Aug. 08--ST. LOUIS -- Make no mistake. Zoos are competitive.
So when the traveler's website TripAdvisor came out with its first list of the top 10 zoos this week, it quickly made the rounds.
"San Diego beat us again?" asked St. Louis Zoo parking lot attendant Omar Hines. "We had them beat at first. They must have made some changes."
Indeed, the well-regarded San Diego Zoo stole the slot right above St. Louis, as it sometimes has on similar lists. The surprise this time, however, wasn't San Diego, which often shares international recognition with St. Louis, but instead, a zoo in Nebraska.
The Henry Doorly Zoo, about 10 minutes south of downtown Omaha, nabbed the top spot in TripAdvisor's Travelers' Choice awards. San Diego took second, St. Louis third.
"How?" asked Robyn Ramos, from Rolla, Mo., visiting the zoo here on Thursday. "I don't understand that. We've been there. I didn't like it."
Reviews on TripAdvisor, however, called Doorly "breathtaking," touting the sky tram, jungle rope bridge, waterfalls and aquarium. "With all the new updates, this is by far the best zoo I have been to," wrote one reviewer. "I love the cats, the penguins, the gorilla valley, the skyfari -- everything."
Omaha zoo staffers didn't return multiple phone calls seeking comment.
But the truth is, it's difficult to quickly distinguish between the Omaha and St. Louis zoos, judging by animal exhibits alone.
Sea lions? Check. African wild dogs? Yep. Penguins and stingrays? Yes to both.
Omaha might have a leg up in a few categories: It boasts the world's largest indoor desert, housed under the world's largest glazed geodesic dome. Visitors can walk through a 70-foot shark tunnel -- much like the one at St. Louis' Sea Lion Sound -- under a 900,000-gallon salt-water tank.
But it clearly loses in another: Omaha costs $15 to get in. (San Diego is $46.) St. Louis is still ticketless.
TripAdvisor began its Travelers' Choice awards 12 years ago in the hotel market, said company spokeswoman Julie Cassetina. The program got so popular, TripAdvisor decided to expand. This year, the company gathered reviews for the best beaches, islands, amusement parks, aquariums -- and zoos.
To identify winners, TripAdvisor tallied all reviews submitted on its site (anyone can write one), and used a secret algorithm to score them. Consumers rate each institution from one to five "bubbles." Zoos with high "bubble ratings" and a high number of reviews scored the best, Cassetina said.
St. Louis landed more than 2,300 reviews, averaging 4.5 bubbles per critique. San Diego averaged 4.5 bubbles -- out of 8,100 reviews.
But Omaha scored the best: Its 1,700 reviews averaged five bubbles each.
It's all good fun, said St. Louis Zoo President and Chief Executive Jeffrey Bonner. Still, ranking zoos is a little like ranking universities: How do you choose between Harvard and Yale?
San Diego has the best research program, Bonner said. The Bronx Zoo has the best conservation organization. And the St. Louis Zoo, he said, "is the best visitor experience of any zoo in the world."
Henry Doorly is an excellent zoo, he said. But think about the other attractions in Omaha. No Cardinals baseball. No Gateway Arch. No Anheuser-Busch. "It has to be on the top of the list," Bonner said, laughing. "The Omaha Zoo is the single-most important institution in Omaha."
St. Louis Zoo staffers and visitors contacted Thursday were happy to see their zoo make the list.
But did they, perhaps, wish it had made first, not third?
"I haven't heard anybody say it," said carnivore manager Rachael Macy, watching the zoo's wild dogs jump and snap in the rain, "but I'm sure we all had that thought in our heads."
David Hunn covers public projects & cultural institutions. Follow him on Twitter @davidhunn.
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