Five Zoo Innovations That Have Been Around for Decades: #3

PGAV heart of africa columbus zoo

Heart of Africa at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Stacey Tarpley continues her review of innovation in zoos…

I want to talk about the things that have been slowly happening, without much fanfare, across the United States in nearly every city from New York to Saint Louis to Portland. I want to talk about how things that the supposedly paradigm-changing design from Europe insists are innovative, or at least ‘rarely seen in zoos’, have actually been around for years (and in some cases, decades) here in the United States.

Zoo Innovation #3: The Quintessential Wild: Herds of Animals Freely Roaming Acres of Land 

Herds of wildebeest and antelope, zebra and impala, the occasional giraffe and a few rhino wandering without a care in the world across fields of tall grasses waving in the breeze as a pride of lions looks on from their perches high above the savanna: this is the quintessential vision of ‘wild’ in most peoples’ heads. C’mon. You know what I’m talking about. In this innovation, we’re talking about recreating this ‘wild’ in captivity, and what it comes down to is multiple species of animals in large social groups moving through and around vast open spaces.

This image has actually been replicated again and again in a captive setting by zoos of all sizes and shapes. And really it is a very complicated innovation to achieve, since most of these characters have very specialized needs, physically and socially. Rhinos, for example, do not play well with most other animals. Lions, of course, can never be housed with antelope. Giraffes are a mixed bag: sometimes easy-going and carefree, other times wildly skittish and frightened of their own very long shadows. However, over many years, keepers have developed an understanding of which species can actually be housed together and today its commonplace–to the point of it being expected–to see mixed-species exhibits throughout the zoo, not just in the Africa section (although Africa seems to be the most likely to have the large, wide open spaces).

Beyond mixing species, other innovations have made these spacious and natural-seeming exhibits possible. One method, rotation, links exhibit yards by a common back of house building to allow species to be rotated through yards throughout the day. For example, the lions may be in Yard A in the morning, while hyenas may be in that yard in the afternoon. Hiding barriers and layering views is another innovation that makes wonderfully complex exhibits occur.

This innovation is actually one of the oldest tricks in the books, developed in Germany at the turn of the 20th century. It involves hiding barriers in deep empty ravines called moats.

Hagenbeck Tierpark Nordland

And finally, creating the savanna itself is somewhat of an innovation all on its own. Finding the perfect soil mixture and grass composition to withstand the pressure of herds of hoofstock day in and day out has taken decades to perfect, and some might say, is still being perfected. In fact, this horticultural challenge is one faced not only with hoofstock animals, but in nearly any animal exhibit where the animal is terrestrial, spending the majority of its time on the ground.

Creating the true feeling of ‘wild’ in captivity is very difficult, and although it has been achieved to varied success repeatedly across the U.S., it is no less a feat. Especially when created with few visible barriers.

NIRAH runs out of time. What lessons should be learned?

NIRAH Aquarium

We read on the Blooloop website recently that the planning permission for NIRAH, the massive fresh water aquarium attraction planned for Bedfordshire, has expired with several million pounds of public money having been invested in it.

NIRAH (National Institute for Research into Aquatic Habitats) was given the go-ahead to build the aquarium in Stewartby, Bedfordshire, north of London in 2007 with a supposed completion date in 2012. The project, which was originally set to have a budget of £375 million and was planned to be FOUR TIMES the size of the Eden Project in Cornwall, never got off the ground and the old brickworks site where it was to be built remains empty. Prior to relocating the planned project to Bedfordshire, NIRAH had previously caused much excitement in North Somerset back in 2002 when they announced the project would be built at the old RAF Locking site.

Bedford Borough and Central Beds councils are owed at least £1.6m, while central government is owed more than £3.5m. Back in 2012, a report from the BBC described the project, which by then had a price tag of £600 million, as ‘dead in the water’ and noted that land ownership issues, which ended up in the High Court, were never resolved. Indeed, even back in 2009, Council bosses admitted that they felt ‘left in the dark’ and were “deeply concerned” about plans. Perhaps they should have stepped in then or were they all in too deep?

