The first time John Dunlap stood at the lagoon near the entrance to Jungle Island, heat radiating in waves around the murky shallow pool, he put his hands on the brown railings and thought, “I wish I could get in the water here.”
No, the former director of the San Diego Zoo wasn’t hallucinating in the Miami heat. Dunlap was on the edge of an idea that he has carried with him since that day in 2013, of a redesigned Jungle Island with a new purpose: adventure.
Now, as president of the park, Dunlap soon will see the small lake morph into a tributary feeding a two-acre, crystal-clear lagoon for swimming, sailing, paddle boarding, kayaking and more. Soon, towers will rise above the tree canopy on Watson Island. Visitors will soar through the sky on zip lines, like the colorful parrots that gave the park its original name, Parrot Jungle. (It became Jungle Island in 2007.)
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The plan, thanks to financial support from new owners ESJ Capital Partners, an Aventura-based asset management firm, is touted as a reinvention of the cash-strapped animal park. Owners hope it will relieve Jungle Island of the financial burdens that have choked its growth in the past and allow it to gain renewed relevance. The park has not yet revealed the sticker price for the renovations, but the acquisition of the park, including the assumption of about $45 million in debt, cost ESJ $60 million.
The renovation will be the second metamorphosis for the nearly 81-year-old park. Dunlap’s vision calls for an even more dramatic transformation than it underwent in 2003, when the beloved park moved from its original subtropical location in Pinecrest on Red Road to a swatch of land built out of a landfill from Biscayne Bay — Watson Island.
For that move, the park poured all of its resources into the shift, taking out a $25 million federal loan and promising an experience so superior, locals and tourists would flock there. Attendance was projected to increase from about 400,000 guests a year to 750,000.
But those projections never materialized. The park’s attendance has continued to hover at 400,000 and Jungle Island started to slip in prominence. Over the intervening years, the city of Miami, which owns Watson Island, and Miami-Dade County have tried to keep the historic park afloat, cutting checks when Jungle Island failed to make loan payments. The park didn’t pay the city rent for three years during the recession.
The new Jungle Island will be a call to adventure. Our goal is to get people off their couch and out of their house and climbing and jumping and swimming and enjoying the natural environment in Miami.
John Dunlap, CEO of Iconic Attractions and president of Jungle Island
Dunlap’s plan may be what finally reignites Jungle Island. It is, tourism experts say, likely the park’s best chance to prove its value as an important tourist draw.
Previous attempts to resuscitate Jungle Island focused on recreating the magic of its original location in Watson Island, a place that simply didn’t deliver on the unruly, exotic atmosphere that made the Pinecrest location a hit. Now it’s time for a new direction altogether, Dunlap said.
“The new Jungle Island will be a call to adventure,” he said, a phrase he repeats often. “Our goal is to get people off their couch and out of their house and climbing and jumping and swimming and enjoying the natural environment in Miami.”
As part of its Phase One developments, Jungle Island is already constructing seven zip line towers off-site that will be installed at the park in the fall. The towers will rise as high as 14 stories, one of them swinging riders in a Superman-style tandem harness. Jungle Island will eventually add an aerial park between the zip line towers, with rope courses and high wires.
The centerpiece of the park’s facelift plan will be Dunlap’s long-imagined lagoon. The man-made structure from Miami-based company Crystal Lagoons U.S. Corp will likely be eight- to 12-feet deep, with a set of water slides at the center. On the lagoon’s perimeter: cabanas and new restaurants, plus a splash pad for kids. Dunlap is also playing with the idea of a bungee jump over the water that will send riders barreling toward the ground before decelerating and catching them inches from the surface.
The Phase One attractions —the zip lines and lagoon — are expected to be in place by about 2019 and, for now, are the only additions the park is promising. But Jungle Island has more ideas in the works, Dunlap teased. Later plans call for lazy rivers that stem from the lagoon like tentacles, taking visitors deeper into the Jungle. And, if the experience merits it, Jungle Island is mulling building a boutique hotel on the premises.
