Traversing a hilly portion of the 100-acre San Diego Zoo just got measurably easier, thanks to the recent Friday of a long-planned pedestrian bridge linking the west and east sides of the Balboa Park attraction.
Canopy Bridge, as it is being called, is elevated 70 feet above the canyon floor and spans 450 feet between Elephant Odyssey on the west and the Treeptops area near Gorilla Tropics. Construction began 11 months ago.
Not only does the footbridge shave time off the walk between the front and back of the zoo, but it also bypasses a longer, circuitous route through hills and canyons that is not easily accessed by individuals with disabilities.
Conceived some 40 years ago, the $14 million project is the realization of a dream by zoo architect David Rice, who wanted to find a way to more easily span the canyon that bisects the zoo.
"Like so much of San Diego, there are mesas and canyons in the zoo," explained Rice, corporate director of architecture for San Diego Zoo Global. "Historically, there have been lots of efforts to help the guests get around, like the buses and Skyfari. But the bridge makes it really convenient now, and it's also an important aspect of our accessibility plan."
He noted that the zoo has long had moving sidewalks in the area, but they were too narrow and steep to be truly accessible.
"As we continue to rebuild the zoo and build new exhibits, this new bridge will tie all these things together, so you now have a couple of minutes walk vs. a 20-minute walk up and down."
The bridge's debut coincides with the recent opening of the first phase of Africa Rocks, an 8-acre, $68 million project that will eventually be home to birds, reptiles, plants and mammals native to Africa, including Hamadryas baboons, West African dwarf crocodiles, vervet monkeys, baboons and lemurs.
Only the first phase – the African penguins habitat – has so far opened. Unlike Africa Rocks, which relied heavily on private donations, the bridge was largely funded by zoo revenues, said Chief Operating Officer Shawn Dixon.
There is still more ancillary work to be done to complete the bridge project. Under construction are three large passenger elevators and looping staircases that will help take zoo visitors from Panda Canyon to the bridge itself. Those are expected to open within the next few months, along with a new food kiosk in the canyon.
Each elevator can accommodate up to 27 people, and the stairs are 5 feet wide, which will allow for two-way traffic. There will also be plaza areas on the lower and upper levels of the elevator tower.
In addition to easing access around the zoo, the bridge could become something of an attraction, affording vistas of downtown, the panda and penguin habitats and the waterfalls of Africa Rocks.
"The zoo's CEO Doug Myers has said to me, 'Man, you're getting me all these big views at Safari Park that we never had before, but there aren't big views at the zoo,' except for Skyfari," Rice said. "From the bridge, you get some really big views now, so it's more than the functional aspect, it's an experience unto itself."
As an added bonus during the summer months when the zoo remains open later, visitors will be entertained with millions of bubbles released from the Canopy Bridge.
The new nighttime show, Bubble Light Spectacular, will include live music, colored lights, fog and simulated lasers.
Bubble machines will also be activated at the Treetops Cafe in Gorilla Tropics, Elephant Odyssey Plaza and Hua Mei Cafe in Panda Canyon. The show lasts 15 minutes and starts 1 hour before the zoo closes, through September 4.