Out of £3 million of public money identified in 2012, £400,000 was paid to Directors, £1.2 million in professional fees and consultants fees (including £100,000 in PR), and £1.1 million in costs relating to planning applications. That left a balance of £300,000, not to mention that small question of the fact that we now know that including accumulated interest, £3.5 million is owed to government, plus the sum of £1.6 million owed to the local councils.

The local MP, Nadine Dorries has called for an ‘explanation of the matter’, which I would have thought is the very least that could be expected. Maybe there should be an enquiry into the use of public funds. How on earth did these local and national government authorities ever think that this was a viable project? What kind of feasibility studies convinced them that it was viable and who was responsible? How did the project consume so much money over the years with nothing to show for it? Were no lessons learnt following the failure of Millennium projects such as the Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield and the Earth Centre in Doncaster?

Whilst often it seems that deserving, sustainable and well-supported smaller projects fail to gain the support that they need, the larger and more eye catching projects which promise so much gain support from local and national government , almost irrespective of the economic case, the strength and suitability of the concept or the experience and credibility of the promoters.

Keith Thomas, Chief Executive
Petersham Group Ltd.

Thibault Paquin, Celebrating Life, Visits LEGOLAND Malaysia Resort

LEGOLAND Malaysia entrance

Review by Thibault Paquin, founder of Celebrating Life, a total destination building company specialized in Asian markets.

Last weekend I paid a long overdue visit to LEGOLAND Malaysia Resort.

Opened in 2012 as Malaysia’s first international theme park it is now flanked by a waterpark and a 250-room hotel thus the name ‘resort’.

Well, to call it resort is a bit of a stretch. The complex is surrounded by construction works in the middle of nowhere, about 25km from Johor Bahru town centre; not really what I would call a resort location!

OK, enough negativism for this introduction; but I had to share this first impression I had when I got there (by public bus, that’s another story I will spare you); I was a bit scared I must admit. In fact, I had a good time and let me tell you why.

LEGOLAND Malaysia Driving School

I will start by stating the obvious: it is an international theme park. And that in itself is quite a draw in Malaysia where, despite being one of the most developed country in the region, the level of quality (and maintenance) is not always up to expectations.

LEGOLAND Malaysia posterI had purchased my ticket online the day before (USD 45), which is quite high for Malaysia. Of course no discounts available the day before; Merlin Entertainments know their revenue management! I thought I could use the barcode on my mobile but that was not the case so I had to go to the ticketing counter first to redeem my ticket. Thankfully there was no queue.

Speaking of it; I must admit I was surprised by how quiet the park was for a Sunday, during School Holidays and just after the opening of Star Wars Miniland (supported by an advertising campaign). I would say at least 30% of the visitors where from Australia or the US and looked like theme park regulars (maybe living in Singapore), and the rest were Malaysian families with young children.

I started my visit naturally walking around the circular path, which would take me from Lego City to Land of Adventure, Imagination, Lego Kingdoms and finally Lego Technic. Visitor flow and signage are very well done; it’s impossible to miss any attraction. Also, I thought there was just the right amount of food & beverage kiosks and redemption games along the way, creating a nice sense of happening without being overwhelming.

Although I did not have food at the park I had a look at all their outlets and they looked appetizing as well as clean and well maintained. The choice of food is mostly LEGOLAND Water Park Malaysiainternational with only one Asian outlet. I wonder why they made this choice? I would have expected more demand for Asian food.

I was very impressed by the attention to details in the theming and the landscape; the park is full of surprises and funny things such as an old man snoring on a bench! It makes it fun and creates the magic that one would expect from a theme park.

LEGOLAND Malaysia TheDragon rollercoasterThe best ride is by far The Dragon, which is the main roller coaster of the park and boasts a nicely themed queuing area (inside the Lego castle) and dark area at the beginning of the coaster. Maybank is the ride sponsor and I found the brand integration very well done (Maybank logo is turned into a coat of arms). The same goes with the other park’s sponsors (Nissan, Coca Cola, Ribena, Walls, Canon), which are well taken care of.

On the down side of the product I would list the number of kids playgrounds (maybe 4 or 5), which present not particular interest and as such remained empty. It feels like they serve as fillers but don’t add much to the visitor’s experience.

