As work was beginning on a much-anticipated redesign of Jungle Island, Hurricane Irma tore through the Watson Island animal park, temporarily derailing the long-awaited upgrades.
The damage from Irma’s passage has kept the park closed since September, as owners have worked to clear the wreckage.
Now, they’re planning a late spring reopening, when they will begin to debut a new line of attractions aimed at bringing locals back to the park, while they continue work on the projects that Irma impacted.
“We had to reshuffle the deck,” said Chris Gould, managing director of Jungle Island, on a tour of the attraction Wednesday. “As we were evolving into an eco-adventure park, we looked at our master plan that was going to be executed over the next few years, and looked at what elements could be executed as quickly as possible to be the attraction that people would want.”
Tornadoes brought by Irma slashed through the structures and the tree canopy, causing extensive water damage to the main buildings and destroying more than 200 of the park’s trees. Of the 18.5-acre park’s legacy trees, only two survived Irma.
The result was a maimed tree canopy that took out some of the “jungle” in the attraction’s name. The animals — parrots, orangutans, and others — all survived, but the botanical garden may takes years to restore.
That put a pause on the original plan — to add zip lines and a man-made Crystal Lagoon that would open in 2019. The base of one of the zip line towers was under construction before Irma tore down most of the large trees in that area and halted work.
Owners now plan to bring in a series of smaller attractions that will debut between the park’s late spring reopening and late summer. (The exact schedule for when each feature will be opened has not yet been determined.) These attractions will get through the city of Miami’s permitting process faster than larger enhancements, they believe, thus allowing them to reopen the park with new activities for guests more quickly. (The city of Miami owns Watson Island).
Among the new features coming by the end of the summer: an indoor trampoline park near the entrance of Jungle Island, a multi-generational aerial play-and-rope course experience called “Tree Walk Village,” an outdoor skydiving wind tunnel — one of few in the United States, escape rooms, a beach restaurant, and a new children’s playground with interconnected tree houses.
In the future, the park also wants to add a swimming area with slides in the current location of the flamingo lagoon, fitness classes at its trampoline park and an interactive experience in its orangutan enclosures.
Most of the new features will be available for an additional cost to the general admission, though entrance to the trampoline attraction — located in the main pavilion before the park gates — can be purchased without buying general admission to the park.
The scheduled 2019 opening of the man-made Crystal Lagoon, zip lines and lazy river is still on track, said John Dunlap, CEO of Iconic Attractions and president of Jungle Island. When the park reopens in the spring, the area where the Crystal Lagoon will be located, near the children’s area, will remain closed for renovations.
In the end, we are really excited about the product we are opening. But up to this point, we’ve lost a lot of sleep.
John Dunlap, CEO of Iconic Attractions and president of Jungle Island
“In the end, we are really excited about the product we are opening,” Dunlap said. “But up to this point, we’ve lost a lot of sleep.”
Being closed for five months has been a “burden” on the park, Dunlap said; ongoing costs are about 70 percent of the regular operating costs, even when the park is closed.
The hurricane-induced closing in September was like déjà-vu: When the park, formerly Parrot Jungle, opened in Watson Island in 2003, it was pelted by back-to-back hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005 that damaged its botanical gardens. Then, those challenges, coupled with a crippling financial burden, sank the park’s hopes of drawing a big new audience.
The park’s new ownership wants to avoid a repeat as it transforms Jungle Island.
The first step of that transformation, a renovation of Jungle Island’s ballrooms, will take place Tuesday, when the meeting spaces reopen to host the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce’s Sand in my Shoes Award, which will honor Baptist Health CEO Brian Keeley.
Five more meetings are planned for next week. The park’s meeting spaces have historically been a large source of the park’s revenue.
“It has become, over the years, a premiere event space and venue,” said Miami Mayor Francis Suarez in an interview. “Not having that available has been something that has been missed by the city for sure.”
Suarez said he is supportive of streamlining the permitting process to help Jungle Island and other businesses meet their deadlines and is “hopeful” about the new plans for the site. The first phase of renovations this year, including the events space and new attractions, will cost in excess of $16 million, the park estimates.
The 82-year-old park has struggled to meet its financial responsibilities in the past. For the move to Watson Island, Jungle Island took out a $25 million federal loan to deliver on an enhanced experience that never materialized. The city and Miami-Dade County tried to keep it afloat by cutting checks when the park missed its loan payments.
Aventura-based ESJ Capital Partners took over ownership of Jungle Island in 2017 in a $60 million deal that included assuming $45 million in debt.
The new plan may help the location finally meet its potential, Suarez said.
“The fact that they are reinvesting and reinventing and re-imagining the space and the activation of it is something that I’m sure will help them continue to be successful,” he said.