ST. LOUIS, Mo. – The St. Louis Zoo has shut down the 51-year-old Emerson Children’s Zoo and has unveiled plans to reignite the area with an interactive experience for children called The Henry A. Jubel Foundation Destination Discovery.
The Henry A. Jubel Foundation contributed $15 million to create the dynamic 2.8-acre $40 million wildlife and learning area. The generous donation will provide children and their families the opportunity to explore and play side by side with animals while building connections to the natural world.
Henry A. Jubel was a German immigrant whose family continues to carry out his legacy through longtime support and philanthropy at the zoo.
Zoo Director Michael Macek says shutting down the children’s zoo during the pandemic was one of the hardest things his zoo family has ever had to do, but says the new experience will be open in 2026 and the excitement is already through the roof.
“I’ve been working at zoos for 38 years and the St. Louis Zoo for 32 years,” Macek told The Heartlander. “I feel these sorts of spaces designed specifically for children are more important than ever. In the 2020 census about 80% of the U.S. population now lives in urban versus rural environments. We’re really becoming more and more disconnected from nature and animals all the time.”
Macek says the main purpose of Destination Discovery is to develop a cognitive empathy experience as it relates to children and nature. Macek feels the new experience will show kids what it would be like to be an animal among humans.
Destination Discovery is being developed in partnership with the local community through engagement with families and children from diverse backgrounds. The public’s assistance will help determine themes and activities to bring the best experience for guests.
Once the project is complete, visitors will begin their Destination Discovery journey by walking through a building featuring immersive state-of-the-art projections and augmented reality technology, setting the stage for the adventure within.
While in the outdoors, visitors will be able to splash in the water alongside Chilean flamingos, closely analyze tunnels dug by black-tailed prairie dogs, hang out in overhead tree houses next to tree-dwelling creatures and much more.
“We will have some feeding experiences and will have an aviary with java finches where families can come through and feed the birds on little seed sticks. I’m sure there is a 100% chance the birds will come in contact with you. I don’t know of any finch feeding aviaries in the U.S. right now.”
Visitors will come in contact with the Patagonian mara, a rabbit-sized rodent from Argentina, and alpacas in a walk-in area being used as an outdoor classroom for educational programs.
North American river otters will return, with a state-of-the-art freshwater wilderness area. The otters will be seen through acrylic panels on both sides, with flumes acting as otter slides overhead.
A covered dining area will complete the freshwater wilderness area with a breathtaking view of the splash pad and flamingo habitat. A learning pod will be located inside the Wildlife Overlook, providing a shaded area for learning through live presentations and interactions.
The Living World building at the north entrance has been expanded and will feature a new two-story ADA-accessible educational programming experience. The first floor’s Discovery Zone will focus on curated play, complete with nature exchanges. The second floor will act as the St. Louis Zoo Preschool providing educational programs throughout the year.
Additionally, Destination Discovery will feature retail outlets, food, beverages and covered dining areas. Admission costs for the facility have yet to be announced.
The temporary Dinoroarus exhibit currently located in the space will officially close Nov. 5, 2023.