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Jungle Island is getting a theme park makeover — and you’re not going to recognize it

New rendering of Jungle Island shows some of the new features coming to the park after a two-year renovation, including a zip line and lagoon.
New rendering of Jungle Island shows some of the new features coming to the park after a two-year renovation, including a zip line and lagoon. Jungle Island

Take everything you remember about Jungle Island.

Keep the colorful birds and that iconic spot on Watson Island.

Now throw the rest away.

In a new rendering released Wednesday after the park closed a $60 million deal with its new owners, Jungle Island is completely unrecognizable.

The 18-acre park, formally Parrot Jungle, will be transformed into an eco-adventure destination similar to what travelers may find in Mexico’s Xcaret.

The multi-million dollar renovation will add zip lines, children adventures, water slides, a massive lagoon for swimming and water sports and a private beach club to Jungle Island.

The multi-million dollar project will herald in a three-part renovation and expansion that at its completion in two years will include zip lines, children’s adventures, water slides, a massive lagoon for swimming and water sports and a private beach club. The enhancement will also bring upgraded restaurants, a renovated banquet area and new animal adventures.

The first part of the enhancement plan, the addition of more than 5,600 feet of zip lines with drops as high as 14 stories over Miami, will debut this summer.

Chilean company Crystal Lagoons, which has an office in Miami, will build the man-made lagoon that is the centerpiece of the new project.

“At Jungle Island, we expect our lagoon to dramatically increase the number of attendees coming to the park – making Jungle Island one of the most successful tourist attractions in South Florida,” said Uri Man, CEO of Crystal Lagoons U.S. East.

The renovation is part of a deal that surfaced in September when the Herald broke the news that the troubled park was planning a major overhaul. Jungle Island, founded in 1936 and then purchased by a group led by Bern Levine in 1988 when it was still located in Pinecrest, moved to Watson Island along the MacArthur Causeway in 2003. Since, it has struggled to make loan payments, racking up debt.

San Diego-based Iconic Attractions took over management in 2013 with the mission of turning the park into a destination that could compete with attractions in Orlando.

The deal finalized Wednesday with Aventura-based asset management firm ESJ Capital Partners, which represents European investors and has put money into properties in Brickell and the Design District, aims to finally reach that goal.

There is a real trend as you look at how the youth of America are entertained. They are looking for more experiential [activities], spending time with things where they have a greater experience.

John Dunlap, CEO of Iconic Attractions Group

The $60 million transaction — paid with $15 million in cash — includes a transfer of the existing lease of Watson Island, which the city of Miami owns, to ESJ. The firm will also assume roughly $45 million in existing debt to the city, Miami-Dade County, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a loan from a private lender. The deal had to go through city and county approval first and passed unanimously both times.

“We are going to make this place, which has a tremendous potential, a great destination for both tourists and locals,” said Arnaud Sitbon, president and co-founder of ESJ.

The deal also preserves the island’s current management structure, led by John Dunlap of Iconic Attractions, which is currently responsible for day-to-day operations. All current positions at the park will be retained, and ESJ anticipates adding jobs as the expansion is completed.

Dunlap, Iconic’s CEO, said he felt there was an opportunity to transform the park into a more attractive destination for locals and tourists, including the millions of cruise passengers that stop across the causeway at PortMiami.

“There is a real trend as you look at how the youth of America are entertained,” Dunlap said. “They are looking for more experiential [activities], spending time with things where they have a greater experience.”

$60 million Cost of the sale of Jungle Island to Avenutra-based ESJ Capital Partners

Dunlap said the team at the park and ESJ looked to some of the most successful ecoparks around the world, including those in Mexico, to develop the new concept at Jungle Island.

The park hasn’t released the dollar amount for the renovations yet because the plans are fluid. Eventually, ESJ would like to add a hotel on the property, once the park is renovated, Sitbon said.

“It would be beneficial for the park and the tourists who want to spend some time close to the cruise lines,” he said.

Jungle Island has two residents who have become among the favorites of visitors: a "bilingual" pig that's affectionately called "Gordita" and an iguana that arrived with Cuban rafters.

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH

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