When John Dunlap walks through Jungle Island, the 18-acre attraction on Miami’s Watson Island that he has overseen for the last year, he can barely take a step without pointing out something that’s about to change.
At the open, earth-toned entry section: “Our goal is to enhance the entry in a big way.”
At a walkway covered with a metal roof: “It does the job, but architecturally it doesn’t tell the story.”
Approaching the beach area that has already been expanded with sand, outdoor furniture and an activity course in the water, he points out where hammocks will eventually be strung, cabanas will be placed and a beachfront tiki-style restaurant will be built.
“Our idea with Jungle Island is to transform from a zoological attraction where people come and see animals to an ecological adventure park,” said Dunlap, president of Jungle Island and CEO of Iconic Attractions Group, which manages the park’s operations.
Dunlap, who was director of the San Diego Zoo before coming to Jungle Island, is also tasked with a larger goal: Changing the reputation of a once-revered attraction that has disappointed its city landlords since its 2003 move to Watson Island with lower-than-expected attendance and financial woes.
To brighten both the financial outlook and the park’s low-energy reputation, Dunlap and his team have devised a transformation with a price tag of “tens of millions” of dollars set to include:
Dunlap revealed the plans — and hinted at more that were not yet ready to be disclosed — to the Miami Herald during a recent interview, describing the changes as a “total re-concepting.”
The full master plan is on a five-year schedule, but some upgrades such as the beach expansion have already been completed. Others are slated for the not-too-distant future, such as the restaurants, expected to be completed by the spring of 2015, and the zip lines, which Dunlap expects to be open by next summer.
Established in 1936 as Parrot Jungle in Pinecrest, the park showcased its feathered stars and eventually its gardens. Current owner Bern Levine purchased the site with partners in 1988 and announced plans seven years later to move to Watson Island, where it could host revenue-producing evening events without disturbing its then-residential neighbors. Construction didn’t begin until 2000.
The newest version of Jungle Island is inspired by a fictional character named Javier Watson, a wealthy world explorer who brought the wonders of his travels to his private island and wants to welcome guests to his home in the trees.
“They are reengineering Jungle Island and everything I heard was very, very exciting, very positive,” said Rolando Aedo, chief marketing officer for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. “And we think it will finally allow them to achieve the potential that I think everyone thought they had many years ago.”
Ever since owner Levine opened the attraction in its new Miami spot in 2003, the park has struggled to draw the anticipated crowds, and sometimes, to meet its financial obligations.
Jungle Island took out a $25 million federal loan, backed by the city and county, to cover the cost of moving. Two years ago, Jungle Island said it couldn’t make a $2 million annual payment on the loan but promised that an unnamed investor would do so — if the city provided more than 13 additional acres for a hotel, restaurants and retail.
When the city rejected that proposal, the park came up with the money. Later that year, it was criticized in a city audit for not employing the 714 people required by the federal Housing and Urban Development loan — and not drawing enough employees from low-to middle-income neighborhoods.
Dunlap said the park “has never been more on track with that covenant,” with a conservative estimate of growing employment numbers by 20 percent or more in the next two years.
An economic impact study commissioned by the attraction said attendance in 2010 was nearly 410,000; while Dunlap would not give an updated figure, he said numbers haven’t strayed much from the study. But he said visitor numbers are tracking ahead of last year and attendance is expected to grow by 20-25 percent in the next 12 months. By the time the five-year plan is in place, he said, the goal is to at least double the number of park visitors.
Records from the city of Miami show that the attraction is up to date on loan repayments — the most recent to the county, in July, was for just over $2 million — and rent and taxes to the city.
Under an agreement with the city, Jungle Island pays rent equal to 5 percent of its gross sales (though if that number were to fall to less than $41,850 per month, it would pay that amount). For the first six sales months of the year, the park has paid more than $400,000 total in rent, based on nearly $8 million of gross sales.
With the new upgrade plans, park officials are asking for nothing new from the city. Dunlap wouldn’t reveal all the parties who are investing in the changes, but said they include several joint venture partners who will share in revenues if the transformation is successful. That includes agreements with food, retail and photography operators.
“In the end, we haven’t taken on a penny of debt,” he said. “We’ve been doing nothing but paying down debt. Our financial structure is better than it was two years ago.”
One of those new parties is Ovations Food Services, which was announced as the food and beverage partner late last year. Ovations is working with Jungle Island on the catering and events side — a major piece of business at the park, which hosts more than 700 private, corporate and community events a year — as well as the development of the restaurants. An early investment in the events business has already been completed: a $700,000 facelift of its ballroom, arboretum and other meeting spaces and enhancement of the catering menu.
“With the way Miami’s tourism base is growing and the unique concept that’s been presented, we believe strongly in the plan,” said John LaChance, regional vice president for Ovations. “And we know that this sort of interactive, destination theme park is really going to be successful.”
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who has been briefed on the changes, said he thinks the plans look promising — and necessary.
“There's no way that they can be sustainable as it is now,” he said.
While Jungle Island has been paying rent and taxes, he said that is the minimum of what he expects from the attraction.
“We don't want just to be a landlord and collect rent,” said Regalado, who has been critical of the park in the past. “This is very precious land and they need to do something to attract people and attract attention. It's more than the obligation to the city; they should do more. Hopefully, this time it will be for real.”
Dunlap said the key will be expanding the park’s reach from today’s audience of a mom and young kids visiting for a couple hours. Future clientele, he hopes, will include adventure-minded families and young couples who will spend an entire day — as well as more money for activities such as zip lines and cabana rentals. He also wants the park to be “repeatable” for locals, and is investing in special events that will extend park hours and bring guests back.
This year, Jungle Island introduced a summer entertainment program and will also host haunted houses for Halloween and a winter festival. This month, the park is also allowing kids 10 and younger from Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to visit the park for free, with family events on the weekends.
Dunlap said he thinks the new and improved Jungle Island can even give that tourist town to the north a run for its money.
“We’ve conceded, from an attraction environment, to Orlando,” Dunlap said. “Why? I don’t just want to do what they’re doing. We’re doing something they’re not doing, something that’s very Miami.”
Aedo, of the tourism bureau, said that while Miami has been known throughout history for its sometimes kitschy attractions, upgrades such as the ones going on at Jungle Island can propel the destination’s reputation.
“This would put us in that next tier of great attraction destinations,” he said. “We don’t want to be Orlando, but like Orlando keeps expanding its attractions, that’s what we’re doing.”
And he pointed out that Jungle Island is not the only South Florida stalwart with changes in store, highlighting the recent purchase of the Miami Seaquarium by California-based Palace Entertainment, a subsidiary of Spanish theme park operator Parques Reunidos.
In addition, 20th Century Fox is expected to submit a plan for an Orlando-style attraction next to Zoo Miami, called Miami Wilds, by the end of the year.
Said Aedo: “We’re entering the golden age of Miami attractions.”