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Zoo Looks Into Possible Resort Destination

Delaware County Commissioners Thursday are expected to approve money to study the feasibility of building a hotel at the Columbus Zoo. The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium wants to break new ground in the industry. It's director thinks the zoo, water park and golf course could be more than just a day trip - rather it could be a family resort. The zoo hired a consulting firm to find out if a hotel would be a practical addition.

If the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium were to add a hotel to its mix of animals, golfing and waterslides it would be the first to do so the United States - excluding the Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World. David Sangree is the president of Hotel and Leisure Advisors - the Cleveland consulting firm hired to study the proposed hotel's feasibility.

"There are a few within the world that have overnight accommodations within the zoo. And numerous do overnight camps and things, but having an actual hotel on property would be something new," Sangree said.

The idea of turning the Columbus Zoo into a resort destination was in the back of Jeff Swanagan's mind before he became the zoo's director last year. But the idea moved forward when more and more visitors started to ask for multiple day passes.

"We have emerged as a destination. We just don't have the ability to give you an overnight," he said.

The Columbus Zoo has grown to the third largest in North America. Most of its visitors are from Ohio and its neighboring states. The out-of-staters tend to stay overnight.

While Swanagan is passionate about the hotel proposal he's also quick to stress it's just a concept. The consulting firm has not yet said if such an idea would be feasible.

But if it is, Swanagan already knows what he'd like to do.

"The idea would be to explore a treetop lodge that would when you sat on your porch you could see a giraffe walk by. And that's the kind of thing you don't have to travel 17 hours to Africa to experience," Swanagan said.

The Columbus zoo has come far in the last 30 years. It's moved from a city zoo with cages to park with realistic animal habitats and a force behind worldwide animal conservation. The zoo has expanded several times...adding a Manatee exhibit, Asia and Austrialian exhibits. It brought back a polar bear exhibit and it's possibly adding an African exhibit. The zoo also built a new water park - Zoombezi Bay, and a small amusement park - Jungle Jack's Landing. And it took control of neighboring Safari golf course.

Hotel Consutant David Sangree said the Ohio region has its share of family resorts, but fewer than other parts of the country like Orlando. He said they're trying to determine what kind of demand there is for a family-oriented resort within this region. Although Sangree said the study is only half complete he seems pretty convinced.

"It really does offer a neat package of amenities and attractions especially with the golf course and the water park that during the summer months it really is a complete resort. And then during the winter months it offers the unique zoo that most other resorts don't have an adjacent zoo," Sangree said. When asked where the money would come from to fund such a plan, zoo director Swanagan said "all options are open." And he added this caveat.

"If we're going to be and continue the great success we have as a zoo we've got to find multiple ways to reach our public and provide for their needs both entertainment needs but also drive revenue that we can do all the cool conservation that we do."