Wildlife Explorers Basecamp: Engaging Young Minds at the San Diego Zoo

Read Time: 5 minutes

How can designers combine the physical and the digital to create seamless visitor experiences within a zoo environment? SEGD member firm Ideum faced this challenge in designing the new Wildlife Explorers Basecamp at the renowned San Diego Zoo. Designed specifically with kids in mind, Ideum and the San Diego Zoo combined technology-driven interactives and immersive environments with more traditional animal displays to engage visitors both emotionally and intellectually.

They’re not exactly cuddly creatures—reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects and arachnids—but all play important roles within the Earth’s ecosystems. How, then, can zoos encourage an appreciation for these less-than-loved—and sometimes feared—animals, especially with kids?

At the San Diego Zoo, curators partnered with designers at Ideum (Corrales, NM) and the architecture firm HGW (San Diego, CA) to create the Denny Sanford Wildlife Explorers Basecamp. This collection of animal displays includes interpretative elements geared towards the learning styles of children housed within two new buildings on the Zoo’s campus.

“We really wanted to focus on these typically overlooked species and just how important they are to the environment—and how beautiful some of these tiny little guys can be,” says Kim Gray, PhD, zoology curator and turtle specialist with the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. “They’re not something you typically come to a zoo to seek out. We really wanted to highlight just how amazing these species are and give people of all ages an opportunity to come and explore.”

“We had to find a way to get people interested in these animals and understand why they are important—and perhaps even to try to generate some empathy,” says Jim Spadaccini, Founder of Ideum, whose firm designed more than 20 exhibits inside the Wayfinders Explorers Basecamp. “The zoo had a very strong mission and concept of how this could work.”

To make the concept a reality, Jim worked with Kim and others at the Zoo to create the “basecamp” model, where kids and teenagers (and even adults) explore the world of these creatures through live animal displays, immersive environments and digital interactives. The exhibits celebrate the diversity of the animals while engaging kids in dynamic play/learning settings throughout the two buildings.

Stepping inside the Art and Danielle Engels “Cool Critters” building, visitors first enter an immersive environment titled the “Living River” and embark on an underwater journey. Jim and his team designed the LED light structure which projects images of waves on the ceiling, creating the illusion that guests are beneath the surface of the riverway. In this space guests discover the zoo’s collection of aquatic reptiles and amphibians (the ectothermic or “cool” creatures referenced in the building’s title) alongside Ideum-designed digital interactives.

“The space really sets the mood as you get started on your journey,” says Jim.

On the building’s second floor, zoo visitors meet arboreal reptiles and a few of the animals that live alongside them, including monkeys and tropical birds. Here, visitors can also peek inside one of the zoo’s kitchens where staff prepare food for the animals.

“As we’re making the food, we can talk to the guests about the different kinds of food that reptiles eat,” says Kim. “Nearby is the Microscope Station where guests can see teeth and all the different unique adaptations that reptiles have to eat.”

Ideum designed and custom fabricated the microscope stations, as well as the other digital interactives woven throughout “Cool Critters,” including touchscreen tables where visitors can learn more about different species of reptiles and amphibians and the conservation efforts to help save some of these species. 

“These interactives fit within the basecamp model where kids are active participants,” says Jim. “They’re exploring and learning as they’re connecting with these animals.”

Next door, inside The McKinney Family “Spineless Marvels” building, the Zoo presents its invertebrate collections (insects and arachnids). Part of the visitor experience here involves bringing humans down-to-size with various creatures in their natural habitats, including the Ideum-designed “Migration” environment.

“In the insects building, a big part of the story is told with the ‘Migration’ scene where there’s a ‘Honey-I-shrunk-the-kids’ kind of a moment,” explains Jim. “The experience immediately puts you on an even plane with the insects themselves.”

In the Migration exhibit, visitors walk through a scaled-up meadow scene which stretches to the perimeters of the space. Above, a domed ceiling features projected images of insects flying through the sky. Here, visitors observe migrating butterflies, flashing fireflies, and other elusive creatures as the setting changes from day to night. Surround sound—and even the smell of flowers and grass—complete the experience.

“With most interactives, it’s more about sight and sound and maybe touch, but we included smell in a few different places,” says Jim. “In the Migration scene there’s a Spring Meadow fragrance and in the ‘Mole Rat Encounter’ a dirt smell. So, I think the smells are super important and add more depth to the experience and make things more interesting.”

According to Jim, coordinating all the smells, sounds, projected visuals, custom fabricated interactive stations, and 50 digital sign monuments—across two buildings—presented a challenge for Ideum.

“One of the biggest challenges was the scale and scope of the project with so many exhibits, and making sure we integrated and packaged it all together into a robust and easy to use system,” says Jim.

To do this, Ideum used a comprehensive content management system (CMS) to control all the elements and keep everything synchronized. The result helps create a seamless visitor experience inside the Wildlife Explorers Basecamp where the technology works alongside the animal displays.

“We partnered with Ideum to ‘think outside the box’ and try to engage all ages in a new way,” says zoologist Kim. “We really wanted to utilize the new technologies to stimulate their senses using different multimedia and the (technological) tools in our toolbox to showcase and highlight these amazing species.”

And the San Diego Zoo will have that opportunity to engage visitors in new ways when the Wildlife Explorers Basecamp opens to the public February 2022. Stay tuned for updates!