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Shores Play Park at Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Interactive, Educational Water Play

By Karen Schenk, Landscape Architect, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium


Shores Play Park opened in 2016 at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Columbus, Ohio. The 6,000 square foot water play zone, the vision of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium Interpretive Team, is the facility's first fully ADA-accessible play space. Most of the animals represented in the Shores Play Park are not found within the Aquarium due to their size or, in some cases, endangered status. The park gives kids an opportunity to learn about and experience these sea creatures that they are not able to see elsewhere within the zoo.
Photo: Grahm S. Jones, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Before you see it, you hear the joyous laughter. As you walk through the tunnel that leads to the Shores Region of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, you see three breaching beluga whales glistening above a deep blue, watery surface. Getting closer, you see children huddled below the belugas, smiling with anticipation. The belugas "spit" back and forth, just missing each other, instead showering the youngsters below... again, joyous laughter.

Shores Play Park is approximately 6,000 square feet and was constructed in the spring of 2016 as part of a larger half-acre project including a 4-D theater with ticket kiosk, a cafe, and the relocation of bronze manatee sculptures. The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium (CZA) in Columbus, Ohio, host approximately 2.1 million visitors a year. The zoo's mission, to lead and inspire by connecting people and wildlife, serves as a foundation in which the park celebrates creatures that guests will not see otherwise at the zoo, but whose stories remain integral with the zoo's values and aligned with the AZA's (American Zoological Association) focus on education.

Prior to the play space, the site was home to the Zoo's original aquarium, which was leveled in 2009. The site was vacant until 2016, but had always been earmarked as a play park, though discussions to develop the area did not begin until late 2014. The project went through an early programming phase in July of 2015. In early fall of 2015, a request for proposals was sent out to local design teams. However, the project remained contingent upon the passage of a levy. Once it was passed, the design team was selected and an accelerated schedule was developed. The park and 4-D Theater were completed for operation of Memorial Day weekend 2016, with the concession building opening a few weeks later.




Among the life size sea creatures found within the Shores Play Park are a trio of beluga whales that spit at those (un)fortunate enough to come too close. Adventurers will also find a leatherback sea turtle and an 80-foot long blue whale, the head and tail of which are exposed to scale. The 3-dimensional pieces are constructed of carved foam with a fiberglass overlay and urethane protective coating. The buoys are metal fabricated.
Bottom Photo: Grahm S. Jones, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Middle Photo: Amanda Carberry, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Top Photo: Grahm S. Jones, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

The approximately 125 developed acres of the zoo had two play spaces prior to 2016, each themed for active play. The Shores Play Park is the first play space developed since the 2010 ADA standards were implemented, therefore, significant thought was given to making this space all accessible. The play surface was intentionally designed without any barriers that would restrict use, and each play piece can be used by all guests.

Beyond accessibility, the project program focuses on a mission based design bringing the magic of ocean life to central Ohio, where a long list of sea mammals have become the leading stars of this much loved and magical play space. Among several project goals, the space was designed to be inviting to children and adults alike, and to be a place where families can play together. The play park comes to life in several forms, through 3-dimensional pieces that are real life scale, interactive water elements, a bas-relief, a mural and a game board. The mural was designed by the Zoo's in-house graphic artist, Andy Clarkson, who also designed the game space pieces. Its content was inspired by the Zoo's Interpretive Team, who wanted to illustrate the volume and diversity of the wildlife that exists below the ocean surface.

The oceanic elements of the play park appear to rise above a watery surface, which is actually a combination of painted concrete and poured in place rubberized play surface in an array of blues, whites and grays that define depth and movement. The transition from concrete to rubberized surface is tooled to a ¼" tolerance for accessibility. The 3-dimensional pieces consist of a combination of sea creatures and manmade sea elements, all designed and created specifically for CZA, including the head and tail of a blue whale (which is 80' long from nose to tail), a pod of beluga whales (three breaching and two smaller belugas with heads just above the surface), a leatherback sea turtle, a research boat, a giant wave with surf boards, a pair of pelicans skimming the ocean's surface, and a giant red sea buoy. Painted below the water's surface are a Greenland shark and a whale shark.


In addition to the 3-D fabricated pieces, whales and sharks are painted on the concrete and rubber surface. The play space was crafted intentionally with no stairs, ladders or other barriers that would restrict use or accessibility. Each play piece was designed to offer experiences for guests regardless of age or physical capabilities.

The park is full of little surprises, such as the bas-relief of eastern oysters that spit at the play park patrons, and a 20' long graphic mural that celebrates the diverse life below the water's surface. Seven of the creatures represented are whales whose spouts spray water several feet above the top edge of the mural.

The program and concept design were developed by the CZA's Interpretive Team, a multi-departmental group who created a storyline defining what the park experience should encompass. Schematics were developed by Bassett Associates (now DBA Beam Designs) and CT Consultants. Graphite Design+Build brought the three dimensional creatures and figures to life from paper through fabrication, and Weber Group, Inc., designed and constructed the architectural structures within the larger park program, as well as performing the concrete painting and muraling. Construction for the park and site was completed by Massana Construction and Corna Kokosing, with specialty installation of rubberized surface by Spectra Contract Flooring, and landscape installation by Keller Group, Inc.


Forty-two game spaces on the surface share facts and tips on how guests can help save sea life. The game is played with the help of red colorful buoy spinners and game spaces that prompt guests to move forward, backward, cross over 3-dimensional play pieces, or spin.
Photo: Grahm S. Jones, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Consultant List
Project Landscape Architect and Project Manager: Patrick J. Beam, ASLA, CLARB, Beam Designs LLC
Civil Engineers: CT Consultants Inc.
Design-Build: Joe Argabrite, Max Weber, Weber Group, Inc.
3-D Play Pieces: Jeremy Link, Doug Kampfer, Graphite Design + Build
General Contractor: Michael Heit, LEED AP BD+C, Corna Kokosing
Site Contractor: Toby Beegle, Massana Construction


Central Ohio sees temperatures in the mid-90s during the summer, and winter averages in the 20s and lower. The water features are turned off in mid-September, but the park remains open. During the 40 nights of Wildlights, a holiday themed show that runs from mid-November through December, the park becomes part of a show in which children play below a network of choreographed orbs of colored light.
Photo: Amanda Carberry, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

As seen in LASN magazine, October 2017, Playground.

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December 6, 2019, 12:37 pm PDT

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