A new spin on an old favorite

Brookfield Zoo's new carousel opened for business last weekend

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By CHRIS STACH

Now, at the Brookfield Zoo, you can leap with a lion, jump with a jaguar, zoom on a zebra, and sit on a cicada. Also, bounce with a bison, and relax on a rhino. And it's all perfectly safe.

The people at the zoo can call their new attraction by its fancy name of a "carousel," but the kids, and, probably even most adults will call it a plain old merry-go-round. But it is far from being plain, and it certainly isn't at all old. In fact, it is the probably the most recently constructed carousel in the entire country, featuring animal figures from A to Z: Anteaters to Zebras.

Having officially opened at 9:45 a.m. on Saturday, May 27, the Brookfield Zoo Carousel spins 72 animal figures and three chariots. The latter are sitting benches that do not go up and down. Both animals and chariots are not constructed out of cast aluminum, or even more modern fiberglass, as you might expect. Instead, they are carved in the old-fashioned manner, out of wood. What kind of wood? Basswood, which is produced from the good old American linden trees, of which there are several examples in Brookfield.

The zoo believes that their carousel is the "largest non-restored hand-carved carousel in the country." Just for comparison, I investigated the carousels in the Fantasylands of Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

The King Arthur Carousel in Disneyland has 72 horses on it, and only horses. Walt Disney World's Cinderella's Golden Carousel has a whopping 90 horses on it, but, once again, only horses. And both carousels have been restored. So yes, Brookfield Zoo does, indeed, appear to be the "largest non-restored hand-carved carousel in the country." In fact, it may even be the newest carousel only featuring carved zoo animals. Horses appear to be a recurring theme.

The zoo carousel is located on the park's North Mall, a short distance from the main entrance off 31st Street. Visitors entering from the north will see the five story high Carousel building first, while visitors from the south entrance must go further into the park to see it. Atop the building is a lion weathervane, designed by Andy Murashige of the zoo's Graphic Arts Department, and installed on Tuesday, May 23.

Patrick VanDuyne has been the project manager of both the 94-foot-in-diameter, 12-sided, 54 foot high Pavilion covering the carousel, and also the entire construction site. VanDuyne stated that "the carousel animals began to be carved in February 2005. Weather has been a delaying factor. The steel foundations took two weeks, with five days to put on the roof, and another week for the shingles. In the last [recent] week, the roof's side windows and cupola were built. Another three weeks more of good weather, and even the carousel plaza will be finished."

The carousel, itself, boasts an impressive array of statistics. It is 54 feet in diameter, weighs 20 tons and has 819 light bulbs. It took the Carousel Works, Inc. of Mansfield, Ohio, 35 to 40 hours to carve each animal figure. General contractor and principal architectural firm was the Weber Group of Sellersburg, Ind., with architectural assistance and engineering from the Edwin Hancock Engineering Company of Westchester.

The carousel is something of a wooden Noah's Ark, with two of each kind of animal bobbing up and down, or remaining motionless. Still, there are some exceptions. Three giant pandas‚Ä"-two are sucking on green bamboo shoots, and one has bitten off a piece‚Ä"-are available for riding. Also, there are only one each of these animals: the camel, giraffe, okapi, sloth bear and warthog. Otherwise, it is quite ark-like. Animals for this ark were chosen by asking zoo guests, who voted mostly for the dolphin, elephant, giraffe, lion and tiger.

Assembling the carousel was a nine-month long process, including hand carving and painting the animals, hand painting the decorative boards along the top of the carousel, and building the safety railing, ticket-taking station and the driving mechanism.

Incredible as it may seem, the zoo states that the highly energy-efficient carousel "floats on a 12-inch bearing," and has an umbrella-like wire system that supports the oak flooring and animals from above. This is all "belt-driven by only a 15-horsepower motor." Just by pulling on one of the three drive belts, the carousel could be put into motion.

The ride lasts from 2.5 to 3 minutes, and goes at a speed of about 3 mph. Mike Wisniewski, project manager for the carousel, said, "We can fit 5,000 people a day on this ride. Maybe 10,000 to 12,000 on a nice summer day. As it is a new attraction, we expect that ridership will be higher during the first year [of its operation]. It can hold another 10 tons of people. The carousel building and plaza [at $1.3 million] cost more than the carousel [at $700,000]."

The Carousel is not only a "fair weather" attraction. Explained Wisniewski, "We have radiant heaters in here, and could use any one of a variety of ways to enclose the carousel during the winter months, when it will still be in operation."

A single ride on the carousel costs $2.50, ($1.50 for zoo members) to board any one of the 72 animals of their choice, or sit on one of the three chariots of their choice.

Want to have free rides on the carousel through the year 2015? It can happen. Individuals and families can sponsor the animals and chariots on the carousel. It will cost $15,000 for an animal on one of the two outer rows, or $10,000 for an animal on one of the two inner rows. For one of the three chariots, the cost is $15,000.

While it is true that kids will have the most fun riding the colorful animals, adults can have their turns, too. Grown-up riders can weigh as much as 250 pounds, as long as they, like the kids, are at least 42 inches tall. Children under 42 inches in height must be accompanied by a standing adult, who may ride at no extra charge.

Five revolving, hand-powered "star wheels," located around the Carousel, allow guests of all ages to learn more about the featured animal figures. Twenty-one hand-painted panoramic mural sections called "rounding boards" are at the tops of the outer perimeter of the carousel.

Each mural board is separated from the next by a three dimensional peacock carving. The mural subjects are of places at the Brookfield Zoo, such as the Perching Bird House, the Living Coast, the Salt Creek Wilderness, the Hamill Family Play Zoo, the Bear Grottoes, the Pachyderm House, the Australian House, the Fragile Kingdom, both the Tropic Worlds of Africa and Asia and the Children's Zoo,

Boys may find themselves attracted the most to the green praying mantis, baying wolf, roaring lion, growling gorilla, snake on a log, and red-eyed cicada (who will be making his cyclical appearance next summer, 2007.) Girls may go for the pink flamingo, peacock, ladybug, dolphin, or a pair of seahorses. Or not. Anybody could like the giant pandas. And penguins are perfectly popular.

Now that summer vacation time is here, why not come on out and take a spin on the back of your favorite animal, on the zoo's newest attraction?

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