The Zoo has four major projects going on in 2023 scheduled to be finished in 2024, says Scott Rose, COO of the ZooTampa. Those projects are:
- Stingray Shores, a new, interactive habitat which will allow guests to touch and feed the stingrays in an immersive experience.
- Australia: Presented with Outback Steakhouse's help, the new site will allow an "Aussie Trek," a safari that will teach guests about the great outback Down Under.
- Prehistoric Predators: A temporary exhibit, from January to April, animatronic (and extinct) "predators of the past" will greet guests.
- And perhaps the pièce de résistance: The David A. Straz Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center expansion, designed mainly as a hospital for the ailing mammals, to be returned to the waters after treatment. It's one of two critical care centers in the U.S. able to care for orphaned or sick manatees, zoo officials say. ZooTampa is expanding its capacity with the addition of two 16,500-gallon treatment areas. That project will be 8,500 square feet, spread over two stories, with the "hospital rooms" visible to visitors.
All the projects are on different schedules, and are not considered the same project — though ZooTampa markets the changes as "24, the year of more."
"It's like being a father and being asked who your favorite kid," answers Rose when asked which project is the coolest.
The coolest part of it, he says, is expanding the guest experience. But If you pinned him down, he says, "I'd have to say the manatee rescue center." That's because it goes to the core of the Zoo's mission, he says. The center indicates the threats to Florida manatees, which include food deprivation, red tide and boat strikes. The current population of manatees is 18 "patients," as he says, in ZooTampa's hospital. The zoo has cared for more than 500 sick manatees through the years. Like a human hospital, they get to "check out" and return to the Florida environs.
Another cool factor? Private and corporate events, including weddings, will be allowed at the center, with a private event space built into it. ZooTampa already hosts weddings. "We have weddings here every couple of weeks or so," says Rose. But with manatees as guests? Now that's cool.
One challenge was to be sensitive to the animals during construction, says Rose. Birds tend to be very sensitive, says zoo spokesperson Sandra Torres, and the Florida panther was relocated, simply because "we wanted to protect them as much as possible."
And the eagles were relocated because they were close to the stingray center's reconstruction.
"You have to be very aware of the animal habitats that are in and around construction zones," says Rose. "And be very sensitive to the impact the construction might have on those animals. With construction trucks coming and going. … It can be very challenging."
In particular, the StingRay Shores project is in the middle of the zoo, and zoo officials made sure to mitigate noise and dust on neighboring animals.