After being closed to visitors for almost 11 weeks because of the coronavirus, the Dallas Zoo is preparing to welcome guests back with some slight changes to help keep everyone safe.
"Everything we've done, the last almost three months, has been with that lens of staff, visitor, animal safety — how do we take this sort of new normal we have out there and apply it to the largest zoo in Texas," said Sean Greene, the zoo's chief operating officer.
The biggest change is in admission. Guests are required to purchase tickets ahead of time. They can go online to the zoo's website and select a time slot, which will help control traffic flow and reduce lines, pay for parking and get a virtual ticket.
The process is all done through a new program called TurnStyle developed by Plano-based Lifeblue, which also developed the zoo's website.
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"It helps them feel more comfortable, they know the zoo is taking the next step and not just opening, but reopening safely by managing the crowds," Lifeblue CEO Nicki Purcell said.
Purcell said Lifeblue is offering the program for free to arts and cultural institutions through the end of the summer.
With the new system, the zoo hopes to start off with capping the number of people in the park around 2,500 — below the 25% capacity limits, and will attempt to have about 750 people in the park at a time.
"It's really going to feel like people have the park for themselves in many regards," Greene said.
For a zoo that usually sees 15,000 people come through the gates during a spring day, it's been strange not to have guests around.
"In my 30 years I've never seen anything like it," Greene said. "To have a March, April, May — the busiest times typically for a zoo — to have nobody here was unbelievable."
Though the zoo has been closed, more than 100 staff members have been at work on a daily basis to care for the animals and facilities. They've also tried to bring the zoo to people through social media.
The staff aren't the only ones excited for guests to return. During a simulated walkthrough, the small-clawed otters doggy paddled by the glass to watch the staff, Greene said.
"I think everybody's excited to get people back to the zoo in a safe fashion" he said. "We can't wait to see visitors again."
When guests return they are encouraged to maintain 6 feet of distance, use the hand sanitizer units scattered throughout the park and wear a mask.
Though not mandated in the state of Texas, city of Dallas policy requires face coverings in indoor facilities including bathrooms for people over 2. The zoo will also have masks for sale, Greene said.
There will be some other changes to meet Open Texas guidelines — indoor facilities, such as the reptile building, will be closed and the carousel and monorail won't be running. But guests can still attend keeper chats and animal encounters.
There will also be a recommended path to help control traffic flow, including some one-way sections.
"We have the largest zoo in Texas, we have a lot of space. At the same time we want to be conservative in our approach. This is new territory for us, this is new territory for a lot of other folks," Greene said. "We feel like we've put a great system in place for people to be able to come out and feel safe, to have a great time, to see those wonderful animals that they've missed for the last three months."
With the exception of some extra signs, Greene expects the zoo will look much like the one they remembered from before the pandemic, but there will be some new residents.
It'll be up to the calf, Kendi, to determine when he meets his new fans so guests may not be able to see him on the first day.
The zoo reopens Tuesday at a limited capacity for member preview days, which have already sold out. Gates open to the public May 29 and tickets will be on sale Tuesday.
Tickets can be purchased up to 7 days in advance, and the zoo has set aside Tuesdays from 8 to 10 a.m. for people who may be considered high-risk , including people over 65 and immune-compromised visitors.
For a full list of changes and details, visit dallaszoo.com/reopen.
*Map locations are approximate, central locations for the city and are not meant to indicate where actual infected people live.