A Wild Kingdom Debuts in Fort Worth Zoo

"Water is a very corrosive element—although when it comes to maintaining exhibits and public spaces, kids are more corrosive than water."
Kurt Wilson, Technifex

Mike Fouraker, general manager of the Fort Worth Zoo, had his early work experience straddling both zoos and amusement parks, as an employee of the Knoxville Zoo and of Chilowee Park. That duality is reflected in Texas Wild! the new eight-acre feature that opened June 15 at the Fort Worth Zoo. The unorthodox Texas Wild! development team, including its hands-on chief patrons, Lee and Ramona Bass, of Fort Worth's prominent Bass family, did research at both zoos and theme parks.

The influence of such places as Disney, Sea World, and Busch Gardens is evident in the unorthodox result, designed to create an awareness of the state's singular microhabitats and teach an understanding of how humans and wildlife interact. Texas Wild! combines live animal exhibits with high-tech entertainment and interactive educational exhibits — including a themed Texas Town, a carousel, and a special effects theatre. These are complemented by a food court and a wide selection of branded merchandise. All contribute to the dual goals of fulfilling the zoo's educational mission and enhancing revenues by increasing the length of stay, and with it, the per capita expenditure.

Jack Rouse Associates provided planning, writing, and design services for all of Texas Wild!'s interpretive areas and interactive exhibits. Randy Smith was the design director for Rouse. “The research for us began on the Bass ranch in Texas,” Smith says. “We spent a weekend in the kind of natural environment that we were trying to replicate and design for guests.” Under contract to Rouse, Scenery West was in charge of building and installing all interpretive and interactive exhibits, supervising a team of subcontractors including Edwards Technologies (show control, electronics, and media integration), Technifex (special effects provider and producer), John Levy Lighting Productions (lighting design), and Naturemaker (artificial trees). Bouyea & Associates also played a key role in lighting the project. CLR Architects provided architectural master planning and the general contractor was Linbeck Construction.

Most guests start out in the Wild Weather Extravaganza Theatre to absorb the key messages that are reinforced throughout the rest of Texas Wild! The 10-minute show, hosted by animated Texas natives Gabby the Green Jay and Swifty the Fox, includes CGI animation, set pieces, and a host of special effects that simulate Texas signature weather patterns. “This is a great example of how zoos and museums can educate their guests with entertainment in a theatrical setting,” says Michael Passaro, Rouse's project manager. “Hopefully, we'll see others follow suit.”

Technifex was contracted to devise a rain curtain, a hailstorm, wind effects, and a dusting of feathers for the weather theatre. Project manager Kurt Wilson reports that Ramona Bass paid more than one visit to Southern California to approve the mockups at Technifex. “The feather blower went over pretty smoothly,” he says. Technifex built a sturdy, 150lb horizontal double wheel 4' wide. Each wheel holds 40 upside-down cups with screens on the bottom. The cups are filled daily with a supply of feathers. By triggering an air amplifier connected to a compressed air line, a precise amount of feathers is blown into the air at 20psi, to coincide with the moment Gabby collides with a wall.

Bass was more critical when it came to the rain curtain mockup. “She said, ‘It doesn't rain like that in Texas.’ She wanted larger drops,” says Wilson. “So we used larger holes and staggered them to give a fuller look to the curtain.” Wilson adds, “Water effects are the most unpredictable of all. Water is difficult to manipulate. Make any change anywhere in the system, and it affects everything else.” Once the curtain was installed onsite, some additional weatherproofing was added to protect the speakers and other elements. “The real understanding of just how wet these effects can be in a theatre doesn't happen until we install it and turn it on. Water is a very corrosive element — although when it comes to maintaining exhibits and public spaces, kids are more corrosive than water,” says Wilson, who has two small children himself.

Technifex created wind and breeze effects in the theatre using a set of Reel Effects E-Fans. “They're very small, compact, and high-velocity,” notes Wilson. “They're black, so they don't show much, and they mount easily. Best of all, they come with a relay control that uses a lighting dimmer to adjust speed.”

Delivering hail was something new for Technifex. “They say in Texas that they have hail the size of golf balls, so we came up with the idea of using these little golf balls — actually whiffle balls — for the hail effect,” says Wilson, adding, “Ramona Bass liked it.” The hail dispenser is a series of box-like structures equipped with funnels. “They're like hoppers,” Wilson continues. “You fill each one with balls, and an electronic gate opens to dispense a programmed number.” Ten of the hoppers were installed in the ceiling, with a hoist system to lower them for refilling. The holes in the whiffle balls protect the animals in the zoo — should any find their way out of the theatre and be swallowed, the holes prevent asphyxiation.

