Education Project:
Henry Doorly Zoo, Omaha:
Mitchell Park Domes, Milwaukee:
Those involved in educational attractions say fighting the "Been There, Done That" mentality is involves balancing new components while keeping admission costs low.

The Gazette visited the two rain forests recently to see what lessons might be learned as Coralville embarks on building a project that has powerful backers in Iowa and Congress but has been mocked on its face value -- a rain forest in Iowa?.

Critics seemingly fail to realize it would not be the first.

"The biggest factor is always weather, and this can be a sort of haven or sanctuary. Yes, we are right off of Interstate 94, but that's not why people come," said Kristine Ciombor, director of the Mitchell Park Domes in Milwaukee. "But there are two other things that draw people -- affordable admission prices and having something new for them to see."

"The Domes" -- a series of three glass domes featuring a rain forest, a desert and a floral show area -- have been open close to 40 years, opening in 1967 at a cost of $4.5 million.

Just a mile from the state fairgrounds and Miller Park (where the Milwaukee Brewers play), the location has led to very little, if any, spikes in attendance, Ciombor said.

Rather, she said, The Domes must regularly change shows and target specific audiences to continue drawing the 200,000 who visit each year.

While the rain forest is a huge draw, Ciombor knows it wouldn't sustain attendance.

The Domes "reinvents" itself five times a year when it unveils a new show in the floral dome. The shows go after specific demographics and are based around themes, such as romance for Valentine's Day, trains for men, spring for Easter and Mother's Day and so on.

While the admission of $4.50 for adults and $3 for children under 18 doesn't cover operating costs, drawing a stable attendance is critical to it remaining open, Ciombor said. The facility, with a staff of 20, relies on the shows, rentals for private events, and permits for wedding and marketing photo shoots to stay within budget.

Roughly 250 people visit The Domes each weekday and 1,000 on weekends, though attendance is usually higher when the weather is colder, Ciombor said. Nearly half of the visitors come from within an hour of Milwaukee. The average stay is about 90 minutes.

Milwaukee resident Kim Sonnenberg, who had her wedding pictures taken in The Domes, is a loyal visitor who doesn't need new floral shows to draw her back. Although she made several trips in March to sit in the rain forest to help overcome her bronchitis, she often brings relatives to visit because it is affordable.

"As relatives get older and don't really know what to do, you can bring them here and just talk. You can stay or an hour or two hours, and it is very peaceful," Sonnenberg said. "I come whenever winter has me going stir crazy."

# # #

NEARLY 250 MILES west of Coralville, grade school students get an electronic tour of the 1-acre Lied Jungle in the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo.

Julie Anderson, standing on a bridge at tree-top level, uses a camera to zoom in and show the students the animals living in the rain forest -- sloths, macaws, howler monkeys -- to students at Ravenna Elementary School, nearly 180 miles away.

The lessons not only teach, but also lure. The exposure could entice an in-person visit the zoo and see the free-ranging birds and 90-plus species of animals found in the rain forests of South America, Africa and Asia.

The eight-story building has a fiberglass roof which lets in light.

The rain forest, which opened in 1992 at a cost of $15 million, allows visitors to walk in the canopy or the floor of the rain forest. At ground level, visitors also can see the aquatic life of a rain forest.

The jungle mixes live vegetation with concrete trees which many of the animals live in. The trees contain misters, while some of the false rocks contain light fixtures and ventilation ducts.

Zoo staffers estimate the average visitor spends about 30 minutes of a four- to six-hour visit to the zoo inside the rain forest, meaning visitors don't usually come because of the rain forest.

"We need to keep things new and remind visitors what is new. Each time they come, it is a different experience," said Julie Neemeyer, the zoo's marketing director. "If it were just the rain forest, it'd be a hard sell. We try to have new exhibits."

Zoo staffers hope Thursday's opening of the Hubbard Gorilla Valley drives yearly attendance to the 1.4 million to 1.6 million level the zoo typically sees when a large new facility opens.

Opening such large-scale additions isn't possible every year because of the money involved. In the off years, the zoo turns to traveling animal exhibits, which draw slightly less interest, and attendance drops to 1.1 million to 1.2 million.

Location is critical to the zoo's success, with more than 45 percent of the guests coming from 150 miles or more from Omaha. The majority of the visitors come between May and August, and what they visit changes based on the weather.

"We do know that (visitors) on nicer days don't visit the indoor attractions as often. They want to experience the outdoors," Neemeyer said.

# # #

BACK IN CORALVILLE, developers say drawing a comparison between what's planned there and the other two facilities is difficult because the scale is so much different.

David Oman, the administrator of the Iowa Environmental/Education Project, said the project's "dramatically larger scale," the high-tech learning experience, the large scale theater, and the ability to walk in the canopy of the rain forest is something that doesn't currently exist.

"This thing will be loaded with excitement," Oman said. "This will not be an experience, like some of the older experiences where you walk by wooden signs to learn what something is."

The Iowa group is confident the experience will support the tentative admission -- $15 for adults and $9 for children. Oman said the opening of the facility is still four years away and admission of current attractions will likely increase in that time.

The Iowa group studied admission prices of larger venues such as the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and attractions in other urban areas to arrive at what would work in the Iowa market, Oman said.

"By most accounts, having an adult charge in the mid-teens is a good average for planning purposes," Oman said.

The project also knows it can't rely solely on admission to sustain itself and is planning a longer-term endowment to allow for future expansion and changes, Oman said.

"Almost all of the people who work with science centers have all told us to map into our planning the encore, the next step, what happens in 2010," Oman said. We are actively discussing next steps but we're not there yet. We're still doing a lot of robust work to get this project going and have it done well so we get off to a good start."


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