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Wildlife Prairie Park celebrates 45th birthday and emergence as a multi-day destination

A view of one of the cabins at Wildlife Prairie Park
Wildlife Prairie Park
Wildlife Prairie Park Facebook
A view of one of the cabins at Wildlife Prairie Park.

Wildlife Prairie Park is celebrating its 45th birthday this year, and CEO Roberta English said new animals, and potentially new cabins, are in the works.

“This year, our focus is bringing people into the park,” said English. “So, we definitely had a resurgence during COVID-19 where people couldn't do anything but be outside. So, it was a great opportunity for people to rediscover Wildlife Prairie Park who hadn't been there in a long time. So, we're just trying to keep that going, and just keep people engaged with the outdoors and nature.”

The 2,000-acre zoological park is home to many different animals, as well as a recreation and convention center, various types of lodging, seven lakes, a professional disc golf course, and hiking and biking trails. English is excited to bring new animals to the community very soon.

“It's been really two years in the making to bring this new pack of wolves to the park. And also, we have a pack of three cougars that are coming in the spring…we did a survey in the community, asked 10,000 people what do you want to see at Wildlife Prairie Park…the number one animal request was cougars, for sure,” noted English.

Roberta English, CEO of Wildlife Prairie Park
Jody Holtz
Roberta English, CEO of Wildlife Prairie Park

English said bringing in new animals is quite an undertaking. Besides finding them, the park’s employees have been hard at work making sure they have an adequate enclosure, which isn’t cheap.

“It's going to be over, you know, a little over $250,000 just for the materials and labor to put up the fencing and then we have other improvements that we have to do to the den, things like that,” explained English.

Funds for the project were acquired through the Forest Park Foundation and community donors.

In addition to the new animals, Wildlife Prairie Park has put attention into its lodging accommodations. Many of the cabins were built in 2020. English said 60% of people staying in the cabins have been from out of town, and the park had visitors from 33 states in 2021.

“We want Wildlife Prairie Park as well as Greater Peoria as a whole to be that destination place that attracts families from all over the Midwest,” English said. “We are prepared to build more cabins because you know, COVID, it’s waning down hopefully, and hotel occupancy in this area and in the country is increasing quite a bit. We expect that it will be back to normal by 2025… and Wildlife Prairie Park wants to be positioned to be able to reap the benefits from that, too.”

English said a good occupancy rate at the park is considered to be about 45%, which is around the threshold the park hit in 2020. She also noted that summer months could see occupancy levels around 65%.

“If we can maintain, you know, a good 12-month occupancy, that says to us…well maybe we need to offer cabins more,” said English.

While locals of the Greater Peoria area may be familiar with the park as a daytime attraction, English said Wildlife Prairie Park has grown into a multi-day destination for out-of-towners and Peorians alike.

“You could stay, you can fish one day and kayak, you can go see the animals a different day, you can take part in the programming, go to a wedding, all the things that you can do in this community, and you can do them at the park,” she said.

The park programming has grown over the years as well. Saturday morning yoga classes are offered in partnership with Soulside Healing Arts under the park’s current winter wellness series. There are educational classes, like Critters and Coffee, where adults are invited to dive deeper into the subject matter of a new animal every week, as well as other environmental topics. When the weather is a bit warmer, the park also offers guided hikes, and an outdoor concert series.

Looking ahead, English said the immediate challenge is reminding people about the park, increasing membership and visitors, and celebrating the park as a community gem. Since the park celebrates a birthday this year on Aug. 4, English wanted to remind people that Wildlife Prairie Park itself was a birthday gift to someone many years ago.

“This park was a birthday present from Bill Rutherford to his wife, Hazel,” English noted. “Wildlife Prairie Park is full of love, because it started with love…it is a present from us to the community, and we want to keep that love of our park going.”

For more information on Wildlife Prairie Park, visit the website.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant program and development director, All Things Considered host, as well as the producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.