“We want to lead with a great park that then becomes a resort destination,” Dunlap said.
Opened in 1936 on land that used to be a nudist colony, or so the history books say, Jungle Island was a monument to the old Miami. It evoked the untamed nature of early 20th century South Florida and was revered for its serenity, tropical atmosphere and animal acts. (One of its best known, Pinky, was a cockatoo who rode a tiny bicycle on a high wire.) Its flamingos were so famous, they were featured in the opening credits of Miami Vice.
Winston Churchill stopped by in 1946. Jimmy Buffett featured two of its parrots on the album cover for “Songs You Know By Heart” in 1985. Paris Hilton played with baby orangutan twins Peanut and Pumpkin when she visited Watson Island in 2005.
Though more manicured on Watson Island, the park tried to cling to what made it popular in the first place by creating a tropical landscape, adding more amphitheaters for shows and a wider variety of animals. The plan worked for some time, even as Miami grew all around it and the attractions of old Miami, such as the Serpentarium and the Miami Wax Museum, closed their doors.
“Parrot Jungle survived World War II. We survived the oil crisis and we survived the opening of the [Miami] Seaquarium, Busch Gardens and Disney World,” Jerome Scherr, son of Parrot Jungle founder Franz Scherr, told the Miami Herald in 1984. “Miami is not going away and Parrot Jungle is not going away.”
By then, however, the park was already beginning to struggle, coming off its heyday in the late 1970s when 400,000 guests visited a year. Veterinarian Bern Levine took over the park from the Scherr family in 1988 and started making changes, adding more flying birds to the parrot shows, new programming and higher ticket prices.
Things have changed. We found ourselves just trying to hold our own. I know it probably sounds harsh, but we were just destined to fail.
Bern Levine, former owner of Jungle Island to the Miami Herald in 2001
But after the park’s original location was designated a historical site in 1990, the changes Levine wanted to make — including adding an educational facility that could double as a banquet hall — had to be pre-approved by the Miami-Dade County Historic Preservation Board. The board wasn’t budging. Unable to make the additions he felt were necessary for Parrot Jungle’s future success, Levine started looking for a new site.
“Things have changed,” he told the Herald in 2001. “We found ourselves just trying to hold our own. I know it probably sounds harsh, but we were just destined to fail.”
Dunlap said Levine was courted by countries as far as the Middle East, other locations in Florida and even Las Vegas. Ultimately Watson Island won out; the move was approved by 58 percent of voters, and the park secured the $25 million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Levine was onto something with the banquet hall. These days, most people know Jungle Island because they’ve attended some function or another in its ballroom. Events create a hearty 30 percent of the park’s current revenues, Dunlap said.
But everything else mostly flopped.
Opening day on Watson Island was a sign of what was to come.
On the morning of June 28, 2003, Parrot Jungle opened to torrential rains. Pathways were flooded and some exhibits were closed. Even the birds fled.
A brilliant green parrot named Ricky, set to debut during the Winged Wonders bird show, was supposed to fly to his handler’s hand and thought better of it.
Instead, he soared up and away from the park.
Call to adventure
Plagued by bad early reviews, the lingering struggles of a post-9/11 world and travel disruptions from back-to-back hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005, Jungle Island never soared to the heights it once imagined.
Attendance has remained flat at about 400,000 for nearly 40 years. By comparison, Zoo Miami drew more than 900,000 visitors in fiscal year 2016.
Attendance at Jungle Island has remained flat at about 400,000 for nearly 40 years.
The loan, too, had to be paid in installments of $2 million a year, a crutch that prevented the park from investing in new features, Dunlap said. (The park has been up to date on its payments since 2012).
Many locals say they haven’t felt the urge to become regular visitors — a key part of the original park’s audience.
Local fiber optics engineer Robert Reilly said that in its Watson Island incarnation, the park felt half-done — lacking an identity or even enough enticing attractions to merit return visits. His last trip there was eight years ago, he said.