The staff were all very nice and helpful; they were everywhere you would expected them to be and engaging visitors, especially kids. Knowing how difficult service training can be in Malaysia I have to take my hat off for the management of the park!

LEGOLAND Malaysia Star Wars

Now, Star Wars Miniland. This new addition to the park, reported to have cost USD 2million, is a series of 6 rooms each housing a giant Lego display inspired by the Star Wars video produced by Lego. Great displays if you’re a Star Wars fan but in my opinion a bit repetitive and not very interactive. If you don’t plan to go but still want to have a look you may watch this video I shot:

My final attraction before leaving the park was the Miniland at the centre of the park. LEGOLAND Malaysia Miniland - KL ClusterInspired by different locations in Malaysia and Asia, these scenes are very well done and certainly a treat for all Lego fans out there. Unfortunately the tropical Malaysian weather hasn’t been too nice with them and they start aging. I wouldn’t be surprised if the park replaced them by something else in the future.

Verdict? A very pleasant international theme park – and I insist on “theme” as the Lego theming is one of the highlights of the park – but very targeted towards young children and maybe more enjoyable for non-Asian children (food offering, hands-on activities). Not convinced by the product extension trying to cater to an older crowd (Star Wars Miniland). Not sure about the return visitors rate either. For me it was not so much the heat or the lack of shade (actually I thought it was fine and most people I saw seemed fine as well) but the lack of shows and the remote location that would keep me from visiting again.

Five Zoo Innovations That Have Been Around for Decades: #2

PGAV Destinations Discovery Cove

Stacey Tarpley continues her review of innovation in zoos…

I want to talk about the things that have been slowly happening, without much fanfare, across the United States in nearly every city from New York to Saint Louis to Portland. I want to talk about how things that the supposedly paradigm-changing design from Europe insists are innovative, or at least ‘rarely seen in zoos’, have actually been around for years (and in some cases, decades) here in the United States.

Zoo Innovation #2: The “You’re Not in a Zoo” Promise: Visitors and Animals Share the Space

The goal of most modern zoo exhibits is to transport the guest to another time and place when visiting a zoo or theme park. It’s the romantic notion of sharing an experience with the animals; that we are walking in harmony in this big ole crazy world. What it comes down to is that we neither cage the animal nor cage the people, but we literally share the same space. This can take many forms and has over the years, from walk-through (or swim-through aviaries and in one case, a frigid indoor penguin exhibit),

PGAV Destinations St Louis Zoo Penguin and Puffin Coast

to swim-with programs like with dolphins, reef fish or sharks.

In fact, this is one category where European zoos have already taken some great risks Dudley Zoo Lemur Walkbefore the US zoos, allowing guests to freely share space with primates like lemurs.

These complete immersion exhibits are incredibly engaging, exciting and oftentimes, most represent the idyllic view of what a zoo is supposed to be.

The problem comes, however, when the animals represent a danger to the guests, which is to say, with most captive animals, or when sharing the space is literally impossible, like in an aquarium (short of donning a wetsuit). Here is where the most advanced innovations have come: getting guests as close as possible, through a barrier, but to feel as if they are sharing the space. The old stand-by of layered views with hidden moats do not achieve this due to the minimum horizontal distance needed to provide a barrier between the animals and people via a moat. You just cannot get close when you have a moat. But, a few clever innovations of the recent decades have gotten us closer than ever before, feeling as if we are in the animals’ space, in the habitat.

Think giant acrylic underwater tunnels at aquariums and a few zoos;

PGAV St Louis Zoo Sealion Sound

think tunnels through dangerous animal habitats with glass panels on either side and sometimes above your head;

Bronx Zoo Congo-Gorilla-Forest

think pop-ups into prairie dog exhibits, pop-ups into penguin colonies, pop-ups into tigers’ habitats.

The idea of us literally sharing the same space with animals is a beautiful dream to have, but the reality of the situation is we will always have to keep ‘us’ and ‘them’ separate for everyone’s safety. Barriers of some kind will always exist, but getting creative to minimize those barriers is the real innovation.

