Sedgwick County Zoo’s new electric train opens Friday


The new Safari Express train is ready to leave the station at the Sedgwick County Zoo, and it will welcome aboard its first passengers today.

The long-awaited train, which will take visitors on a 1.3-mile ride around the outside of the zoo and give them vantage points they’ve never had, will open with a 9 am ribbon cutting, and then zoo visitors will be able to climb on. A ride on the train requires an extra ticket that’s $5, or $4 for zoo members.

The zoo actually has two locomotives, each with four cars that carry 50 adults comfortably. They’ll run continuously from 9 am to 4 pm daily. Riders can load and unload at two newly built train stations: one near the zoo entrance by the giraffe exhibit and one near the Downing Gorilla forest. They can choose whether to use the train to get from one part of the zoo to the other or to just take a fun ride.

Paid for by a gift from longtime zoo patron Martha C. Buford — who died in 2020 — the train was originally set to open on Memorial Day weekend, but supply chain issues kept the zoo from getting all the parts it needed in time. Crews started putting down the track last December, once the Wild Lights exhibit closed. The green-and-gold train, an electric CP Huntington that runs on lithium ion batteries, was delivered to the zoo on July 1.

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Sedgwick County Zoo employee Joey Pepoon gets a preview ride on the zoo’s new Martha C. Burford Safari Express Train on Thursday. The train opens to the public on Friday. Travis Heying The Wichita Eagle

The train cars, which are covered and fitted with wooden benches that will comfortably seat two adults, take people on a ride around the zoo that lasts about 20 minutes, and they see things they wouldn’t typically see.

Those who board the train near the giraffes will ride through a newly constructed tunnel, past the pasture where the farm animals sleep at night and along the zoo’s border with Sedgwick County Park. People on walking paths at the park can glimpse the train pass by and are apt to wave at it or motion for the conductor to sound the train’s horn.

Visitors also are taken past a massive piece of rarely seen land that the zoo staff calls “the back 40.” It’s 40 acres that the zoo hopes one day will be home to a 200-300-room hotel overlooking a grassy area meant to re-create an African savanna.

All along the route, the zoo has added signs that tell visitors which exhibits they’re passing. And some of the zoo’s residents are visible from the train, most notably the elephants. The tracks travel right behind the elephant exhibit, and its residents have been particularly interested in the train since it arrived, said Riley Schwartz, the ride operations supervisor at the zoo, who wears conductor’s pinstripe overalls and pilots the train.

“The day we first started riding around, they would stand up by the fence with their ears out like, ‘What is that?’” he said. “They really like to watch it go by and will trumpet every once in a while.”

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Riley Schwartz prepares to operate the Sedgwick County Zoo’s new Martha C. Buford Safari Express Train on Thursday. The new attraction opens to the public on Friday. Travis Heying The Wichita Eagle

Toward the end of the ride, people pass the tortoise enclosure and are likely to catch a closeup look at the zoo’s massive tortoise residents, including 90-year-old Rocket.

One interesting fact about the train: Because it’s electric, it makes very little noise as it travels the tracks, but the zoo wanted people to feel like they were getting a full train experience, so pre-recorded chugga-chugga-chugga noises are piped in over speakers in the train’s ceiling.

People can buy tickets for the train at the stations on zoo grounds or online in advance at scz.org/visit/attractions

The zoo is also offering a “Go Wild” pass that’s $20, $16 for members and allows people to get five attraction passes for the price of four. The passes can be used at the Safari Express, Stingray Cove, boat ride or giraffe feeding stations. They’re also available online or at the zoo.

This story was originally published July 22, 2022 5:03 AM.

Denise Neil has covered restaurants and entertainment since 1997. Her Dining with Denise Facebook page is the go-to place for diners to get information about local restaurants. She’s a regular judge at local food competitions and speaks to groups all over Wichita about dining.

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