“When they moved to Watson Island they were pushing their limits on what they could do and they got really in over their head,” Reilly said.
Lawyer Tim Ross, who lives in Brickell, said what was missing was simply charm.
“It doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up,” Ross said.
Hoping to pump some life back into the park, the new owners are tapping into the popular active/adventure trend, targeting millennials who want a more immersive experience.
Now that’s an idea he can get behind, Reilly said.
Miami doesn’t have something like that now. Instead of hauling to Rapids [Water Park in Riviera Beach,] we can go there.
Robert Reilly, local fiber optics engineer
“Miami doesn’t have something like that now,” said Reilly, who has two young children, 3-year-old Robert and 1-year-old Harper. “Instead of hauling to Rapids [Water Park in Riviera Beach,] we can go there.”
A new, adventure-focused park is a welcome addition for tourism boosters. Rolando Aedo, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the marketing arm’s research shows there’s a lucrative market in active travel.
“At the end of the day, what a tourism organization like us wants is content and attractions and new things. That’s what folks seek out,” Aedo said. “[The new Jungle Island] lines up really well with not just filling a gap in our portfolio, but also realizing that that’s what the millennial and the younger set, which are collectively the biggest consumer of travel, are looking for and enjoy.”
The updated park lies about a mile from a reemerging downtown Miami, which recently added the Philip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science to a growing roster of attractions and hotels.
Hotels on either side of Watson Island, in both downtown and Miami Beach, can offer packages to tourists and entice them to stay longer if they have more attractions to market, said Wendy Kallergis, president and CEO of the Greater Miami & the Beaches Hotel Association.
“All of these things are only helping,” Kallergis said. “It’s very exciting, the amount of cultural entities that we have now in the downtown, Brickell area, all of that helps. The hotels love it.”
Central to the new Jungle Island’s success will be developing a defined brand identity, said attractions expert Duncan Dickson, an associate professor at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida. Jungle Island’s ambiguous animal park theme, which it cultivated for decades, has made it too similar to Zoo Miami and the Miami Seaquarium.
“They’ve got to show everybody that we are new; we are different; we are not the same old Jungle Island that you’ve thought of before,” Dickson said. “That this is really something cutting edge.”
Whatever the new identity will be, Jungle Island knows getting it right is important. Arnaud Sitbon, president and co-founder of ESJ, calls it the “magic potion” the park is concocting.
ESJ has toured numerous eco-adventure parks to draw inspiration for Jungle Island’s new direction, and said the company is looking into introducing experimental technologies that have not yet debuted elsewhere.
Among the ideas under discussion are technology-enabled bands that allow guests to go cashless when paying for services, similar to the MagicBand at Disney parks.
Dunlap envisions the new park as a “place you come in your bathing suit,” particularly to enjoy the lagoon, which will be one of the few in operation in the U.S. when it opens.
Crystal Lagoons is currently working on 10 lagoons in Florida, and Jungle Island’s will likely be one of the first to open in the coming years. The company is probably best known for its massive, 20-acre lagoon in the private Chilean resort of San Alfonso del Mar, which won the Guinness World record in 2012 for the world’s largest pool. Crystal Lagoons broke its own record in 2015 when it built a 30-acre pool in Egypt.
They’ve got to show everybody that we are new; we are different; we are not the same old Jungle Island that you’ve thought of before. That this is really something cutting edge.
Attractions expert Duncan Dickson
Unlike large swimming pools around the world, Crystal Lagoons are vast pools, at least two acres in size, and deeper than traditional pools to allow for other water sports. Special patented ultrasound technology gathers sediment in the pool into clumps and disposes of it.
Crystal Lagoons is known for redeveloping struggling golf courses or swatches of land without natural amenities nearby, and creating renewed interest in those locations.
“The challenge has been that many of these places [where the company built a Crystal Lagoon] need to figure out how to increase traffic to their sites,” said Kevin Morgan, executive vice president of Crystal Lagoons. “No one has ever seen this type of amenity before — at least at this scale.”
