Zoos & Aquariums - Behind the Seas - November 2017


During the “S.E.A. Aquarium VIP Guided Tour,” kids get to visit the Discovery Touch Pool before the aquarium opens. (Credit: Resorts World Sentosa)


VIP tours at zoos and aquariums bestow exclusive and guided backstage access to animal care

by Keith Miller

In recent years, VIP tours at major theme parks have gained much notice because of not only the select access and experiences they provide guests to the behind-the-scenes areas of parks, but also the tailored attention provided by expert personal guides. These programs are popular with guests and lucrative for the parks. However, much-less publicized but just-as-impressive VIP tour experiences are now offered by zoos and aquariums, providing the extraordinary opportunity for animal encounters.

Notably, most zoos and aquariums offer “animal experiences,” whereby guests can pay an additional cost on top of their admission fees to feed and touch giraffes, elephants, dolphins, fish, and other animals. But some facilities offer VIP tours that go far beyond this and allow guests, significant donors, and educational groups to go behind the scenes and see the nuts and bolts of how these facilities operate. These guided ventures often include private conversations with curators and animal specialists, plus some extraordinary access opportunities.

Some VIP tours cost hundreds of dollars and involve participants committing as much as eight hours or more of their time. In theme parks, participants are yearning to see what goes into creating the “magic” of popular and legendary rides and attractions. But what are they looking for at zoos and aquariums? Actually, it’s the same thing—except the attractions are living creatures.


“Behind the Seas” tours at the Georgia Aquarium show guests a “crashing wave” in the Indo-Pacific Barrier Reef habitat. (Credit: Georgia Aquarium)

“They want to go behind the scenes and discover what they can’t otherwise see—what goes into [housing] and caring for the animals,” says Roger Montiel, manager of guest programs at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. “They want to know what’s involved in making it all happen. They want the deeper picture.”

Officials at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, which offers guests a wide variety of different tours, say patrons also want access to the people who make it all happen. As a result, the zoo keeps the tour group sizes small to give guests plenty of one-on-one time with the zookeepers to ask specific questions about animal care. But they also note another factor with a strong appeal that shouldn’t be underestimated: the private selectiveness of these experiences in the eyes of participants. For instance, the zoo’s guests enjoy the exclusivity of its two premium tours—“Taronga’s Wild Australia Experience” and “VIP Aussie Gold Tour”—which offer an intimate look at the zoo’s Australian animals and how keepers care for them.

These zoos and aquariums say all of the guest appeal of these VIP tours can be summarized in one word: personalized. When guests are among hundreds or thousands in the general attendance throngs, they often feel lost in the crowds. The VIP tours purge that feeling.

“They truly enjoy the personalized service experience of the VIP tour, especially in an intimate setting,” suggests Shaiful Malek with Singapore’s Resorts World Sentosa, which offers an exclusive three-hour guided VIP tour to groups of just two to 10 guests in its S.E.A. Aquarium. “A maximum of just 10 persons allows easy exchange of information and enhanced learning. In the company of a guide, guests get to learn more about the animals, behind-the-scenes stories, and conservation efforts that regular walk-in guests may not experience.”

Sometimes this personalization can serve not only the guest, but the zoo, as well. The Toledo Zoo and Aquarium in Toledo, Ohio, offers numerous different backstage tours to visitors. But it also conducts these tours for its significant donors. “It’s important to include donors who have a long-lasting connection to the zoo,” says Shayla Moriarty, the facility’s director of communications. “They’re accompanied by animal curators or the director of animal collections. It lets them see how their money is being used and makes them feel a special bond to the zoo.”

A Truly Premium VIP Tour

On the VIP tours page of its website, the San Diego Zoo asks, “Looking for a journey to some of the most exclusive areas of the most famous zoo in the world?” Such a lead-in compels the zoo to provide an extraordinary tour experience … and that it does.

The VIP experiences allow guests to spend five hours or even a full eight-hour day behind the scenes. Starting at $690, the tours aren’t inexpensive, but they are comprehensive marathon experiences with a personal tour guide and provide visitors access to off‑exhibit areas, animal interactions, and great personalized service. They’re offered daily to participants age 3 and older and are customized to guest specifications.

Says San Diego Zoo Director Dwight Scott: “At the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, we have been offering special experiences almost since we were founded more than 100 years ago. [They] personalize the experience for the guests, offering them an opportunity to become involved and committed to our efforts to save species."

