Chehaw attendance jumps; new park features on the way

Chehaw's Wildlife Park is opening its new African Veldt exhibit on Saturday / Sarah Bleau

Chehaw Executive Director Doug Porter says the past few years the park has seen between 96,000 and 98,000 visitors in a year; in 2011 he says they saw 108,000.

"It's a combination of a lot more activities going on and maybe economic times are having people stay closer to home," he says.

He says many are coming from outside their 14 county region, like Julie Peyerk and her family from Michigan who stopped by Chehaw Park on their way home from visiting family in Florida.

"On our way back we stopped at the Georgia welcome center and we found a brochure for this place and it looked like it'd be worth the hour ride out and it is," says Peyerk.

Word of mouth isn't only traveling across the Georgia line but so is Chehaw's Wildlife Park, which they say also helps to spread the word about Chehaw.

"I've tried to help establish the fact that we are a regional zoo; we are responsible for families that are in northern Florida, families that are in eastern Alabama, families that are throughout southwest Georgia," says Zoo Director Kevin Hils.

Porter says he's tried to rebrand the park and add new features in the area to help attract people.

"A new website, the new identity out on the highway with the big signage and new signage in here and better landscaping and better animal exhibits, and I think it's all just starting to pay off," Porter says.

He adds that expanding has paid off so much that the park is expanding even more.

"I don't know if we're going to be able to pull it off this year but we've been working on a spray park; we want to bring some kind of a water feature out here. We've heard a lot of people tell us how important it is so it's time to put up the money and see if this can happen," says Porter.

The wildlife park is opening a new expanded exhibit called the African Veldt on Saturday, which Porter says may open up in the future to sunset safari dinners for small crowds. More animals are on the way to the wildlife park, according to Hils, including a wolf and "good sized snake," both of which will be on after they are out of quarantine.