Delivering on the promise
After years of undelivered promises, skepticism still swirls around the Jungle Island project.
In 2003 for instance, the park promised it could attract cruise passengers from across the causeway. That never happened. And, says Miami-based cruise expert Stewart Chiron, that isn’t about to change now.
“They can add water parks, but [cruise passengers] just got off a cruise or they are getting on a cruise, and there are plenty of water parks. Royal Caribbean [International] has a zip line,” Chiron said. “Doing it here in Miami is a big whoop-dee-doo.”
Norwegian Cruise Line declined to comment specifically on the nature of its discussions with Jungle Island, but spokeswoman Vanessa Picariello said that the new park, in conjunction with other downtown Miami attractions, makes the area around PortMiami “even more attractive for guests to experience either pre- or post-cruise.”
They can add water parks, but [cruise passengers] just got off a cruise or they are getting on a cruise, and there are plenty of water parks. Royal Caribbean [International] has a zip line. Doing it here in Miami is a big whoop-dee-doo.
Cruise expert Stewart Chiron
Dunlap said he realizes Jungle Island may be inconvenient to cruise travelers who are encumbered by luggage post- or pre-cruise, but he hopes the adventure aspect of the park will be strong enough to draw some cruise business. In ports in Mexico, eco-adventure parks like Xcaret in Playa del Carmen draw cruise passengers who stop in nearby Cozumel.
For some of its other neighbors, like the residents of the Venetian Islands, Jungle Island could pose a problem with traffic on the MacArthur Causeway. In the past, nearby residents have filed lawsuits to stop other new projects on the island because of traffic concerns; those suits were dismissed by judges.
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said the only current debate centers around building a hotel on the 18-acre Jungle Island site. That would have to go to a referendum to change the zoning rules on that parcel of land. Those plans are likely years off, the park said.
“Personally I think this is a win-win for the city and for the residents and for [Jungle Island’s owners]. They want to invest and so be it,” said Regalado, who has been critical of Jungle Island’s inability to make good on its promises in the past.
He applauded the park’s move away from solely an animal experience, particularly at a time when travelers are more sensitive about visiting attractions that feature captive animals. Jungle Island said most of its 620 animals are rescued from the public, the pet trade and substandard conditions. In its reinvention, the park is redesigning its animal enclosures and assessing what animals may need to be relocated to new homes.
“What we had 20 years ago — caged animals — are not the “in” thing now,” Regalado said. “So they have this fresh new idea, which I think is great.”
When all is said and done, the park is expected to get a boost in attendance, but by only 10 to 15 percent in the next five years. Prices will likely rise with the debut of new tiered packages that will vary according to the activities the guest wants to include.
Based on its projections, Jungle Island’s visitorship may increase to only about a half million people a year, which Dunlap said he doesn’t expect will create a traffic snarl. Nevertheless, the park is looking at alternate forms of transportation onto Watson Island, such as Uber routes, bus tour stops and even water taxis. The park is already talking to water taxi companies about future partnerships to bring guests from the mainland.
Among all the talk of new features, Jungle Island is still trying to cling to some of the old: It still wants visitors to feel as if they’re being transported into a tropical paradise, just as in the park’s early days. And at every opportunity, even the little touches Jungle Island is using look weathered and natural: The steel on the zip line towers, for example, rusts so it looks “of the Earth,” the park said.
“We are trying to preserve the legacy of Jungle Island and we have great respect for that legacy and we are really willing to maintain it,” said Sitbon of ESJ.
Former longtime Miami resident Terry Lianzi has resigned herself to the knowledge that the original Parrot Jungle won’t be back.
“I guess they’ve done their surveys and decided it’s not a money-maker to have a garden [like the Pinecrest location],” Lianzi said. “It’s always sad to see something that has been around for so many years like that go.”
The new place won’t be for her — but it might enthrall an entirely new generation.
“You know,” she said, “times change.”
This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their insights with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at wlrn.org/topic/public-insight-network