John Ball Zoo adds funicular cars

8:34 AM, May 31, 2012   |    comments
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Video: Interview with Allmon Forrester IV

  • The Idema Funicular was just one of the new attractions attributed for the spike in visitors to the John Ball Zoo.
  • Crews installing new funicular cars at John Ball Zoo.
  • Tracks for a funicular, otherwise known as an incline, at the John Ball Zoo.

GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) -- A funicular. Many of us here in West Michigan have never heard of one. And even fewer have actually been on a funicular before. That's about to change thanks to one of the zoo's latest and biggest investments.

John Ball Zoo invested five million dollars to bring the funicular to Grand Rapids. It was made possible thanks to a $5 million gift from the Bill and Bea Idema Foundation.

The Idema gift is the largest single donation in the zoo's history.

"It really positions the zoo for the future. It really does. It gives us some extra revenue opportunities. It gives some great amenities to the visitors and allows us to open up this whole new area to the zoo," said Brenda Stringer, Executive Director for the John Ball Zoo Society. "It will be so unique. I really think it is going to become an icon here.

Certainly, people won't find another one like it in the Michigan.

"You will find them a lot in Europe and there are only a few like this in the United States and this is the first one at a zoo," said Andy McIntyre, acting zoo director. "We are really excited to be able to offer it to the public."

McIntyre expects it to be the new star and forever change the way people experience the zoo.

The Idema Funicular is essentially a motorized tram on a track.

"I guess you could mix it between. It is kind of like an elevator. You walk on and off just like you would an elevator. The doors open up . You walk in after others walk out and the door closes," said McIntyre.

The funicular has three cars, each holding between 8 and 10 passengers, depending on strollers and wheelchairs. It can transport up to 30 riders per one-way trip or 200 per hour.

McIntyre, says, "It will take them up through the trees and as they go through they will experience the chance to be up in the trees just as wild life are and they will end up being able to see the skyline of Grand Rapids in a way that we have never been able to show people before at one of the highest points in the city."

Funiculars were first devised in the 15th century. Construction on this project began roughly a year ago. Zoo visitors will begin at ground level, and be taken on a 4 minute trip up to the new area of the zoo called the Idema Forest Realm.

"I think people are going to go wow what is that," says operations manager Allmon Forrester. "You are actually going to be flying through the trees. It is going to be cool. There are times you will be 20 to 25 feet above the ground."

But, what the new funicular really does is allow John Ball Zoo to develop another four and half acres of land. It also brings zoo lovers directly to the home of new and up-and coming exhibits

"We have a very hilly zoo which is great as far as aesthetically. But, it can be challenging moving out through the zoo so this is going to make this a lot easier to allow folks to get from the lower area to up top and vice versa form top to bottom," said Forrester.

The funicular is expected to be up and running mid-june. The zoo is waiting for it to be calibrated and receive a final inspection.

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