SeaWorld’s Discovery Cove
Saint Louis Zoo Penguin & Puffin Coast
Shark Swim at Georgia Aquarium
Lemur Walk Through at Dudley Zoo
Saint Louis Zoo Sea Lion Sound
Bronx Zoo Congo Gorilla Forest
Jungala® at Busch Gardens® Tampa

Theme Park Sponsorship Case Studies from Merlin

Thorpe Park SAW the ride

Following my recent blog about theme park sponsorship I wanted to call your attention to a site that I found particularly interesting due to the amount and type of information (i.e. ridership; amount of photos sold; etc.) available.

A few years back, and still available on the web, Merlin had had a webpage that dealt with “Sponsorship in the UK / Brand Activation.”  At this time, Merlin provided case studies and sponsorship opportunities for several of its attractions. I have taken the liberty of showing a few of them below.  If you’re interested in seeing others, please let me know.

Case Studies included:

Merlin Entertainments Sponsorship SAW


Merlin Entertainments Sponsorship Cussons

Sponsorship opportunities that existed at the time included:

Merlin Entertainments Sponsorship Queue Line Tv

Please let me know if you’ve come across other websites with good information on sponsorships. Thank you for anything you might suggest.


Theme Parks, the Golden Baby … and In-Park Fine Dining

La Masia del Tibadabo restaurant

I recently wrote a blog about EE charging extra to skip the call centre wait line. Well it occurred to me that the blog could be seen as a bit negative, you know, criticising parks providing poorer service for those who don’t choose to buy express tickets.

I’d like to redress that by suggesting something positive that would both help the standard visitors to get a bit of value back and at the same time address a problem that seems endemic to UK theme parks.

This idea occurred to me when I was visiting Tibidabo Park near Barcelona last week with the fine folks from the TEA. Tibidabo is an historic place, some say the second
oldest amusement park in Europe, in fact the introductory film in the park says it, but I can think of several European parks who might disagree. It’s owned by the City Council and like a lot of council owned attractions it needs a bit of care and attention.

But the lunch was really good. The food was delicious and nicely presented; the restaurant was well looked after and had great views; ok, the staff could have been a little more attentive, but overall it was a very good quality experience for an amusement park.

Looking around European parks, nearly everyone has a good quality waiter service restaurant. Some, such as de Efteling, Europa Park and Port Aventura have several. In fact the only ones that don’t all seem to be in the UK; that’s maybe a historic thing, the British used to care less about food than they do now.

So here’s the idea. Give a reasonable discount to the waiter service restaurants to the fast pass holders between say, midday and 3pm. They are likely to take advantage of the offer, after all they have already shown that they don’t mind spending money, and the other thing they have lots of is time because they don’t have to queue.

Then for three hours a good proportion of them can take advantage of the offer, leaving the rides freer for standard riders, as well as increasing occupancy in the high end restaurants. That’s a big advantage for European parks outside the UK, but UK parks would have an additional benefit, since just maybe they could make a success of in-park fine dining at last.

Five Zoo Innovations That Have Been Around for Decades: #1

Cincinnati Zoo Interior Carnovora

Recently, the “next big evolution” of zoos – a slick, futuristic set of renderings by a ‘big-A’ architecture firm in Europe – has been gaining traction in the media.

Whether due to a slow news month in August, or a wisely-timed, ingeniously-worded press release, the articles that have continuously been showing up in my inbox from my colleagues have reminded me of the vast differences between the zoos and aquariums in the United States and those found in the rest of the world. And yes, this includes most of those found in Europe.

But this is not an architectural critique. I want to talk about real innovation. I want to talk about the things that have been slowly happening, without much fanfare, across the United States in nearly every city from New York to Saint Louis to Portland. I want to talk about how things that the supposedly paradigm-changing design from Europe insists are innovative, or at least ‘rarely seen in zoos’, have actually been around for years (and in some cases, decades) here in the United States.

Below you’ll find the first in the series on Zoo Innovations. Stay tuned for all five.

Zoo Innovation #1: The Amazon vs. The Cat House: Zoogeographic Organization Rather than Linnaean

This innovation is so old, we’re already looking for ways past it. But historically, zoos grouped similar animals together into familial exhibit congregations such as cat houses or bear pits. This was a direct result of zoos being places of learning: places where scientists would literally study what made animals closely or distantly related to each other. This style of design held fashion from the earliest official zoos, developed in the 19th century, through to the mid-twentieth century.

