The Minnesota Zoo is quietly preparing to launch a massive expansion campaign costing hundreds of millions of dollars, continuing the zoo's shift from its original focus on conservation and education toward a future as a family entertainment destination.

The master plan approved by the zoo's governing board late last year calls for a sprawling new Africa trail with lions, giraffes and hippos, as well as a high-end events center overlooking a domed orangutan forest. It would be phased in over the course of years as funding becomes available, with the first phase costing an estimated $50 million.

The plans, some of them still not sharply defined, also include features and activities ranging from camel rides to elevated zip lines to a high-end destination restaurant.

The zoo expects to pay for these new features through an unspecified mix of private donations, additional state aid, an increase in admissions fees that are already steep by industry standards, and additional fees charged for many of the new offerings.

Zoo director Lee Ehmke cautions that some elements of the plan are years away and could change, but he says the zoo is aiming to build on its recent success by finally adding some of the bread-and-butter species of a major zoo.

"This plan delivers that — something dreamed of by the founders some 40 years ago, but never realized," Ehmke said.

"When this is done, you will be definitely competing for top five in the country," said Allen Nyhuis, co-author of "America's Best Zoos." "It will be an alternative for Minnesotans to the big theme parks, the Disney Worlds, but without being a flight away, without the hotel stay, and it won't be $100 a day just to get in."

But some of the pay-to-play features contemplated for the Apple Valley zoo can cost hundreds of dollars at other zoos. That could trigger a backlash among consumers who already see the Minnesota Zoo as a costly outing.

"I have friends with three or four kids, or six kids, who never go there now because it's too expensive," said Shannon Martin of Eagan. "Already I'm asking, why am I paying extra for parking and the monorail? ... When we pass the gift shop with our 6-year-old, it's 'Do you really want that or do you want to eat lunch here? Because you have to pick.' "

The Minnesota Zoo is a state agency; about 29 percent of its roughly $25 million operating budget is public funding, and the state has provided tens of millions for major capital projects, such as new exhibits.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who heads a key zoo funding committee, said she has great confidence in Ehmke and supports his vision but probably wouldn't want state money going into high-end installations that visitors would have to pay extra to enjoy.

Ehmke said the pressure to develop revenue is intense. State support has been flat or declining; the zoo is modestly below the average level of subsidy for zoos like his. Income-earning features such as aquatic dives and safari camping are a major part of the plan, he said.

Measuring up

Ehmke was viewed as one of most gifted exhibit designers in the nation when he came to Minnesota from New York's Bronx Zoo 13 years ago. Since then, he has focused on improving the core elements of the Minnesota Zoo, drawing $75 million from the state and from donors. He's not quite done: This year Ehmke is seeking $26 million to revamp the snow monkey exhibit, among other things.

Despite those accomplishments, internal zoo documents acquired by the Star Tribune suggest zoo officials believe it does not stack up well against its rivals.

A spreadsheet comparing the Apple Valley zoo to nine "comparable large zoos" in the northern states, from Oregon to Philadelphia, finds it has some of the highest prices — and among the fewest memberships and per-capita admissions.

To remedy that, Ehmke is turning to the hundreds of undeveloped and underdeveloped acres around that core. The question is not only what to do, but also how to finance it. And there's no doubt the answer in many zoos is extra fun for extra fees.

At the Dallas Zoo, it's $5 a rider to mount a camel. At San Diego, safari camping can run $260 per person. At Orlando, a zip line family pack is $150.

Alan Sironen, an Ohio zoo consultant and former curator at the Cleveland Zoo, said a new era of premium add-ons should be seen as "reaching out to a whole different audience" when public funding is questionable.

"We're talking about the business community, about parents who can't afford an actual safari but could afford a night's stay — it's touching a different level of people. A really nice restaurant could be a totally unique place to eat, or go out on a date."

Kahn, while reluctant to see state support going toward features that may be too pricey for some visitors, applauds zoo management for its efforts to drum up excitement. "The early years, they were just impossible," she said. "They didn't want anything to do with public enjoyment. It was all just conservation."

Notes from planning sessions suggest that zoo officials are well aware of the tension between profits and a more high-minded focus on conservation and the environment.

They oscillate from calls to let it all hang out ("We're fun, damn it!") to reminders that the zoo must respect the sensibilities of its clients ("Don't forget this is Minnesota").

To Africa and beyond

Arguably the central paradox of the Minnesota Zoo — and a reason it gets subpar ratings from zoogoers on a review website such as TripAdvisor — is that it's expensive compared to peer zoos without offering a lot of the standard zoo species.

"We checked once and among the 20 zoos with the largest attendance, we were the only one that didn't have giraffes," Ehmke said.

The new master plan introduces giraffes, antelopes, rhinos, hippos, lions and cheetahs. Another major change would come at Discovery Bay, where the marquee dolphin exhibit closed recently. The new plans call for sting rays and potentially an array of other species.

And with a giraffe feeding platform, tented camp on the African grasslands and scuba outings, the plan proposes plenty of ways to turn the new animals into extra revenue.

But the zoo's internal documents serve as a reminder that it has a checkered history with attractions that were supposed to bring in more revenue.

They contain scathing assessments of the monorail, which the zoo plans to scrap this year amid declining use, and the independently owned Imax theater, which looms above the entrance but doesn't contribute a dime toward the zoo's bottom line.

"Good intentions, but clearly the original investors didn't get the return they were looking for because they sold it at a loss," Ehmke said. "It never generated the anticipated traffic."

Documents show that zoo officials also understand that large, flashy expansions come with their own set of risks, including costly additions to keep the crowds coming once an initial burst of curiosity has been satisfied.

Millions are being spent even now to overhaul the decaying Discovery Bay, which opened in 1997. It's a reminder that the zoo in some sense is never "done": It keeps needing funds.

Risks will be controlled, Ehmke said, by working in careful, deliberate phases, and always looking for ways to make the zoo more self-sufficient. Before it formally seeks money for things like African exhibits, it is already working on moneymaking ventures such as a carousel and an "adventure play" zone featuring a treetop-clearing zip line.

"I guess if they want to add all those things but not raise the price of general admission, that would be fine ... " said Libby Rasmussen of Burnsville, "but it does annoy me already how much the zoo seems to be asking for your money at every turn. They have mini gift shops throughout the zoo, they have food and ice cream stands everywhere. I think they should keep it more of an educational experience."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285