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Colorado Attractions Serve Animals & Groups

By Beth Buehler

THE DENVER ZOO AND CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN ZOO regularly bring home Best Attraction awards from Colorado Meetings + Events’ annual Best of Colorado readers’ choice awards, so we decided to find out why these and other venues featuring live creatures are such appealing options for exceptional gatherings. Plus, planners can feel good knowing that holding events at several of these nonprofits supports a good cause, with proceeds helping animals and conservation efforts underway around the world.

Denver Zoo

“Our bread and butter is company picnics,” says Felise Buckheart, corporate events and consignment manager for the Denver Zoological Foundation. “Our high season is June through September, and there are a lot of holiday parties during Zoo Lights in December.”

Daytime events can utilize Conoco Zoo Gardens, featuring two gazebos and a covered picnic pavilion that can hold up to 500 (750 for events after hours), and the indoor Norgren Hall with floor-to-ceiling windows and views of Predator Ridge for a maximum of 400. For smaller groups, a boardroom in Norgren Hall holds up to 40 and Samburu Patio is a nice option for a cocktail party or reception.

After hours during the summer, groups of up to 7,000 or 8,000 will feel right at home mingling with the animals and being based in one of two event zones, Conoco Zoo Gardens and Northern Shores, with the option to include Toyota Elephant Passage as well. For a personalized touch, animal encounters, wildlife shows, scavenger hunts and more can be added.

As president and cofounder of Denverbased nonprofit UNDERWEARNESS and regional marketing director for Hogan Lovells, Koree Khongphand-Buckman has organized several events at the zoo. UNDERWEARNESS holds its annual Drop Your Drawers 5K Walk/ Run in nearby City Park and hosts an afterparty for 600 at Denver Zoo’s Northern Shores.

“It is the perfect location with enough fun features to pull in a good crowd. Our participants love the zoo and really love the evening event,” says Khongphand-Buckman. The next Drop Your Drawers is on June 27 and provides new underwear for children in need.

Denver Zoo also has been ideal the past two years for Hogan Lovells’ company party for 150 held in Conoco Zoo Gardens. “Hogan Lovells liked the zoo because we have a lot of young families at our company and the kids love the zoo, especially after hours,” she notes.

Downtown Aquarium

It’s been nearly nine years since Landry’s Restaurants, Inc. acquired and reopened Denver’s Ocean Journey Aquarium as a redesigned entertainment and dining venue known as Downtown Aquarium. More than a million gallons of underwater exhibits and 500 species of animals are the star attractions, but the Nautilus Ballroom, Aquarium Restaurant and Dive Lounge are just as visually impressive.

The ballroom is adorned with rich colors, hand-painted ceilings and chandeliers and holds approximately 220 seated and 500 for receptions when opened onto the Dive Lounge. A floor-to-ceiling, 150,000-gallon aquarium with more than 100 species of fish provides visual wow-power to the restaurant, and Dive Lounge can host up to 110.

What many people might not know is that Downtown Aquarium has an outdoor observation deck with downtown skyline views that is suitable for 110 seated and 200 receptionstyle. The aquarium also has a spacious lawn for picnics and weddings.

Animal shows are nice add-ons for picnics, and outreach animals such as a sloth, serval and porcupine are attention-getting greeters for any event. To add a little mystery and wonder, Mystic Mermaids can be scheduled to interact with sea life in the restaurant aquarium and Under the Sea exhibit. “The mermaids are top-of-mind for everyone and are the most requested add-on,” says Sales Manager Nancy Cooper.

Butterfly Pavilion

Having the unique distinction of being the first standalone, nonprofit invertebrate zoo in the United States, the 30,000-square-foot Butterfly Pavilion houses more than 5,000 animals and is situated on 11 acres in Westminster.

“We have a lot of weddings and receptions that utilize the space in the summer with many brides choosing to add on butterfly releases for a special touch. Throughout the rest of the year, we host corporate daytime meetings and many nonprofit meetings and fundraisers,” says Jennifer Grathwohl, event director and community fundraiser. “For those events, we allow one hour of private viewing in our Wings of the Tropics Conservatory, which features 1,600 free-flying tropical butterflies that their guests really love.”

She adds, “In the winter, we see a spike in hosting holiday parties since we include access to our Living Lights indoor exhibit.” Butterfly Pavilion’s ballroom holds up to 200 and overlooks a patio, the Discovery Garden and Jefferson County open space. At evening functions, hands-on options can be added such as interactive workshops, butterfly releases and a touch tank with sea stars, sea cucumbers and other aquatic invertebrates.

Sashco, a Brighton-based manufacturer, held its annual year-end celebration for 130 attendees at Butterfly Pavilion in November. “We put together a Survivor-themed event, so we were specifically looking for a tropical-type venue,” says Executive Assistant Catherine Gray.

A planned encounter with Rosie the tarantula and a photo station in the Conservatory with blooming trumpeter plants as a backdrop were highlights. “The meeting space was great for our group, and the attendees thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to visit the exhibits,” Gray confirms.

Wild Animal Sanctuary

Located 30 miles from Denver near Keenesburg, this 720-acre rescue and educational facility was developed in such a way that more than 300 large carnivores can roam freely on large-acre plains habitats. One of the most intriguing features is the Mile Into The Wild elevated walkway that is a mile long and connects the sanctuary’s welcome center to a large observation deck inside the Bolivian Lion House. The walkway traverses over the habitats, providing amazing glimpses of tigers, lions, wolves, bears and other animals that call the sanctuary home.

There are two snack bars on-site, and groups are welcome to bring picnics. The sanctuary is open daily until sunset, making it possible to see the animals become especially active as daytime wraps up and temperatures cool off in the summer. Guided tours are available.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Known as America’s only mountain zoo, this Colorado Springs attraction doesn’t feel like the usual zoo as guests hike around exhibits nestled in the pines. A visit here isn’t complete without feeding the giraffes, hopping on the Mountaineer Sky Ride chairlift or taking a spin on the carousel.

For groups, Lodge at Moose Lake has great views of the city and an interior capable of being split into three separate rooms or combined into one grand hall holding up to 200 seated. Front wall doors swing up to expand the space to include a lawn and patio capable of holding up to 40 more seated guests. The hexagonal Safari Lodge is an especially memorable option for groups of up to 50 seated with African décor, floor-to-ceiling windows and a private deck.

Animal ambassadors, zookeeper talks and animal enrichment demonstrations are examples of experiences that can bring memorable moments to gatherings. Catering Manger April Nance says, “With almost all of our events-corporate, weddings and nonprofits- our clients utilize the giraffe feeding most. A few of our clients like to do an all-zoo rental, which means they can rent the entire zoo out for their event.”

Serenity Springs Wildlife Center

Home to more than 120 big cats and exotic animals, Serenity Springs Wildlife Center near Calhan (22 miles east of Colorado Springs) celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. The center welcomes group tours of 20 or more people by appointment and has outdoor space available for events. Admire lions, tigers, cougars, leopards, servals, caracals, binturong, bobcats and coatimundi, and consider scheduling a big cat feeding or photography experience for top employees or clients.

Not only will guests relish the chance to see the animal kingdom at these six attractions, meeting and event planners benefit from a built-in entertainment factor, unique spaces with memorable views, and staff experienced at working with groups. Now that is something to roar, chirp or hop around about!