If you've ever dreamed of having a sleepover at Assiniboine Park Zoo, you can make it happen at the Journey to Churchill exhibit when it opens next year.
The amazing domed Aurora Borealis Theatre, with northern lights projected on the ceiling and encircled by a 360-degree film screen with an adjoining kitchen, will be used after zoo hours for receptions and group events such as school or community group sleepovers.
The still-under-construction, four-hectare spectacle is designed to make visitors feel they have been transported to the Arctic and the Hudson Bay coast.
'This is going to be the No. 1 Arctic and polar bear exhibit in the zoo world anywhere, internationally, and that's really appropriate for Winnipeg and for Manitoba' -- Don Peterkin, the zoo's chief operations officer
"This is going to be the No. 1 Arctic and polar bear exhibit in the zoo world anywhere, internationally, and that's really appropriate for Winnipeg and for Manitoba," said Don Peterkin, the zoo's chief operations officer, who treated media members to a sneak peek of the exhibit Thursday.
"It will help put us on the map and help enhance the reputation of Manitoba as the polar bear capital of the world," Peterkin said.
There are three polar bear exhibits with room for at least six polar bears. The space in those habitats is 30 times larger than the old habitat for Debby, the zoo's former bear who was the world's oldest polar bear when she died at age 42 in 2008.
There's a 21.3-metre-long Sea Ice Passage where people can walk through a three-metre-wide acrylic tunnel surrounded by water and watch seals and polar bears, separated by a nearly invisible barrier, swimming overhead.
When the exhibit opens in June 2014, visitors will experience a variety of landscapes such as tundra, boreal forest and ice. There are jaw-dropping details such as natural barriers of water and artificial rock formations between animal species in the Wapusk Lowlands. A number of different animals can be seen at once from a single vantage point.
"You will have a layered effect (with the exhibits), you won't see fences and mesh, all the things you are accustomed to seeing with zoo exhibits," Peterkin said. "If the animals happen to be standing in the right place, you'll see arctic fox in the foreground, muskox in the middle, polar bears sniffing the air behind with no apparent barriers between them. That's the experience we are trying to create for people."
But make no mistake, the polar bears are going to be the stars of this show.
"There is no polar bear facility like this anywhere in the world," said Brian Joseph, the director of zoological operations. "It is an incredibly diverse environment with vegetation, rock structures, water (and) vistas where they can see animals that would be potential prey animals. It's going to be the most stimulating environment polar bears have had. It also is going to be the most flexible environment for them, so it's a quantum leap in polar bear exhibitry."
The $6-million education and interpretive components include the expected interactive and audio-visual aspects and the unexpected, such as a partially buried artificial bowhead whale skeleton children can work on digging up.
Visitors will come away with a deeper understanding of the importance of biodiversity, conservation and the effects of climate change.
Details in landscape and vegetation include paving stone paths winding through the exhibit designed to look like cracked ice and trees planted to look scrubby as they would up north.
"This is what a zoo has to become," Peterkin said. "If we are not prepared to make the investments, then we quickly become irrelevant in the modern community. It's important that we retain our position and take a leadership role."
Peterkin said the price tag for the Journey to Churchill exhibit is $90 million, which includes the new south gate, food services, an underground electrical system, sewer and water lines that will support future developments.