Ready for fun
Saturday, April 25, 2009 7:00 AM
Brett Ashburn, left, and Shannon Osterholm, zookeepers at Blank Park Zoo, work on training the tortoises as part of the animals’ daily eating routine. Photo by Duane Tinkey
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Blank Park Zoo Fact
More than 350,000 people visited the zoo last year.
While Iowans look to summer for the excitement of a ballgame, roller-coaster ride or wild-animal show, these seasonal operations have been in high gear since at least the start of the year. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at how they prepare for their money-making months.
Blank Park Zoo
This time of year, the Blank Park Zoo staff may be wilder than the animals.
On a Tuesday afternoon in April, Anne Shimerdla, director of zoo operations and education, hired her last seasonal custodian and now will focus on training the 20 or so seasonal employees who will work in jobs such as gift shop cashiers, train drivers and ticket tellers. In addition, 12 interns - most of whom will work for free for experience - will join the zoo as soon as their college classes end to run all of the park's educational programs through the summer, after three weeks of training.
A huge portion of the zoo's concrete walkways were torn up and construction crews were working to repave them, running a bit behind their two-week schedule. With half of the zoo's exhibits off limits, a few patrons enjoyed half-price admission.
Some of the 18 full-time zookeepers went about their daily routine. A couple of them checked the new red panda exhibit near the main entrance, making sure it was safe and functioning well for the two new animals. The red pandas have been adjusting to their new environment since early this year and soon will be moved to a newly built outdoor space in time to be shown off to bigger crowds. By next winter, Shimerdla said, many of the new animals that were once shy will actually miss seeing people.
The zookeepers also worked on their daily routine of feeding all the animals, using it as a time to focus more on training while the animals don't have an audience to distract them. One effort involves teaching the tortoises to move toward a target made from a red-dyed baseball on a stick, with the goal of teaching them to move indoors from their outdoor pen when it gets cold. Zookeeper Brett Ashburn notes that when temperatures dip to a certain level, their reptile bodies slow down and it becomes difficult to move a 500-pound animal indoors.
The harbor seal and sea lions are fed three times a day, and each session includes training to build them up for two summer performances a day. This year, they have learned to take a plastic bottle and put it in a recycling bin, sending a conservation message to children.
Katie Borton, who joined the zoo as an intern this spring and will stay through the summer, spends her days cleaning pens, feeding animals and conducting programs, which include visiting schools or libraries with some of the animals and giving presentations to zoo visitors. The rest of her time is spent working with the animals, which can get especially difficult with a sassy parrot named Amboro, who tries to show off by spreading his wings or moving his head back and forth, "doing the Stevie Wonder," Borton said. It has taken Borton three months to get him to do those tricks.
Most of the painting and cleaning is finished, but the Oasis Café is still under repair. Heart of America Restaurants & Inns took over operations of the three concession stands and catering in March and will likely hire about 20 seasonal employees.
Preparing for more than 350,000 visitors to walk through the gates also leads to more unusual tasks, such as cleaning out the jellyfish tank every other winter. The continuous 24-hour process requires picking up each jellyfish by its bell, making sure no air pockets get into it, and moving the creatures to a new tank so that their main tank can be cleaned.
Though the zoo is open year-round, most of the 20,000 students who pass through the gates will arrive in May. The African exhibits, including the giraffes and zebras, will return outdoors, the flowers will be planted and many of the signs will be updated or replaced.
In the spring it goes from "planning into implementation," Shimerdla said.
The 25 full-time staff members of the Iowa Speedway have had their engines revved up full blast for 2009's opening weekend since the end of last season. By January, they had to hire additional marketing and sales staff and by the NASCAR East/West Challenge May 16-17, around 300 people will be handling parking, security, maintenance and everything else it takes to provide about 40,000 fans an entertaining weekend.
"We knew we were going to have a growth spurt," said Chuck Spicer, vice president of sales and marketing for the speedway. "We just didn't know it would be this much or this sudden."
Driving this charge is the addition of two major events - the NASCAR Nationwide Series and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series - giving the Iowa Speedway events in three of the four largest NASCAR racing series in North America.
"I think what's rare is we've only been in operations for three years and we've obtained these three sanctioning bodies and that's very unusual," Spicer said. The Newton track was built to be a world-class facility, Spicer said. "Now we're obtaining the races that put us in that category."
The season will feature six events - at least one for every month of the racing season - and each event weekend is packed not only with racing, but also concerts, carnivals and other attractions.
Adding the two major events has caused the speedway to hire additional staff to sell sponsorships to cover each event's expensive sanctioning agreement. The speedway will open an office at 10441 Hickman Road in Urbandale in May so that the sales and marketing staff can be closer to their Greater Des Moines clients.
The biggest challenge now has been securing sponsorships, but the speedway just signed Long John Silver's for the May 17 event only one month out. U.S. Cellular Corp. is sponsoring the Nationwide race, the biggest NASCAR event at the track.
