Richardson Railroad starts rolling at zoo
By BECKY MALEWITZ
Two-year-old Alyssa Rupp made train sounds as she looked out the window of the Richardson Railroad Saturday morning.
The shiny red train, filled with passengers, took the first of what will be many trips around Lee Richardson Zoo, giving riders an entirely new perspective of one of Garden City's favorite landmarks.
"I loved it, it was fun. It's just a new adventure at the zoo," Tammy Hutcheson, Friends of Lee Richardson Zoo member, said. "Our zoo is really the best in the west. (The train) is just something else to add to it. The kids liked it and there's a lot of information, a lot of facts in the script. A couple of times, they were comparing (the zoo) to things that were happening in the community, like when the Windsor started and things like that, so I actually learned a lot."
Hutcheson, who was joined by her husband, Shaun, and daughters Baylee, 8, and Jarica, 4, sat in the coal car right behind their train conductor, FOLRZ Executive Director Brian Nelson.
The family of four compared the train's shiny black and red exterior and glistening gold bell to the Polar Express as Nelson punched their tickets wearing his black and gold vest with a conductor's hat sitting atop his head.
Nelson, who helped secure funding for the project through grants from the Mariah Fund of Dodge City, the Finney County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Western Kansas Community Foundation and through the Ada Ruth Richardson Memorial Fund, was almost as excited about the train's inaugural journey as his guests.
"I'm thrilled. I reserved the first conductor ride for myself, so I'm in uniform today," he said, pointing to his vest and hat. "I wrote a script for the tour, so I will see how the reaction is with the guests, and we'll go from there."
The ride, which departs on the hour in front of the elephant exhibit, travels around the perimeter of the zoo, making stops in front of The Americas, Wild Asia and the Wetlands near the waterfall. Guests are then allowed to get out, wander around the zoo and get back on the train when it comes by again, as long as they still have punches on their tickets.
Zoo Director Kathy Sexson took photos as the train carried a full load of passengers on its tour.
"The fun part for me is just the feel that it's a real train. It has sounds, it has a whistle and a bell, and just the ride itself feels like you are in a real train," she said.
According to Sexson, the idea of bringing a train to the zoo came from a strategic planner and was part of the zoo's master plan.
"One thing I think it will do is just generate a little more excitement at the zoo, something else to do, something else for parents and children, or grandparents and children, to come and enjoy," Sexton said. "It's another attraction here. It will allow people to see the zoo from a different perspective while they are having fun."
The original plan wasn't to start offering rides so soon, but reaction to the train as Nelson test-drove it early last week quickly changed that.
"Just as we have been taking it out and testing it, every child at the zoo has been running toward it. They point, they want on, then their parents usually ask how much are tickets," he said. "The kids, they just run from the trees and the bushes, and you don't see the parents anywhere in sight because they ran so fast toward that train. And then the parent does follow along."
Nelson hopes to have an official opening ceremony at a later date. At that time, he plans to invite representatives of the organizations that provided the funding to a ribbon cutting, or, as he put it, a ribbon drive-through.
Until then, the Richardson Railroad is ready for passengers of any age. Tickets can be purchased at the Safari Shoppe for $4 for non-zoo members, and $2 for members.
"I'm just hoping everyone will take a ride on the Richardson Railroad," Nelson said. "It's not just for children, it's for adults, too."