Take a step back in time to Saturday, June 11, 1988. The average price of a gallon of gas was about 91 cents, George Michael’s single “One More Try” topped the Billboard charts and, of the 98 percent of households with at least one TV set, most it tuned to the Cosby Show. But in Indianapolis, the headline story of the day was the grand opening of the Indianapolis Zoo’s brand new, state-of-the-art facility at White River State Park.
In an era before 24-hour on-demand HD-TV and internet videos, seeing exotic animals up close and personal was something the average person had never done. But when the gates to the new Indianapolis Zoo swung open at 11am on that beautiful sunny morning, the throngs of people awaiting that first glimpse were stunned by the amazing views offered by the Zoo’s innovative cage-less exhibits.
Before that day, cages were the standard for zoo exhibits around the country, even at the Zoo’s former location on East 30th Street. But officials planning new Indianapolis Zoo felt it was important to present animals in a way that mirrored their natural surroundings.
And Zoo visitors were captivated! The Indianapolis Star printed an Indianapolis Zoo commemorative issue on June 11, 1988. In it, one article described the purpose of creating such illusions. “The idea was to raise the heartbeats of the visitor a little by making him think he is among the animals, not outside looking in,” former Director of Animal and Plant Collections Julian Duval said in the article.
Visitors were fascinated by this rare and innovative design. In Plains, guests felt like they were in the water with the African elephants, and in the Forests area, children were startled by tigers that looked as though they could leap from their exhibits. With nearly uninterrupted views, instead of simply viewing animals from afar, visitors spent time in their world, making the new Indianapolis Zoo a place for imagination, education and interaction.
The Zoo also made efforts to ensure visitors could get to know about the animals. Many exhibits had insightful human interpreters to answer questions. Unlike reading biographies on the exhibits, interpreters provided personal knowledge of the animals’ lives. “The interpreters are the links between the visitors and the animals and the exhibits,” former Director of Education and current Deputy Director and Senior VP of Conservation and Science Paul Grayson said in a June 11, 1988, article of The Indianapolis Star.
The amazing new exhibits were the result of six years of planning, three and a half years of construction and nearly a year of animal transition and acclimation. Former Indianapolis Zoo Director Roy Shea remembers the relief he felt on opening day.
Donna James was volunteering in the parking booth on June 11, 1988. James, who remains a regular Zoo volunteer, remembers cars were lined up as far as she could see down Washington Street as people wanted to be among the first to enter the new Indianapolis Zoo. Commemorative tickets were limited to the first 15,000 people and cost $10 each. Also included in the day’s activities were fun family entertainment, like clowns and skydivers, as well as a special ribbon cutting ceremony.
Present-day Project Coordinator Keith Schnell, who has been involved with the Zoo since he was a teenager, vividly remembers the grand opening. That’s because it also marked his daughter’s fourth birthday. With all the excitement and a party atmosphere, Schnell recalled with a smile, his daughter thought the grand opening celebration was for her birthday.
Schnell said the Zoo’s early visitors were most excited about the more convenient downtown location and amazing additions to the Zoo’s animal collection. The new Waters exhibit, now Oceans, was also a big hit and earned the Zoo its accreditation as an aquarium.
But the grand opening certainly did not mark the completion of the construction. The Zoo’s current Assistant to the VP of Guest Services Glenda Austin (there she is at the closing of the old Zoo at right) remembers the opening was a bit of a teaser. Staff knew that following the opening at White River State Park, many hurdles still remained ahead, including completion of the Dolphin/Whale Pavilion and the Deserts exhibit.
Merging and expanding the Zoo’s staff was another challenge. In fact, the Zoo went from having just 32 employees to more than 200 overnight! Shea admitted the coordination was complicated, but the culminating celebration on June 11, 1988, was the perfect climax to what was a true team effort.
“I’ve learned just how precious time is,” Shea said after the Zoo’s opening in 1988. “I’ve enjoyed the challenge; it’s all been worth it, but I wouldn’t want to do it again!”