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The Denny Sanford Wildlife Explorers Basecamp at the San Diego Zoo features outdoor elements that invite kids to crawl, climb, swing and explore. This 20-foot-tall Tree of Dreams is designed to resemble an ancient oak. Kids can enter via a net tunnel, spiral staircase and suspension bridge. Photo by E’Louise Ondash
ColumnsHit the Road

New Basecamp advances zoo’s mission and is fun for kids

There are but a few millimeters of glass between our 7-year-old grandson, Landon, and almost-10-year-old grandniece, Dakota, and one magnificent   Malayan tiger.

The big cat is enjoying a late-morning nap on this humid June day at the San Diego Zoo. Reposing against the glass, he remains motionless, probably deep in dreamland, even with visitors just inches away.

Landon and Dakota are enthralled and pretend to scratch the tiger’s ears. I squat to get a closer look at the details of the tiger’s huge head and his Creamsicle-colored coat accented with sharp ebony stripes. 

Despite the crowd, it’s a quiet moment — unlike the previous hour we spent at the zoo’s new Basecamp, a beehive of kids, climbing walls, cotton candy.

Officially named Denny Sanford Wildlife Explorers Basecamp (Sanford donated $30 million of the $87 million budget), this 3.2-acre section of the zoo occupies and expands the location of the former Children’s Zoo. (Of note: In its commitment to sustainability, the zoo’s horticulture team transplanted more than 100 trees from the original attraction.) 

From left, Carlsbad resident Landon Barnhart, 7, and San Marcos resident Dakota McAndrew, almost 10, commune with the napping Malayan tiger at the San Diego Zoo. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

Allowing children an up-close-and-personal experience with small, people-friendly critters seemed like a good idea in 1957, but didn’t really reflect the zoo’s mission of conservation.

So today, the experience is still up-close, according to zoo officials, but Basecamp offers “fresh, high-tech interactive opportunities that nurture empathy for wildlife and encourage future caretakers of the planet.”

Ask a kid-visitor and they’ll likely tell you that Basecamp is “just lots of fun.”

The day we visited, there were plenty of kids to ask.

Vacationing families and local school groups in neon-colored T-shirts were swarming like so many bees in the insect exhibit. Landon and Dakota bounced from boulder scramble to rope bridges and tunnels to animal sculptures to water elements. Both gave favorite status to the giant, rotating granite ball bathed in water just inside Basecamp entrance.

When we exhausted the outdoor elements, we headed inside.

Basecamp includes eight buildings and habitats that encompass four zones: Rainforest, Wild Woods, Marsh Meadows and Desert Dunes. In the Marsh Meadows building, Landon and Dakota were enthralled with the frogs, lizards, turtles and crocodilians.

In the Spineless Marvels building within the Rainforest Zone, they found several interactive experiences. Microscopes give detailed peeks at various insects and natural elements. Budding artists can create “paintings” from the microscope images and email them to lucky recipients.

Another interactive, touch-screen light table encourages kids to create an insect-friendly ecosystem, complete with the always popular poop emojis. 

From left, San Marcos resident Dakota McAndrew, almost 10, and Carlsbad resident Landon Barnhart, 7, navigate the interactive light table in the Spineless Marvels building at the newly opened Basecamp in the San Diego Zoo. The touch screen allows visitors to create an ecosystem favorable to insects. Photo by E’Louise Ondash

In the Herpetology Building, an eerily beautiful Living River, a sculpture composed of 3,245 individually mapped LEDs spread across 1,330 feet of LED strips, “flows” across the ceiling. 

When we headed outside again, Dakota took charge. With map in hand, she led us down trails that brought us to hippos, gorillas, red koalas and monkeys. We took the five-year-old Canopy Bridge (70 feet high, 450 feet across) to see the polar bears and also got a bird’s eye view of a large portion of the zoo’s 100 acres.

Our adventure ended with a ride on Skyfari’s gondola, car No. 1, leading Landon to shout “We’re number one!” on our trip from the west side to the east side of the zoo. After a stop for the promised cotton candy, we went searching for our car in parking lot section 3 Meerkat.

The ride home included a review of the day.

Dakota: “My favorite part was learning about insects and sea creatures and doing an art project on the giant tablet.”

Landon: “I loved the Skyfari. It was so cool to see the whole park. I also liked climbing the ropes that looked like snakes.”

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