Often now we see not just abandonment of these Linnaean exhibit buildings, but full areas of zoos and groupings of exhibits being themed as zoogeographic areas, like Africa and South America. This thematic grouping style is similar to the ‘lands’ of theme parks, and generally make wayfinding and orienting much easier for the guest.

Additionally, this layout supports a more ecosystem approach to science, which reflects how society is currently viewing the world around us: as an integrated, interconnected web, rather than a series of individual elements. Although American zoos and aquariums left the cat house, primate house, and pachyderm house long ago, the torrid remnants of the Mad Men-era of zoo design unfortunately often remain for birds and reptiles, although we are seeing these groupings being slowly replaced with multi-species, thematically integrated exhibits as well.

Who is the most active theme park and water park sponsor?

coca cola six flags sponsorI recently added a post to and to Blooloop’s Linkedin Group about an IEG Research report naming Coca-Cola as the most active sponsor of theme parks. IEG states that sixty-two percent of theme parks report the beverage giant as a sponsor.

Maybe it’s because I am a researcher or maybe it’s because I’m often asked to verify the accuracy of statements such as this, but off I went to check this out. I did a very quick search and found the following four abstracts which back up IEG’s conclusion:

  • December 2011 – SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment announced a 10-year agreement with The Coca-Cola Company for their domestic parks, replacing Pepsi.
  • July 2012 – Six Flags Entertainment Corp and Coca-Cola announced a 10-year extension of their partnership agreement, designating Coca-Cola as Six Flags’ official sponsor for all of Six Flags domestic parks.
  • October 2012 – Cedar Fair announced Cola-Cola Company was the official sponsor for a 10-year agreement.
  • July 2013 – Universal theme parks and Coca-Cola announced a new, ten-year marketing partnership.

And in recent news, Merlin Entertainments have just announced that Coca-Cola are to be the new sponsors of the London Eye.

Theme Parks and the Golden Baby

queue in communist poland

The mobile phone company EE has introduced a charge for jumping the queue on customer calls.

Maybe they are following the lead of theme parks world-wide with their express tickets; just like visitors to theme parks their customers are likely to feel cheated. EE is already the most complained about mobile company in the UK and the response to this initiative from its customers is indicating that this is unlikely to logo

For EE the charge is an admission that the response time is too long and that the only way to obtain adequate service is to pay extra. Meanwhile those that choose to wait in the queue must have the feeling that they will have to wait even longer.

Sound familiar? For theme parks the queues can be so long on busy days that some visitors will pay significantly more than their price of entry to avoid them. When express tickets were introduced the wait for those who chose not to buy them certainly became longer, but the price of admission didn’t fall. Those who buy express tickets now experience acceptable wait times (although sometimes even express lines can be 30 minutes long). For those who don’t pay the extra, the wait times are longer and the experience is poorer. It didn’t have to be this way.

Look at Disney parks, where a free system gives everyone a chance to skip the long queues and where single riders can virtually walk on to most rides. They chose not to charge extra for better service. For those parks which did there is no turning back. The express ticket systems provide an important source of income, as one Orlando park chief said to me, “It’s a golden baby which we can’t give back.” Along with charging for car parks, express tickets represent a reduction in value to our customers, paying the same price for a worse experience.

No wonder the number of articles criticising the cost of theme parks continues to rise.

The World is not an Eye Chart – A discussion on high resolution Immersive Theaters

Eye Test bear

20/20 vision. Perfect vision. The best that the human eye can resolve. Therefore there’s no benefit in creating a display system that has a higher resolution than that of the 20/20 line of an eye chart. Right?

20/20 vision means that at 20’ (6m) a viewer can identify characters constructed of lines 1.75mm wide and 1.75mm apart. It’s the ability to clearly see this gap and discern the letters of the eye chart that tests a person’s visual acuity. The line thickness of the characters on an eye chart are 1 arc minute (one 60th of a degree) wide when viewed from 20’ away.

Therefore on that premise, a high resolution display in an Immersive theater needs pixels no larger than 1 arc minute wide. That equates to around 10,800 pixels for a dome (180 degrees x 60 pixels per degree), when viewed from the centre of the theater (also assuming the viewer is at the spring-line of the dome), and 4,320 pixels across in a giant flat screen theatre (DIGSS1.1)1 when viewed from the central seat row.

