Kids in wheelchairs blended with kids in strollers at the Kansas City Zoo on Friday for the opening of what is said to be the first inclusive playground at any zoo in the country.
The Variety KC Exploration Play Area has zip lines, swings and other activities designed to accommodate children with special needs.
Scores of T-shirts were printed with the mantra of the day: "Helping every kid be active, be social and belong."
"A zoo can be a source of memories for so many families," said Heath Burch, chairman of Variety of Greater Kansas City. "But the truth is not every child has the opportunity to enjoy a zoo. "
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The zoo had planned to create a nature-themed play area in this underused section between the hippos and the baboons. But the zoo partnered with Variety to make it welcoming for kids with a disability. The Dixon Family Foundation, the Courtney S. Turner Charitable Trust and the Logan Foundation also contributed to the $800,000 project.
Part of the zoo contribution came from the zoo taxing district that includes Jackson and Clay counties.
The Zoo Learning Fund also provided a grant to develop a free app called Sensory Friendly Kansas City Zoo.
Royals charities on Friday announced a $50,000 gift to buy wheelchair-friendly golf carts for the zoo. Pitcher Danny Duffy and Royals mascot Sluggerrr also dropped by.
"This is close to my heart, man," Duffy said. "These kids are amazing and it's important to include them in everything.... As a kid growing up I was blessed with the ability to get around and play sports and not even think twice about it. I never really had to think about what it would be like if I couldn't."
Just as important as opportunities for physical activity, the play area also has a quiet zone that overlooks the lagoon with views of grazing giraffe and zebra.
Whitney Dawson of Lawson, Mo., was at the zoo Friday with her 7-year-old daughter, Lexi, who uses a wheelchair. Dawson was grateful for the inclusive play area and said it will make future zoo visits a better experience.
"There aren't places like this," Dawson said. "They don't exist. It's like a secret world, kind of, that we live in. And people don't think about it because if you don't have a kid with special needs you don't really know. It's very important."