In a small town in the Netherlands, schoolchildren and visitors of all ages are stepping out of their world and into the wild lands of their imagination. Here, a digital transformation of the nature experience has created a zoo unlike any in the world. It is an adventure park that transports visitors to authentic natural habitats designed for animals first, with beautifully realized natural environments that mirror the awesome wild places of their own homes.
It is the kind of transformation that reinvents the adventure park experience, while leading visitors like these schoolchildren to a new appreciation of the creatures that share our planet. Their rapt attention on what’s before them makes clear that they have been transported to a new world. This is a world made possible by the visionary use of technology to create an entirely new experience. Welcome to Wildlands Adventure Zoo Emmen: the zoo of the future.
A Visionary Transforms the Zoo Experience
Since the early 1930s, the pride of the town and municipality of Emmen, in the northern Netherlands, has always been its zoo. Considered one of the finest in Europe, if not the world, the zoo was co-owned by the town, and therefore, the people of Emmen.
When Frankwin van Beers was hired to be the CEO and charged with leading a renovation of the aging zoo’s facilities, he proposed instead that they create a zoo that would assure Emmen’s reputation for decades to come. The result of Van Beers’ vision, Wildlands Adventure Zoo Emmen, is a zoo without cages and signage. It’s a place where guests go on adventures inside fully realized natural worlds. It’s where the wild things really are.
Spread out over 22 hectares (54 acres), Wildlands offers its animals enormous space to roam and to be the wild creatures that they are. The dimensions of the park dwarf most zoos and compare favorably with the world’s most popular theme parks. That’s not just coincidence. As Van Beers explains, “It’s a new theme park, completely unique from other zoos. It’s an adventure zoo. It’s a combination of animals, attractions, entertainment, and culture.
Wildlands is composed of three major attractions: Jungola, Serenga, and Nortica. Each of these themed areas is a completely different natural environment. And here’s where the excitement and the transformation of the zoo experience really begin. Guests of Wildlands do not visit the animals inside these parks so much as they encounter the animals in their individual adventures. There is virtually no apparent signage and no traditional zoo animal exhibits.
- Jungola is a tropical jungle where herds of elephants and great apes wander through the dense forest. It is contained within the largest enclosed space on the European continent.
- Serenga re-creates the African savanna, where antelope, zebra, and giraffe roam the dusty plains.
- Nortica, the third major attraction, is a beautifully realized reproduction of the arctic, complete with blasts of bone-chilling air and wandering polar bears.
As visitors enter each of these worlds, they are invited to take part in an adventure story specific to each environment. “Storytelling is very important in all our worlds,” Van Beers says. “When people come here, they get the feeling they are on an adventure. That’s because we added storytelling and special interaction. It makes the expedition more interesting, and the total product should give visitors a smile while educating our guests about the worlds of our animals.”
In Jungola, for example, visitors have the opportunity to meet an Indiana Jones–like character who enlists them in his quest. The Jungola adventure involves discovering an ancient temple buried in the jungle. Upon entrance to the temple, visitors are greeted by the sudden appearance of hundreds of different butterflies. The Serenga adventure is set in an African village, where guests help care for and feed the animals they meet. And in Nortica, visitors work side-by-side with scientists, studying animals in the arctic.
For Frankwin van Beers, his vision of a new kind of zoo is now a reality for all to experience. But most important, to him and to all who work at Wildlands, is that its guests develop a new appreciation of the animals they meet and the environments those animals depend on. In an ever-shrinking world, where habitat destruction is widespread and continuous, this is an education critical to the future survival of these animals and their awesome wild lands.
Digital technology is central to every aspect of the Wildlands experience. It is so central, in fact, that it becomes invisible. That’s because, as Wildlands CIO Rudolf Kooi says, “It’s everywhere.” From ticket purchasing to temperature control in the three Wildlands areas, the park “is leading a digital transformation,” Kooi says, “by using technology to put the guest into the middle of everything involved in the Wildlands experience. It is why we made the step to go to VMware digital workspaces.”
It all starts with an easy-to-use digital application that guests download onto their smartphones. The app helps guide visitors through the park, and tells them all about the animals they encounter. But as they soon discover, to their surprise and delight, it doesn’t tell them exactly where the animals are. This is just one of the ways that Wildlands flips the traditional zoo experience on its head. For example, guests may round a river bend on a safari boat and, without any warning, come across elephants bathing in the river just a few meters from their boat. This is one of several similar experiences that no other zoo in the world currently offers.
he easy-to-use app drives the customer experience. As Kooi says, “It has detailed information about the animals. If you want to learn more about them, how they live, you just look and find it on your smartphone.” The digital app also allows the park to collect detailed feedback from its guests about what aspects and attractions of the park they enjoy the most. It even contains a GPS-enabled digital map that allows visitors to navigate on their own and create their own adventures throughout the park’s three major climate areas. As Kooi explains, “We want to support the needs of our guests. We have Wi-Fi all over the park, so the smartphone and the digital app work everywhere in the park. And,” Kooi adds, “with this new system, we have the flexibility to work everywhere we want, wherever we need to support our guests.”
VMware technologies are integrated throughout every aspect of the Wildlands experience. Wildlands operations and management are all run off a VMware-based private cloud. Its performance, reliability, and end user ease-of-use make it ideal for the management and staff of Wildlands, the park’s guests, and perhaps most importantly, its animals. “Wildlands is the first leisure park to make use of VMware technology in this way,” says Albert Spanger, CEO of TCA Telecom & IT, the adventure park’s technology partner that helped Rudolf Kooi and his team design and implement the Wildlands technology infrastructure. “Due to this,” Spanger says, “we can say that we are leading a digital transformation that’s transformed Wildlands from a small family park to a major European attraction.”
VMware systems are used to keep the animals both healthy and safe. For example, the park uses the technology in the preparation of daily meals for the animals. The diets for each of the animals are analyzed on a daily basis, and the results of that data determine what they will eat on a given day. Digital cameras monitor and ensure the safety of the animals at all times.
And, in a remark that typifies the philosophy that drives everything Wildlands is trying to achieve, Leon, the park’s head animal trainer, says his staff also uses the cameras to see “how my animals are doing, and ask ‘What can I do today to make their day more fun?’” Is there a better use of technology anywhere?
Imagining a World of Wildlands
Wildlands is a business that has formed a new paradigm for digital transformation. It reimagines what a zoo can be. Instead of putting an animal in a cage, Wildlands first focuses on the health and happiness of animals. Then, through storytelling in the animals’ natural habitats and through interactive, digital technology, Wildlands transforms the zoo experience for visitors of all ages. The park’s innovations herald an unprecedented change for businesses of all kinds.
Wildlands proves that digital technology can unlock possibility beyond servers and boardrooms. It can transform the natural world so that a jungle, a savanna, and an arctic region can exist anywhere. It can educate children and reshape the way we think about our planet.
By weaving together technology, rich and engaging storytelling, and bold ideas from theme and adventure parks around the world, Van Beers and his team at Wildlands have created a world-class entertainment venue that people will want to experience again and again.