Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Park gives new meaning to polar bear lunch

Assiniboine zoo combines food, fun and education at latest attraction

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Imagine sitting down for lunch and watching -- with a bit of trepidation -- as a polar bear saunters up to your table.

Visitors to the Assiniboine Park Zoo will experience something akin to that next year when the Journey to Churchill exhibit opens.

There will be three viewing areas for the majestic creatures, including the new Tundra Grill & Polar Playground, which opened on Friday.

The $6.8-million facility features a 150-seat restaurant, an interactive indoor playground for kids and a gift shop. Attached to the indoor play area are two 24-seat rooms that can be booked for birthday parties.

The restaurant is dominated by a bank of windows three metres high and 45 metres wide with glass 6.5 centimetres thick.

Once the polar bear exhibition space is completed in 2014, folks sitting at tables against the massive windows could find themselves virtually nose to nose with the giant beasts.

Friday's launch of the Tundra Grill & Polar Playground follows last year's opening of the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre.

The four-hectare Journey to Churchill exhibit, now mainly a huge construction site, is the jewel of a larger $200-million redevelopment plan for the zoo and Assiniboine Park. Its backers call it the most comprehensive project ever undertaken in Canada to illuminate issues relating to climate change, polar bears and other northern species.

Paula Havixbeck, one of three city councillors at Friday's opening, said the zoo redevelopment will be a tremendous showpiece for the city.

"Together with all of the other projects happening throughout our city, the park and the zoo will be yet another draw to put Winnipeg on the map and on the tourists' radar," she said.

Organizers of Friday's media tour planned to bus in a group of Grade 1 and 2 students to test the indoor playground's two slides and its interactive displays, but because of frightfully cold temperatures only a polar bear could appreciate, the school bus trip was cancelled. Instead, Havixbeck and Assiniboine Park Conservancy president and CEO Margaret Redmond gamely tested the equipment for the media cameras.

The indoor play structure is designed to engage and educate children on polar bears and other northern species. It contains motion-themed activities, including a moving ice-mass floor that responds to footsteps, an ice cave with hidden messages, a responsive aurora borealis wall and a wall-sized icicle xylophone.

The new facility will be open today and is included in the admission fee to the zoo.

Meanwhile, Winnipeggers will be able to take a peek at the zoo's new attraction -- Hudson -- soon. The 15-month-old, 185-kilogram polar bear cub, which arrived at the zoo this week, is now getting acclimatized to his new surroundings. "We hope (Hudson will be on display) within the next couple of weeks," Redmond said Friday.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2013 B3

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