ASHLAND – On Monday, Wildlife Safari Park became more than just a drive-through.
Officials announced that guests are now able to leave their cars and explore certain parts of the park after the COVID-19 pandemic halted most activities there.
That includes the walking trails, Bison Overlook, Pelican Wetlands Overlook, Eagle Aviary, Prairie Dog viewing area, Pawnee Creed Food Trailer and the base deck of the Crane Meadows Viewing Tower. The Visitor Center is open for concessions and retail items with a capacity restriction of 25 guests at a time.
Campout programs and classis for family groups will also begin with restrictions for participants’ health and safety.
The areas that remain closed are the Hands-On Corral and the Nature Play Area at Bison Overlook.
To help visitors adhere to social distancing guidelines, the park has placed “paw prints” in high-traffic areas. Other directional signs and barriers will help visitors navigate the changes at the park as well.
Wearing face masks is strongly recommended for visitors to the park. Restrooms are open for one family at a time, and hand sanitizer is available. The park’s drinking fountains and water refill stations will remain closed.
Park staff members are utilizing enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols. Cleanliness remains a high priority based on the health and safety guidelines set by state and local authorities.
“All of us at the Zoo and Wildlife Safari Park are thrilled to take this next step toward normal operations, while following the guidelines provided by Nebraska officials,” said Gary Pettit, superintendent of the park. “We are overwhelmed by the record-setting attendance we have had this year as a safe, outdoor experience for people during the COVID-19 crisis, and extremely grateful for the community support.”
Admission prices were reduced during the limited visitation, but have now returned to the normal rates. The price for adults age 12 to 64 is $8. Children age 3 to 11 are $6 and senior citizens over 65 are $7. Military personnel receive a $1 discount. Annual memberships are available for $60 or as an add-on to Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium membership for $50.
On March 27, the park opened on its regular opening date, but only for the drive-through animal experience. All other activities were shuttered because of the threat of spreading the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.
The park was inundated with visitors, as it was nearly the only public facility open to the public during the early days of the pandemic. Officials said they saw as many as 300 cars a day during that period. At the same time, the staff at Wildlife Safari Park continued to care for the animals there every day.
Wildlife Safari Park is a part of the Henry Doorly Zoo family. The park has a breeding facility for cheetahs and tigers that help continue to grow the population at the zoo in Omaha. The facility is also used for rehabilitation for animals from the zoo.
The Bison Overlook and Nature Play Area were added to the park last fall. The addition allows visitors to exit their vehicles and walk onto an ADA-accessible platform to be eye-to-eye with North America’s largest mammal. The 600-square foot viewing deck overlooks the Bison Plains, which are 40 acres of woodland hills and open grasslands where the herd of 34 bison live. The deck also features a full-size bronze sculpture of a mother bison and her young calf.
Donations in memory of Lane Graves helped build the new area. Lane was an Elkhorn toddler who died tragically in June 2016. Lane and his family came to the park, his favorite place, every Friday to visit the bison.