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St. Louis Zoo to build $40 million interactive area for kids, replacing former children's zoo

Black tailed prairie dogs will run around in underground cities at Destination Discovery. This is an artist rendering of the new children's space that will open in 2026.
St. Louis Zoo
An artist rendering of Destination Discovery exhibit of black-tailed prairie dogs.

The St. Louis Zoo plans to build a new immersive, $40 million space for children that would open in 2026.

The new area, called Destination Discovery, would replace the current dinosaur installation and former children's zoo. Construction begins next year.

The zoo closed its Emerson Children’s Zoo in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. It had been open for 51 years and was designed to allow kids to climb on playground equipment and pet animals.

Now, the zoo has reimagined the area as an up-close opportunity for children to interact with animals and their habitats, said zoo director Michael Macek. The exhibits will change seasonally and use augmented reality and multimedia to serve children with various abilities.

Destination Discovery will feature a wildlife overlook, underground prairie dog cities, freshwater wilderness, water play area, flamingo habitat, network of tree houses connected by overhead tunnels, walkthrough aviary and an education building.

Several species of animals will live in the new area, including river otters, alpaca, babydoll sheep and large rabbit-like mammals called Patagonian maras.

The St. Louis Zoo's new children's space will feature babydoll sheep. On Friday May 12th 2023, the zoo revealed the sheep with the unveiling Destination Discovery.
Britny Cordera
St. Louis Public Radio
Zoo officials on Friday show off a pair of babydoll sheep, one of the species that will live in the St. Louis Zoo's new children's space.

The project will be funded by a $15 million lead gift from the Henry A. Jubel Foundation, with the rest of the money coming from donations and other philanthropic sources.

Melissa Jubel Markwort, the executive director of the Jubel Foundation, said her family is proud to help fund Destination Discovery.

“My family visits the zoo regularly. My daughter loves everything about the zoo, especially seeing the animals,” she said. “We attend all the wonderful events throughout the year. It truly holds a special place in our hearts.”

When the former children’s zoo closed in 2020, Markwort said her family knew immediately that they wanted to help develop a new one.

“Hearing the plans for the future made our family even more excited to be a part of reimagining this wonderful space that has meant so much to us over the years,” she said.

The new space will cover nearly 3 acres at the zoo's Forest Park facility. Right now, the site is filled with a temporary exhibit with life-size statues of dinosaurs, which will remain open until Nov. 5.

Zoo officials met with 20 families from different racial identities and backgrounds over a period of two years while developing the project design to ask what they would want to see in a children’s area. Some of those families had members with disabilities, and others had never visited the zoo before.

Macek said he hopes Destination Discovery will inspire the next generation of conservationists. “The project will include stories that reflect how animals are like us and how they have unique families just like us.”

Macek said closing the children’s zoo in 2020 was one of the hardest decisions he made in his career, but now the St. Louis Zoo will have a space for children once again.

“Thanks to the generosity of the Jubel Foundation, before I end my career I'll be able to open it up again,” he said.

Britny Cordera is a poet and journalist based in St. Louis and is currently serving as a newsroom intern at St. Louis Public Radio.