Emma Fitzgerald, lighting designer for John Levy Lighting Productions, which lit the weather theatre, found that the best way to light the rain curtain was from the sides. “Front lighting turned the rain invisible,” she reports. “So we installed two Strand SL fixtures on either side to graze the rain and make it sparkle, using light blue gels from Special F/X to blend the rain into the exterior night.” Fitzgerald, whose aim was to “bring the outdoors inside,” says, “The lighting had to directly relate to what was going on in a prerecorded and predetermined video projection — and look like a live interaction. We also had to treat the entire space as a stage set, because the main action happens to the audience, not just the [onstage] characters.”

Some 70 theatrical lights were installed in the weather theatre, chiefly Strand SL fixtures and other lekos. “The newer ellipsoidals have less heat output from the front due to a special dichroic reflector that sends heat out the back, which makes them a good choice for a project like this, where theatrical lighting is used in the house,” notes Fitzgerald. She used multiple Rosco gobos to help create a complex cued sunset and other effects. To create lightning, a lightning-bolt gobo was used with a Diversitronics strobe insert. A simulated fire onstage was done using three GAM TwinSpins and glass colorizer gobos. A searchlight effect that sweeps the audience was accomplished with a Rosco IQ mirror.

Danny Walker was project manager and system engineer for Edwards Technologies (ETI), which handled audio, video, and show control for the theatre. The video preshow uses a Panasonic PT-61G54 61" rear-projection display. In the main show, the images of Gabby and Swifty are projected onto a Draper rigid rear-projection screen 5' × 7' with a Mitsubishi X400 LCD projector. Images are delivered by a custom video server ETI built using hardware from Visual Circuits. The screen is fixed into a set piece to give the illusion of watching the animals chat inside a barn. Sound is delivered by an Akai DR16-PRO digital audio player to left-center-right speakers plus surround-left and -right speakers with subwoofers. “The Akai unit was designed for home studio recording, but we find that it adapts well to themed entertainment environments,” notes Walker. EAW speakers, including UB82s, UB12Ss, JF80s, JF60s, and SB18SCs are used throughout. Those near the front, in proximity to the rain curtain, have fiberglass gel weatherproofing. The show control system is from Alcorn McBride and features an I/O64 digital controller.

Directly adjoining the Wild Weather Extravaganza is the Texas Hall of Wonders, filled with interpretive and interactive exhibits for all ages, including sculptures of more than 300 native animals. “This is the main area where we wanted to communicate to guests the message of Texas Wild!” says Smith from Rouse. That message, controversial to some in the zoo industry, is that humans are stewards over the land and have a responsibility to it. In other words, land management and regulated hunting are activities that benefit wildlife.

Here, ETI provided A/V in the form of Panasonic 20" CT-20G5 video monitors with overhead speakers and push-button starts, high-end graphic workstations with ELO touchscreen monitors, and bells and flashing lights for some of the interactives. A map showing population growth is presented on a Panasonic 51D30 rear-projection screen. Ambient sound is stored on an Alcorn McBride digital bin loop audio playback, through Rane MA6 amplifiers and EAW UB12S speakers.

Interactive elements geared specifically to children are in the popular Play Barn. Ron Antone, president of Scenery West, which fabricated most of the exhibits throughout Texas Wild!, agrees with Technifex's Wilson about the corrosive powers of children. “You have exhibits that are being treated like a playground, so we built it like playground equipment,” he says. “You have to anticipate the amount of hard play some things will get from the older kids and the less-supervised younger ones. We try to identify problem areas, where something might get ‘played’ instead of used as an educational tool.”

Interactive design for children is something of a paradox — the kinds of devices that help involve them and support learning — moving parts, lift-up panels, things that slide together and apart, touchscreens, etc. — can be very difficult to make indestructible. “It's best to deal with most of that on the front end through engineering for use of excessive force in the early stages,” says Stewart Zilberberg, VP of Scenery West. “For moving parts, we consider using chain-and-sprocket and heavy linkage as opposed to pulleys or belts that might break or stretch. We try to build in bumpers if there's a slide lever — just in case someone decides to pull it all the way back and then let it spring back.” Lift-up panels in the interactive areas are made of milled metal plates with stainless-steel handles welded on. “The hinge becomes a custom hinge welded into the top plate,” says Antone. “There are no weak points of connection. Eliminating any single-point weakness is an approach that works for the majority of interactives.”

