From the moment visitors step into the newly remodeled entrance of the Indianapolis Zoo, they’re brought face to face with some of the unique animals they’ll soon encounter.

Larger-than-life giraffes, tigers, dolphins, alligators and more, cast out of steel, make up the new front gate at the zoo, inviting people to pass underneath into the natural wonders awaiting.

And almost immediately, guests have their first real animal experience.

“You can get close to something wonderful,” said Karen Burns, executive vice president of the zoo.

The Indianapolis Zoo unveiled its newly revamped entranceway, offering visitors an exciting and engaging way to arrive. The new entrance brings guests through the zoo’s gardens, a formerly hidden gem officials wanted to feature more prominently in the experience.

People can come face to face with parrots, sloths, snakes, aardvarks, pouched rats and other animals as they come in, before learning about the zoo’s vital conservation work all over the world.

The new area also sets the stage for Indianapolis’ next big addition — a one-of-a-kind chimpanzee habitat scheduled to open in 2024.

“We really tried to change the experience,” Burns said. “The former zoo experience, it was very transaction-based. You were walking into all of this stuff. We want this to be different — an opportunity to decompress.”

As visitors enter what’s known as the Indianapolis Colts Welcome Plaza, they come into White River Gardens. The natural area features colorful flowers and plants, as well as imaginative sculptures and bubbling fountains.

The gardens have been a part of the zoo for decades. But tucked in a corner of the property, few people came to explore its beauty, Burns said.

“These gardens have been here for 25 years. But people weren’t accessing them. Now, when you walk though, you’re in this space,” she said.

With live animal encounters, as well as access to the flitting, fluttering butterflies inside the Hilbert Conservatory, guests get a more personal feel for the work the zoo does.

One of the more unique aspects of the new entry experience is “Our Living Planet” — a series of short nature videos where people get up close to orangutans, elephants, gorillas, arctic foxes, bison and even some of the zoo’s own meerkats.

Those videos are projected inside a rotunda, giving people a 360-degree view of nature’s most majestic creatures.

”We have a total of 30 or more of these videos, and they’ll play every minute or two minutes, and get to have this cool experience before heading out to the next animal experience,” said Bill Street, senior vice president of the Indianapolis Zoo. “No matter how many times you come here, you’re likely always going to have a new video you haven’t seen before.”

But while the new entrance is designed to give people a fresh perspective upon entering the zoo, it also serves to highlight the ongoing conservation work originating within.

The newly opened Global Center for Species Survival, made possible with a grant from Lilly Endowment, is a partnership between the zoo and the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission. Inside the center, staff members support and connects thousand of conservation experts working to secure a future for animals, fungi and plants in more than 160 countries.

“We want people to have fun at the zoo, but we also want people to walk away with the understanding that you can do something to make a difference,” Burns said.

Other areas within the Global Center for Species Survival highlight the winners of the Indianapolis Prize, the world’s leading award for animal conservation.

“We want people to have a wonderful, inspirational entrance, to reset mentally, and then what we want to show them our mission and what we do around the world,” Burns said.

As visitors make their way from the center out to the main concourse, they get a glimpse of the next big thing to come to the Indianapolis Zoo. Earlier this year, the zoo launched its $53 million campaign for Our Zoo, Our Community, Our World, which funds major initiatives including the new guest welcome experience and entry.

In 2024, the campaign will fund the new International Chimpanzee Complex. The new habitat gives people a chance to see group of chimpanzees working together and interacting like never before.

“It definitely makes us one of the leaders in great ape stewardship,” said Chris Martin, research scientist at the Indianapolis Zoo. “The word we use a lot is ‘authentic’ behavior. We’re trying to recreate a realistic group of chimpanzees, which you don’t get in a zoo.”