Sundays were always a popular day for families to visit with and feed the animals so it felt right to permanently close the doors of the Sanford Municipal Zoo on the busiest day of the week one last time. The crowd didn’t disappoint—on June 27, 1975 over 450 animal lovers stopped in to say goodbye to their furry and feathered friends downtown. Though the establishment was run down, it was well-loved and filled with memories of children romping through the petting Zoo and people strolling among the habitats.
With the closing of Sanford Municipal Zoo, the heart of the city would be eerily quiet without the sounds of animals who had brought joy and entertainment to visitors for over fifty years. Luckily, the occasion was hardly somber. After years of coordination between the city of Sanford, Seminole County, and supporters of the Florida Zoological Society, a new Zoo was set to open on the edge of town.
The Florida Zoological Society accepted grants, donations and even loans to raise enough money for the new establishment. As items in decent condition were transferred to the new location, picnic areas and an elevated boardwalk were installed. Despite incomplete construction, animals were moved to their new home on the edge of Lake Monroe and Central Florida Zoo opened its doors on July 4, 1975.
Locals were delighted to keep memories of their childhood alive and Central Florida Zoo maintained the family-friendly reputation it had in its previous life as the Sanford Municipal Zoo. Unfortunately, nostalgia doesn’t pay bills and the Zoo struggled to compete with the rapidly growing tourism industry in Orlando. Facing thousands of dollars in debt and decreasing attendance numbers, the decade following the Zoo’s grand opening was plagued with unhappy creditors and talks of relocating yet again. Many investors believed moving closer to the hustle and bustle of downtown Orlando would open the market and allow for a larger, more modern facility.
Despite the adversity, Central Florida Zoo continued to innovate operations to stay where it was. The implementation of breeding and animal sponsorship programs along with community events helped gain enough support to prevent being closed.
As society changed, animal wellness became a top priority. By 1986, the Zoo was accredited by the American Zoos & Aquariums Association (known today as the Association of Zoos & Aquariums or AZA)—the industry leader in animal wellness and conservation. That accreditation is reevaluated every four years and is maintained to this day. In 2007, the upgrade to Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens was implemented to celebrate the lush, tropical grounds found throughout the park.
Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens is a not-for-profit organization; there is little government funding and operations rely on admissions, guest experiences and events to support animal care, education and conservation programs. Throughout the years it has seen countless employees, guests and animal residents. Today it is home to over 200 animals and is family to all who care for them.
Evolution is not just for animals. Change isn’t always easy. Many remember us as the “Sanford Zoo” and while that’s part of our history, we’ve grown to serve all of Central Florida and its visitors.