The Texas surroundings also had to be considered. Texas Wild! is divided into seven climate zones. These physically place the guests in walk-through settings that juxtapose scenic elements, exhibits, live animals, and animal habitat to demonstrate the overlapping uses humans and wildlife have for the same places. “Nothing is sealed away from the outdoors, there's lots of dust and dirt, and the exhibits in animal confines get washed with high-pressure hoses,” says Antone. For example, Eyes Like a Hawk is a viewer, mounted outdoors, that compares the way a hawk sees to the way a human does. This was fabricated with all metal-to-metal welded connections and fiberglass with an automotive-grade finish. Inside are two adapted camera bodies. “It had to be sensitive enough for the equipment inside to work, but still hold up in the environment,” says Antone. The structures in the aviary “had to be tougher than pay phones,” he says. Here, Scenery West used epoxy paints and automotive finishes. It was also necessary to select materials with the health and well being of the animals in mind. “From previous projects, such as Atlantis and COSI Columbus, we're getting experienced with environments where animals come into contact with our work. We're now discussing an aquarium job,” notes Zilberberg. “We work closely with the animal caretakers. This is the kind of project where you have to communicate early on with the operations people.

“Animals or not, when you're building anything interactive, operations has a big say in it. What you leave them with when you walk away has to support maintenance and safety,” he continues. “They have to know how to take care of it, using the proper cleaners and so forth.” Scenery West put together a comprehensive maintenance and operations manual for the zoo staff.

Some of the more unusual scenic elements are the tactile exhibits in the Swamp Zone, which use latex and various “herb teas” to provide a squishy, fragrant experience: in the Mineshaft, the undulating mound of bat guano that gives off an ammonia smell, and the giant dung ball. The wide range of scenics for Texas Wild! had Scenery West using a wide variety of equipment, including, from its metal and machine shop, a Miller Synchrowave 250 Tig welder, several Miller Millermatic Mig welders, two Comet milling machines, a South Bend lathe, and a Thermal Dynamics plasma cutter. Carpentry equipment included a Multi Cam Pro Series CNC router table.

Scott Oldner was project manager for Bouyea & Assoc., and the lighting designer for all public areas except for the weather effects theatre. “We worked to achieve as natural a look as possible by the judicious use of light and color, and to lead the eye with accents,” says Oldner. “The lighting design is part theme park, part museum, and part zoo; Texas Wild! is the only zoo installation I know of in North America that has lighting designed for nighttime operation.” In animal areas, Bouyea used lighting to encourage the animals to come into view. Mercury vapor lights with a 5,700 Kelvin (blue) rating are nestled into the trees for after-dark illumination along public paths. “It creates an eerie moonlight in the swamp area,” says Oldner. Dimmable blue halogens are in many of the animal areas. These can be adjusted in response to animal behavior. Everything ties into a Lutron control system that provides automatic, hands-free operation. To spot the animals, Oldner specified numerous PAR-38 and AR111 lamps for exhibit accents. “With one button, all lights go immediately to the day setting or the night setting.” Marine tanks in the Gulf Coast zone are lit with U/V fluorescent lamps and metal halide track.

The Mineshaft Cave exhibits presented special lighting challenges. The circadian rhythms and natural attraction to light of the live insects and night flyers on display had to be accommodated. Lighting live bugs and bats is an art in itself, and Oldner cited the work of insect expert Ray Mendes, who consulted on the project and created a model for the design of the space. “He did the bugs for Silence of the Lambs,” notes Oldner. Since bees are unable to see red, fluorescent fixtures with red color sleeves were used for worklights. Special screens were used to keep the bees away from the amber accent lights so they don't fly straight into them, and, as Oldner puts it, “pop like popcorn.” The bats are illuminated with two kinds of fiber optics: a star field with a halogen illuminator, plus a metal halide illuminator, to create a moonlight effect. The fiber optics enable all surfaces in the bat cave to be hosed down daily for the removal of bat guano. Because the horned lizards need UVB to adequately metabolize vitamin D and prevent their getting rickets, but develop glaucoma if exposed to UVA, they have a special filtered skylight, which the zoo monitors periodically with a UV meter.

Guests can conclude their visit in the finale theatre, which presents a nine-minute wrap-up film on a 10½' × 14' screen, using a three-chip DLP digital projector and a JBL sound system. The show is DVD-encoded with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound.

Texas Wild! represents the peak of a 10-year comeback for the Fort Worth Zoo. The zoological association continues to run the zoo. Texas Wild! is already making waves throughout the zoo community and has attracted visits from American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) dignitaries “This is the way of the future for progressive zoos,” says Fouraker. “Zoos will have to decide whether they want to stay with the old-style museum park, having nothing commercial around the animals, or whether they want to start drawing in the public through entertainment."