What comes to mind when you think Omaha, Nebraska? Unfortunately, if you are like most people, not very much at all comes to mind. However if you ever do find yourself in this fair city, the Henry Doorly Zoo is something you should definitely check out. I hope to tell you here exactly why.

Location: The first thing you need to know about the Henry Doorly Zoo is where to find it. The Zoo is located at 3701 South 10th Street. It is right off of Interstate 80(exit 454) and is located adjacent to Rosenblatt Stadium, where the College World Series is held. There are signs all over the area because Omaha is rather proud of its zoo, seeing how there’s not a whole lot of other things to get excited about. The zoo is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day.

Brief History: One of the neat things about the Henry Doorly Zoo is that it has a lot of history wrapped up in it. It was originally founded as “Riverview Park zoo” in 1894. The zoo’s beginnings were quite modest, its animal population included deer, grizzly bear, two bison on loan from Colonel William F. Cody(Buffalo Bill) and 120 other animals. Over the years, the zoo expanded and diversified. In 1963, Margaret Hitchcock Doorly donated $750,000 to the Zoo and it was renamed after her late husband, Henry Doorly. Construction has really picked up in recent times, with major building projects coming one right after the other. The zoo has grown from a tiny riverside attraction to one of the largest and most important zoos in the world. Yet despite all of the improvements that have been made, the zoo still retains the old, intimate feel it always had. The last time I visited old Henry Doorly was last August(2001) and I was quite pleased that despite all the improvements that have been added, much of the old mystique I had loved as a kid was still there.

Attractions: When you first walk through the main entrance, the first thing you see is a large bronze statue of a pride of lions. I remember when this was first installed in 1989 and it is a perfect microcosm of the zoo itself. It is ornate and plotted out. At the same time it is highly interactive, people are encouraged to climb on it and use it for group pictures.

At the entrance to the left is Lozier IMAX theater. This is a very nice facility, completed in 1997. A trip to the theater is something I would recommend. The seats are nice and the equipment is state of the art. They even have 3D IMAX shows where they give you those wicked cool glasses. I saw a production about the ocean and it was so real I actually tried to reach out and touch the fish.

As you go down the main path, the next thing you see is the Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom Pavilion. This is a large building that features a multitude of interactive and hands on learning stations. This is mostly geared toward kids, but you’ll be surprised at some of the random facts you can pick up in here.

To the right of this building is the massive Lied Jungle, which opened in 1992. The Lied Jungle is the world’s largest in-door jungle and a very cool place to check out. The inside of the building was designed for maximum authenticity. This means that instead of traditional metal and concrete enclosures, the animals are housed much more subtle water and rock barriers. Major rainforests from Asia, Africa, and South America are all represented in their own sector. The first half of the tour takes you along an upper level walkway that shows you the environment near the treetops of a rainforest. This is a very impressive tour as the huge trees and lush vegetation really make an impression on you(can anyone here say monkeys?!). The upper path travels directly under a waterfall that is done to great effect. You can also look down to the ground level, and the animals that inhabit the rainforest’s floor. That is also where the second half of the tour takes you. On ground level, you can get a closer look at many of the plants and animals. The authenticity of the place cannot be overstated, you really feel as if you are in the middle of the jungle.

Moving on, a little further down the path and to the left is what will be the Desert Dome. Still under construction at the writing of this node, the Desert Dome will be not only the largest in-door desert exhibit, but also the world's largest glazed geodesic dome. It will be an immersion exhibit just like the Lied Jungle. The dome will house environments tailored off of those found in the Namib Desert of Southern Africa, the Great Sandy Desert of Central Australia, and the Sonora Desert of North America. Underneath the desert will be a total immersion nocturnal(yet another world’s largest) and swamp exhibit. The desert section is scheduled to open in March of 2002 with the full project to be completed some time in 2003.

As the main path curves to the left, the Aquarium will appear to your right. The Walter and Suzanne Scott Kingdoms of the Seas Aquarium was opened in the spring of 1995. My favorite part of this building is located near the beginning, the penguin exhibit. This section lets you see the penguins both above and bellow the water as they perform their hilarious antics. Various other types of aquatic environments are featured, but the star attraction is the underwater tunnel that shows a coral reef habitat. This tank is filled with many sharks and tropical fish. One thing that always struck me about this particular section was how clear the glass is, you can’t really tell where the tunnel ends and the water begins.

Further down the road, there is the giant Cat Complex, the largest in North America. This is one of the older buildings, dating from the early 1970’s, and so it is not as modern in its environmental accommodations. It is still a neat section. Some of the cats include: Siberian, Sumatran, and Bengal tigers; lions; jaguars; snow and clouded leopards; and North American pumas. What always struck me about this building was how the outdoor exhibits didn’t just have fences around the habitats, they had metal bars completely encompassing the area so that the cats couldn’t climb over a fence. This always instilled a sense of fear in me as a kid, as a creature would have to be pretty dangerous if it required such great measures to keep it from breaking loose and eating me.

The primate houses are near here. One house has gorillas in it and the other has orangutans and chimpanzees. These were built in the 1960’s and have both indoor and outdoor habitats. The indoor sections don’t smell very favorably, but I guess that’s the price we pay to watch super-intelligent chimps chase each other and throw feces.

Towards the bottom of the hill to the north is the enormous seal and sea lion pool. The interesting thing about this area is that it was originally built in 1916 as a swimming pool for people. It was buried in 1944 and then “rediscovered” in 1970, the year it was converted to its current use.

One of my favorite parts of the whole zoo as a kid was the authentic old time railroad that runs the whole area of the zoo grounds. You can see many animals from the comfort of your seat while a zoo ranger gives a running commentary. The train is also an excellent way to get from one part of the zoo to another.

Sometimes the small things really entertain me. At the zoo, they have many peacocks that roam the grounds with the human visitors. Being the evil boy that I was, I would enjoy chasing these birds unceasingly. But fear not gentle bird lovers, those peacocks could really move when they felt their lives was in danger! The last time I was at the zoo, I just couldn’t help chasing them again, for old time’s sake.

Overview: There are lots and lots of other attractions for you to see at the Henry Doorly Zoo, but this is getting too long already. It really is a place you can’t see all of in just one day. I hope I’ve wetted your appetite somewhat so that if you are ever in the Omaha area, you should check it out for yourself, especially if you’re in the company of kids.

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