Well, actually that’s wrong. We can ‘see’ objects far smaller than lines that are 1 arc minute wide. Look around you now. How much of what you see is made up of regular shaped black and white lines equally spaced? Not much. The World is not an eye chart.  We can see details far smaller than 1 arc minute across. The leaves on a tree, the fur of an animal. The carpet. A hair on the page of a book. Also consider that we do not need to accurately resolve an object and recognise it to see that it is there, that it exists. In fact we typically enjoy the intrigue of getting closer to an object to discover what it is. Fully and clearly resolving an object is quite different to seeing that it’s there. If 1 arc minute was all that we could see then we would never see the hair on our arms!

It’s a misnomer that 20/20 vision equates to what is referred to as ‘eye limiting resolution’. It’s easy to understand why these terms get mixed up and interchanged. How we see is a complicated subject and one that this short article cannot fully describe. Part of the complication is that the resolution of the human eye is not an absolute. How much we can see depends upon the viewing conditions. The amount of light and the contrast of the image play an important part. Leaving these variables to one side, it is generally agreed that under optimum viewing conditions the human eye can resolve detail as small as 0.59 arc minutes per line pair2 (pair of pixels) which equates to a pixel size of 0.3 arc minutes. This therefore is the generally accepted figure for ‘eye limiting resolution’, more than three times the resolution of 20/20 vision.

Resolution is an important metric for the flight simulation industry for pilot training applications. A level-D simulator (suitable for commercial aircraft) stipulates a display resolution of only 1.5 arc minute sized pixels (3 arc minutes per line pair). Significantly this is because pilots need to be able to resolve the runway lines which are 4 feet apart at 6,876 feet away as they come into land. Fast jet simulators on the other hand are targeting a much more demanding specification of 0.5 arc minutes per pixel. These fast jet simulators are designed as close as possible to eye limiting resolution so that the pilots can identify fast moving objects in the sky.

If we are ever to experience eye limiting resolution in immersive Theaters we would need to capture and display 0.3 arc minutes of resolution. This equates to 36,000 pixels across the centreline of a dome and 14,400 pixels across a 70’ giant flat screen when viewed from the central row of seats.

Furthermore, consider that in a dome every audience member bar one is closer to some part of the screen than the person in the center, and that the front half of a giant flat screen audience are significantly closer to the screen than the center row. These audience members would need even more pixels on the screen to enjoy eye limiting resolution (in fact up to 22,600 pixels wide from the front row of a 70’ wide flat screen).

As of 2014 the current state of the art for domes offers around 6,600 pixel resolution (optimistically referred to as ‘8k’) and for flat screens 4,096 pixels. These specifications are driven by the ‘4k’ projection systems now in the market (domes use an array of five or six 4k projectors to cover the dome surface). Once ‘8k’ projectors come on-line at comparable prices and at the brightness levels required (probably 3 to 5 years away) the capability of flat screens will quickly jump to 8,000 pixels and domes to around 12,000 pixels (assuming that the capture resolution and production workflow can keep up). This may appear unrealistic and out of reach for now, but for those of us who can remember marvelling at 1280 x 1024 resolution at the turn of the century will know that we soon recalibrate to expect higher resolution once we’ve experienced it.

Thus far this only considers spatial resolution (how many pixels). Of increasing importance is temporal resolution (how often), otherwise known as frame rate. Frame rates or fps (frames per second) have been quite stable for many years. 24fps and 30fps have been with us for many years. HFR (high frame rate) 48fps and 60fps are with us now and could quickly be overtaken by frame rates as high as 120fps or even more. High frame rates smooth out the strobing or judder that one can experience, particularly on large field of view screens. With 3D systems HFR can significantly help with edge definition, the means by which we determine the depth of an image using current 3D technologies. HFR can help us see the resolution that is there in the image that is otherwise blurred-out during panning and fast action shots.

The combination of higher frame rates and resolutions approaching eye limiting resolution will help deliver increasingly realistic immersive experiences.

Try this test.  Click on the image below and follow the instructions:

Eye Test Grizzly