Extraordinary Tours Present Big Challenges

Zoos and aquariums face challenges with VIP tours that theme parks rarely encounter. These facilities house live animals, and some of them are very sensitive to changes in their environments, while others face extinction and must be handled cautiously. This can be as much for the guests’ safety as the animals.

“Because we have a living collection, any number of things throughout the day can change our tour routes,” says Montiel at the Georgia Aquarium. “First and foremost, safety is always a concern, so we let our guests know we’re in a true living and working environment and to be alert so no one gets hurt. Sometimes some areas may not be available, and guests are very understanding about that.”

Another challenge for zoos and aquariums with these backstage walkabouts is that the guides must be knowledgeable and trained in not only their facility’s operations, but about the animals, as well.  At the San Diego Zoo in California, the guides get some expert assistance. “Although we have trained guides who conduct most of the tours, they’re assisted by animal care staff that often spends time interacting with the guests, as well,” Zoo Director Dwight Scott tells Funworld. “Most of our guides have been with us for many years and have many stories to tell as they interact with tour groups.”

Though most tour guests are interested mainly in the animals and their care, these wildlife attractions must also satisfy those who are interested in the operations of the facility itself. Says Montiel, “We do have a good number of folks who want to know what the staff does, learn about the life-support systems, how we maintain our chilling and heating units, et cetera, and we try to give details to folks, too.”

If zoo and aquarium VIP tours are able to hit all the targets—exclusive access, select experiences with the animals, interaction with experts, and education about the facility and its operations—the reward is the development of an engaged core of guests and donors who are passionate supporters of these facilities’ success and objectives.

Zoo and Aquarium Tours at a Glance


Georgia Aquarium

The Georgia Aquarium consolidated all of its guest tours into a program called “Behind the Seas.” The premier VIP tour is a 90-minute guided backstage journey through its galleries, where guests look at the marine life and learn about research and conservation initiatives. Included are visits to the topside decks of the enormous Ocean Voyager exhibit, the Correll Center, commissary, and the Ocean Voyager filtration room, where equipment is housed to filter the habitat’s 6.3 million gallons. VIP tour guests receive an interactive session with an expert aquarist. The tour costs $550 for up to six guests and doesn’t include the cost of admission.


The Taronga Zoo

Several tours are offered at the Taronga Zoo, including a visit to the Wildlife Animal Hospital that provides an extensive look at the workings of the zoo’s world-class wildlife veterinary hospital. “Nura Diya” is the facility’s Aboriginal discovery tour, taking guests on a storytelling tour of the zoo featuring animal tales told through the perspective of an Aboriginal guide. The “VIP Aussie Gold Tour” provides an expert guide who introduces participants to Australia’s unusual wildlife. The group size is kept small to provide the opportunity for an intimate experience. The “Australian Walkabout Tour” takes visitors on a comprehensive journey from one end of the zoo to the other as an experienced guide escorts them through the best displays featuring the most exciting animals. Tours range in price from A$39.95 to A$129.95.


S.E.A. Aquarium at Resorts World Sentosa

The “VIP Guided Tour” is hosted by a professional guide who educates guests on the aquarium and its marine inhabitants. Attendees are allowed into the aquarium prior to general public admittance and are provided privileged access to back-of-house areas. The three-hour session is conducted in English and is limited to between just two and 10 guests. The tour costs S$46 to S$88, depending on age and whether the guest has other RWS memberships; advanced reservations are required.


Toledo Zoo and Aquarium

The Toledo Zoo and Aquarium features an impressive selection of nine behind-the-scenes tours offering guests an array of different experiences. One tour offers a look at the renovated aquarium’s 90,000-gallon Pacific Coral Reef, where guests feed more than 20 species of fish. This 45-minute visit takes place before the zoo opens and features marine species not on exhibit to the general public. It also shows guests the remarkable process that brings the aquarium to life each day. The “Elephant Training Session and Behind-the-Scenes Tour” provides guests a look at the zoo’s four African elephants and their care. The “Red Panda Behind-the-Scenes Tour” gives an extra-close look at three red pandas and their outdoor habitat in primate forest. Guests can meet and feed the red pandas during this 40-minute tour for up to six guests. Prices for these tours, which last 30 to 50 minutes, range from $30 to $65.