Next summer, visitors to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium can hop a tram to Africa, where lions could be lying inches away from guests, giraffes are fed by hand and cheetahs race across the savanna.
The 43-acre, $30.4 million expansion to the zoo is designed to give visitors unobstructed views of animals such as giraffes and zebras -- which aren't current zoo residents -- and also allow them to experience Africa as zoo Director Emeritus Jack Hanna does.
"You're going to join us on a trip to Jack Hanna's favorite places in Africa," said Barb Revard, the zoo's director of planning and programming.
Upon entering Safari Africa, visitors will be welcomed by dancers, artisans and drumbeats.
To their right will be an old schoolhouse that was used from 1891 to 1911. The zoo renovated the building and kept it in its original location on the property because it is similar to current schoolhouses in some parts of Africa.
The schoolhouse will serve as an educational area to showcase African culture through storytelling, music, dancing and art.
"It was important that when we built Africa that we included the cultural experience," said zoo President and CEO Tom Stalf.
Thirteen months into transforming the former soybean field, the zoo already has completed much of the construction on main buildings, including a two-story restaurant called Mapuri, which means savanna in Swahili.
One side of the buffet-style restaurant, which will serve as a barrier for the lion habitat, is made entirely of windows so diners can feel as if they're in the middle of the savanna. Beyond the lions, diners will be able to see 10 different animal species in the seven-acre savanna, including gazelles, warthogs and ostriches.
Having such an open space "gives the animals the ability to roam and forage and gives us the ability to teach about conservation and coexistence," Stalf said.
"It's our obligation to tell these stories," he added.
The zoo and Hanna support 10 conservation projects that span 30 countries. A few of those, such as the cheetah and giraffe projects, will be highlighted in areas where those animals can be viewed in the new attraction.
A giraffe barn that will house 11 of the 18-foot-tall mammals also has been constructed. When they arrive in 2014, it will be the first time in a decade the zoo has housed giraffes.
Stalf said bringing giraffes back to the zoo was a main objective of the project, because they often are at the top of must-have lists in guest surveys.
When it's above 50 degrees outside, giraffes will be near the watering hole with other animals. From a bridge that leads to the watering hole, visitors will be able to feed lettuce to giraffes.
"You really can't appreciate the size of a giraffe until you're really close to it," said Africa zookeeper Sheri Smith.
Stalf said the Africa expansion is all about having an authentic, up-close-and-personal experience with the animals.
"We want people to look back at their pictures and say, 'Was that when I was in Kenya or Botswana? No, that was at the Columbus Zoo,' " he said.
In addition to feeding giraffes, visitors will be able to ride camels.
Other features of the new exhibit include Jack's Camp, which is set up similar to Hanna's home base when he's visiting Africa; and a catering facility that was built on the edge of the savanna and can be rented for private events.
Africa is expected to open to visitors in May 2014.