One positive trend is that the number of season ticket holders has skyrocketed to 20,000 from 6,000 last year, with a deal of $99 per person and the addition of the two major events.
Last week, the speedway had a company-wide meeting to get everyone on board and ready for race day. By the actual event, 300 to 400 people will help manage 40,000 to 50,000 people. About 100 people alone will be on duty to handle fire and safety issues. A staffing company based in St. Louis hires the temporary help.
But despite the excitement about the racing season, Spicer notes that the speedway has events 200 days a year, including banquets, meetings and a driving school. "Honestly this year, it really has not slowed down much," he said.
The new electronic sign outside Principal Park flashes Game Day 12:05.
It's three hours before the first pitch and already the stadium is teeming with activity as 30 staff members and some seasonal help prepare to play ball. Two guys ask for applications for parking jobs at the front desk. The players are warming up on the field, while about 10 ushers are wiping down seats and sweeping aisles.
Al Carr, a retired school superintendent who still substitute teaches and drives a truck in addition to manning the section behind home plate, said in the three years he's been in "fan services," he has seen ESPN sports announcers, scouts and spectators wearing World Series rings in the prime seating area.
"You meet a lot of nice people," he said.
Inside the ballpark, a staff member is managing the one open ticket window and so far has had one customer picking up the 165 tickets ordered for a school outing. The grounds crew, which work under Iowa Cubs Sports Turf Management, is preparing to work on other properties the Iowa Cubs manage, including the James W. Cownie Soccer Complex. Deene Ehlis, director of broadcast operations and the official voice of the Iowa Cubs, who has been with the team for 20 years, is running between the press box and other locations in preparation for the game. Aaron Johnston, director of video productions, is up in the video booth working on graphics for the scoreboard. It takes about eight hours before a series of home games to get the opposing team's pictures up and other graphics ready.
The sales team is taking it easy after a busy winter of selling advertising, with deadlines as early as mid-January, but the staff is still working on selling a few advertising spots and group sales. Local sales are about where they were last year, said Melanie Doser and Nate Teut, who handle corporate sales, but the few national advertisers they would typically get from the Major League Baseball organization is down to one. During a game, the sales staff meets with clients and helps run various promotions.
In a room off of the main concourse, the stadium operations staff is checking in ushers, ticket sellers and parking attendants. A whiteboard lists the names of who will be coming in today and in what area they'll be working. Nineteen interns and about 100 part-time people will handle these tasks. A guy checks in and is told to start cleaning his seat section before a meeting in a half-hour.
By game day, especially a busy one like the season opener, which this year drew the second-highest opening-day crowd with about 9,500 people, more than 200 people will be on staff to handle all of the various tasks that must be done to make the game run smoothly. Some are college interns working in nearly every department; some will land full-time jobs by the time they graduate.
"It's a good place to work," Carr said.
With opening weekend last Friday, Adventureland is in full swing, expecting about 550,000 people to walk through its gates by the time the park closes in October.
"We hit the ground running as soon as we open," said Molly Vincent, director of advertising.
But activity really hasn't slowed down since the season ended for the 200 full-time employees who work at the park, campground and hotel, Vincent said.
"Once we close the books on one season, we hop right into working on next year," she said, with tasks such as ordering 250,000 stuffed animals and enough candy to refill the stores and coming up with new advertising and T-shirt designs - in addition to the usual painting and maintenance.
Adventureland also begins selling season passes around Thanksgiving, and this year the numbers are up, Vincent said. Every other year, the park also adds a new ride or attraction, which last year was the Kokomo Kove water park.
By January, Adventureland is working on putting everything in order for opening day, which includes hiring 1,200 to 1,500 seasonal staff, about half of whom are returning employees, often a mix of teenagers and retirees.
"People always ask us what we do all winter long and we wonder where the time went," Vincent said.
Saylorville Lake Marina
Last week, Saylorville Lake Marina LP was launching boats, getting the restaurant ready to open last Friday and repairing docks damaged by last summer's flooding.
People "are pretty anxious to get (their boats) in this year. It seems like we've got them calling us instead of us calling them," said General Manager Mike Slatterly, who is on his fourth summer working at the marina, going through an ownership change in 2007.
New this year, Brightwell's Boathouse plans to sell boats on the property in addition to providing cleaning and mechanical services. The restaurant will be under new management, with the name now changed to Latitude 41. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also will tear out the boat ramp and replace it, making it inaccessible for the season.
By the time temperatures warm up enough to attract big crowds, the marina will have 17 people on staff, including four full-time workers. The majority will work on the docks, pumping gas, running the store and renting out four pontoon boats. Maintenance staff will launch or pull boats out of the water and clean up the property.
Slatterly will spend his summer days organizing the staff of mostly high school and college students and taking care of any problems that arise. By winter, the staff will work on maintenance repairs, plans for the upcoming year and leasing boat slips for the summer.
Then it starts again. "As soon as the ice is out and the weather is somewhat decent, we start working," he said.