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Attractions: It's a Jungle in There

Chris Lavick
"It's important to keep the nostalgic nature of the place," says Sarasota Jungle Gardens general manager Chris Lavick. [Photo: Mark Wemple]
Dorothy Tinney's family has owned the 11-acre Sarasota Jungle Gardens since 1939. Last year, Sarasota County offered to buy the site or secure a conservation easement, but the family ultimately decided to keep the roadside attraction just the way it is.

"We didn't want to change the business model," says Chris Lavick, the park's general manager and Tinney's son. "We felt that there were some strings attached to doing a conservation easement, and we really don't want to change who we are or what the gardens are. It's important to keep the nostalgic nature of the place."

Now, it's up to Lavick to make the nostalgia work, both as a family business and an Old Florida roadside attraction.

Lavick, a 46-year-old commercial pilot who previously ran an air freight business in Wisconsin, moved to Sarasota three years ago to help his mother and sisters run the business.

He says the challenge is staying current while appearing not to be.

Animal shows, for example, stress conservation and education but aren't above presenting the occasional unicycle-riding cockatoo. The park has an educational outreach program and offered to take in wildlife affected by last year's Gulf oil spill.

Lavick says the themes of the bird, reptile and mammal shows change frequently, as do the curriculums of the various zoo camps the park hosts for children.

As a result, Lavick says, attendance, which typically ranges from 200 to 700 visitors a day, is up this year. He says the park, which employs 23, also controls costs by soliciting donations whenever it can. In the gift shop, a sign lists items the park needs, such as a new pressure cleaner. Park employees visit home improvement stores and ask for donations of scrap lumber. A nearby Sweetbay Supermarket donates expired meats and produce for the animals to eat. Lavick says Sweetbay's donations alone cut the park's animal food bill 80%.

"When you look at some of this stuff, you want to take it home yourself," he says. "The lettuce looks good. There's no holes or brown on it. The tomatoes are crisp. The meat, oh my god, filet mignon! These alligators eat quite well."