Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Visitors to the San Antonio Zoo this fall will have a new entertainment option in the form of the relocated Kiddie Park, which will open Oct. 18 adjacent to the zoo’s entrance, as well as a new 600-spot parking garage.
The familiar arched sign from the 94-year-old Kiddie Park has accompanied the vintage rides from the amusement park’s old location on Broadway to Brackenridge Park. When the zoo agreed to take over operations of the longtime amusement park, it originally planned to put the 1920s-era attraction near a bend of the San Antonio River, but the Brackenridge Park Conservancy objected.
The zoo eventually moved Kiddie Park to a different spot in its boundaries, taking over a small parking lot near the roundabout by the zoo. Conservancy Executive Director Lynn Osborn Bobbitt said she would be attending Kiddie Park’s grand opening.
“The Brackenridge Conservancy had several more conversations with Tim [Morrow, zoo president and CEO] and the zoo representatives about our appreciation of them moving away from this sensitive area and bend in the river,” Bobbitt said. “The City was involved in the conversations and helped make that happen, too. I hope it will be successful where it is, and I’m looking forward to visiting the park.”
Bob Aston owned Kiddie Park for 30 years before selling it to Rad Weaver, CEO of McCombs Partners, in 2010. Aston said he’s ready to see the rides in their new location, but he’s most excited to see the wooden carousel up and working again. The carousel turns 101 this year, he said – a piece of history.
“It’s handmade, and there are very few of them,” he said. “They’re becoming unique. Those kinds of carousels are not in private parks. They’re in places like Six Flags, SeaWorld, big places, because they’re so expensive so little parks can’t afford to buy one like that.”
Aston’s mother-in-law celebrated her second birthday at Kiddie Park in 1929, he said. Aston added that seeing the zoo and City work to preserve the park is a great honor to the work he put into it.
“When I bought Kiddie Park, it was a roadside carnival,” Aston said. “You could walk into any ride, they didn’t have any gates or fences anywhere. I built all those fences. I turned it into an amusement park. And Rad and Ashley [Weaver] turned it into a corporate enterprise.
“I’m the one person that lived Kiddie Park. I’m the only owner that lived that park, and I lived it for a long time. … I had a mobile home there with a trailer and a bed and a bunk bed. Once in a while, if it was too late to go home and I had the kids, we’d spend the night there.”
Morrow said the zoo did its best to maintain the authenticity of Kiddie Park.
“It’s going to look a lot the same,” he said. “We didn’t refinish the roofs or refinish the fences or the rides. They have aged and that creates a charm we didn’t want to diminish.”
Visitors to Kiddie Park and the zoo will have expanded parking options when a highly anticipated garage opens around the same time as Kiddie Park, Morrow said. Construction on the Tuleta Drive garage is scheduled to be complete the week of Oct. 15.
“One of the nice things about that project is it created a sidewalk from Stadium Drive to [Brackenridge] park,” Morrow said. “People walking up the hill from parking spaces, they [previously] had to go into the streets, with no sidewalks. One of the big things we’re excited about [with] the garage is the actual sidewalk.”
The new garage was a result of park stakeholders working together to get funding from the 2017 municipal bond, Bobbitt said.
“We understand parking is a problem, particularly on that side of the park,” she said. “We all requested the funds. … This is very important and is part of the overall [Brackenridge Park] master plan.”
Last month the zoo also finalized an agreement with Starbucks to transform the historic Train Cafe, located across North St. Mary’s Street from the zoo entrance, into a coffee shop. This is the second Starbucks at a zoo in the United States; the Saint Louis Zoo opened its Starbucks in 2018. Morrow said the way people used the Train Cafe side of the park showed the zoo it was time to think about changing its purpose.
“It’s not meant to be a restaurant anymore,” he said. “We asked ourselves, what’s something that people can easily grab and carry with them, that’s good all times of the day, all seasons? And a coffee shop came to the front of mind and Starbucks [was chosen] because of their brand strength. You can get summer coffees, hot coffees, stuff for kids, small hand-sized meals.
“We’re going to serve a diverse community, including general park visitors that come to Brackenridge Park.”
The new Starbucks location, which is scheduled to open by the end of the year, will feature a mural of Sumatran animal wildlife and plants and photos of zoo animals throughout the interior, Morrow said. The zoo plans to keep the coffee shop open outside the operating hours of the zoo.
“There’s a different crowd after the zoo closes,” Morrow said. “A lot of people run here, bike here, a lot of students [are] around us. We’re interested in seeing how it does late in the evening. The park closes at 11 technically but we talked about was, ‘Hey, during [college?] finals weeks, can we be 24/7 if students want to be at Starbucks 24/7? Those are all things we are talking about.”
The zoo also started a naming campaign on Tuesday for its new mascot, a rhino. Potential names include “Sazoombi,” “Shaka,” and “Crash.” Voting ends on Oct. 21.
The zoo’s logo features the giraffe and the rhino, two species the zoo is working to save from the risk of extinction, Morrow said.
“It’s fitting to unveil the rhino as our first-ever mascot who will educate and spread awareness not only here at the zoo, but around San Antonio,” he said.